All Saints Day, and then All Souls’

I remembered, last night, why I don’t have memories of sugar highs in school on the day after Halloween during my childhood. I do remember the Halloween parties we had in our classrooms, with orange and black construction paper chains, and orange pages of paper that had words to Halloween songs on them: “Jack o’Lantern, Jack o’Lantern you are such a scary sight, as you sit there in the window looking out at the night.” There were other songs, but that is the one I remember.

But then I changed schools in sixth grade, and went to the nuns a few parishes away. My two older sisters had gone there, too, and I was following in their footsteps. Our local parish didn’t have a school, and the next parish had one but didn’t welcome out of parish students, so it was ‘up to the Point’ and St. Brigid’s parish that offered Nazareth Grammar School. Classes were taught by the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth, and their habits were black, with white starched pleated bonnets, and sleeves wide enough to hide the nun’s hands when clasped in front of their bosoms. Some wore smiles, and others wore consistently tight lips. I don’t think we celebrated Halloween in sixth, seventh and eighth grades. But we did go trick or treating that night, in our own neighborhoods. And, because we went to ‘sister school’, we had no school the next day. We were the envy of public school students on those ‘holy days.’

November 1st is All Saints Day, a Holy Day of Obligation; it is a day when all Catholics were expected to go to Mass in the morning, in honor of all saints known and not yet known. It was a day of optimism, a day of having faith that the lowliest person might one day be raised and beatified as a saint, if that person caused miracles to occur. And it was a day of stories, tales told of favorite saints and how they had reached that exalted