Haunted by Grace

Martha Stortz
All Saints’ Day—November 6, 2002

Revelations 7: 9-17
1 John 3: 1-3
Matthew 5: 1-12

The day after Halloween my pumpkin had half its face eaten away. I thought this might have been the prank of some trick-or-treater with a strange appetite—and an even stranger sense of humor. I began to think uncharitably of the neighborhood children. Then, the next day the whole face had disappeared, and I started suspecting supernatural involvement. All the other pumpkins on all the other people’s porches—I checked!—were intact, saggy but still smiling their toothy grins. My pumpkin alone was being devoured by some unknown appetite.

My mind jumped track, ramped up into anxiety overdrive. My husband was away on business, and I was alone in the house for the weekend. His good spirits, I am always convinced, work better than a truckload of garlic in warding off vampires and evil vapors. Maybe in their absence, demons had returned seven times stronger than before.

Surely my house was possessed, and I mentally ransacked my mind for information on prior owners. There had been that strange man who had dug out the basement himself to build—a stained glass studio?! How could we have been gullible enough to believe this? The so-called studio now seemed more sinister rather than merely artsy. Was there anything else under the floor of the laundry room? Had some unquiet soul returned to register revenge—and failed to check the mailbox for change in ownership? Was my house haunted?

After a fitful sleep, I awoke to find my pumpkin utterly gone. My anxiety was complete. I now knew what the rustling in the magnolia tree had been the night before. I now knew why that car churned up the street in the middle of the night—only to wheel around and careen back down. Evil spirits had devoured my pumpkin—maybe I was next. I was haunted!

Well, I was haunted all right. But the culprit was no supernatural being, but the familiar red squirrel who has claimed the yard as his squirrel run. He had rolled the pumpkin off the porch railing and into the garden. When I found it later, I identified tiny teeth marks, a tell-tale sign of his munching. The squirrel was getting ready for the rainy season, putting on his winter weight. The sinister scenario I had conjured evaporated— and the Squirrel Wars began. I debated applying just war criteria to the Squirrel Wars, but decided simple to put the pumpkin back on the porch railing, so that the Squirrel Wars—just or unjust—could be waged outside the sovereignty of any neighborhood cats.

I was right about one thing, though: I was haunted. Not by squirrels or spirits, but as all Christians are, by that larger communion of saints whom we remember on this day. All Saints Day places that community in contact with this one. They haunt us always, but especially in these darkest months.

All Saints Day coincides with the shorter days of the year. The time changes; the shadows lengthen. We rise in a grey and grainy dawn; we return from work in darkness. The Irish regarded this time of the year as a space when the borders between worlds grow porous, and the living and the dead commingle. Mexicans celebrate the Day of the Dead, a colorful celebration staged in cemeteries. People gather to party, eating, drinking, and creating altars at the graves of their departed ones. The Germans march through cemeteries, laying flowers on the graves of those who have died. All of these are but contemporary remnants of more ancient customs.

The earliest Christians used to gather at the graves of their local martyrs to eat and drink and tell stories. In fact, graveside festivals were a great North African sport. Persecution had been fierce in that region, and such celebrations were the Christians’ way of thumbing their noses at the governing authorities.

But the practice stuck, and even after persecution ended, Christians gathered at the sites of the martyrs on feast days to eat and drink, to be merry and remember. The great North African theologian, Augustine of Hippo, remembers how fond his mother was of this practice. She took it with her to Italy, where she followed the career of her brilliant son. Monica was admonished by none other than Ambrose of Milan that “this was not the Italian way.” But even Ambrose with all his honeyed words could not tamp down the resilience of a custom Christians found life-giving: remembering the dead. Then as now, Christians were a haunted people: we refuse to be parted from our dead.

Or perhaps it is more the case that they refuse to be parted from us. Similar hauntings captured the imagination of late medieval Christians. Throughout northern Europe fifteenth century church and cloister walls depicted an odd celebration. Called the Totentanz or danse macabre, the celebration displayed what was at first glance a disturbing dance. Gathered in a circle among tombstones were the dead and living, hand in hand, dancing on the graves. The dead dance with a fluid grace. Madly grinning they are nothing but bones. No clothes allow the viewer the luxury of identifying gender or class, status or family. As one surveys this disturbing performance, words of St. Paul come to mind. They are familiar—but never spoken in this context: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal. 3:28, NRSV) The democracy of death makes no distinctions.

The living people in these dances are easier to sort out: one distinguishes men and women, rich and poor, noblewoman and maidservant. Yet, for all their distinctiveness, the living are infinitely more disturbing. Their dancing is more clumsy: they trip over clothes; their possessions literally get in their way. Ah! by their dress shall ye know them. Indeed, clothes and possessions—or lack thereof—identify the status of the living all too clearly.

Oddly, the living are the ones who are unable to move freely. They are more encumbered than the dead. They are not quite certain they want to dance with each other. After all, if you were a commoner, would you feel comfortable dancing with a nobleman? And if you were a serf, would you choose to polka with a knight? If the living are worried about their this-worldly compatriots, they are visibly anxious about their other-worldly dance instructors. They all appear appalled by the situation in which they find themselves. Shock does not lend itself to grace.

These dances of death present a riveting performance, at once repulsive and fascinating. As one looks longer, though, there is something wildly comforting and deeply true about the whole scene. After all, the dead live more fully than the living. They cavort and bound, as if they were filled with—alas!—an unearthly joy. The spectator feels a bit wistful: it’s clear who in these pictures is having all the fun. And one realizes how little our possessions, our things, our fine titles, and full resumes finally fail to satisfy. The dead teach us to travel light and listen hard—listen for strains of the hymns sung constantly at the throne of the Lamb in the book of Revelation: “Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might, be to our God forever and ever!”( Rev. 7:12, NRSV) There’s a tune you can dance to! Look too long at these mixed couples, living and dead, and this is what you learn.

You learn something else as well. The dead, after all, are the dance instructors. They have taken the living gently but firmly in their grasp. The dead lead the living in a dance that we will all make someday, sooner or later, with more and less grace—and we had better start practicing our moves now.

The cynic could write all of these hauntings off to an imagination made morbid by rampant plague and famine, and historians tell us that this was indeed the case in fifteenth century Europe. But one could also regard them as statements of faith. Our modern-day hospice movements are born of the conviction that no one should die alone. These medieval artists assumed that no one does. At every moment, we have these supernatural partners beside us always—if only we will confess that we are haunted. Call it being haunted by grace, if you will, but grace comes as it often does: in the faces of the people we love.

Several years ago I caught a radio interview on “West Coast Weekend” with author Tobias Wolff. He was talking to an interviewer who was quite determined to smoke out his religious affiliation. It was clear the interviewer found his Catholicism “quaint.” “Would you consider yourself a Catholic writer? Does being a Catholic affect your writing?” she asked. The way she put the question, it was quite clear that answers she expected were “No!” and “Not much.” Wolff paused— and I loved the pause as much as what he said next. You could almost hear his interrogator squirming. Finally, Wolff responded: “When you’re a Catholic the world is a much more crowded place.” He spoke quietly and with all the authority of one who is regularly haunted by those in this other communion, the communion of saints. Wolff went on to speak of a conspiracy of memory and prayer that offer us contact with that other community in which we too reside. Now our residence is partial, but, as John’s epistle assures us, someday “when he is revealed, we will be like him… ” (1 John 3:2)

As Christians we live as a haunted people. For us the world is a very crowded place. In conclusion, I want to take two steps. Since we are all beginners in this dance, I make them very simple steps.

The first step is back to the dance of death that so transfixed the medieval imagination. The site of this dancing—the dance floor, if you will —is the body of Christ. Hear again the words of St. Paul, this time writing to the Romans: “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.” (Rom. 6:3-4) As we dance through this liturgy, singing and praying, eating and drinking, we join in a great celebration, this one on top of the tomb of Jesus—only that tomb is empty. Death is swallowed up in victory. We dance at the conquest. And if you look carefully, you probably dance with someone you love, someone whose presence you ache for—that one now leads you in the dance.

A second step leads us back to the Gospel reading. This is a little clumsy, so you must forgive me. Hey! I’m only a beginner; I don’t yet have down all the moves. Dance back to the Beatitudes, that beautiful and troubling Bill of Rights that inaugurates Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount: “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” (Matt. 5:4) In one of his inaugural blessings, Jesus remembers those who grieve and promises that they shall be comforted. I hope by now you know who is offering the comfort. The comfort promised comes in part from the very ones we mourn, as they reach out to take us by the hand.

May God bless those who have died, who live in Christ, and who partner us in the dance.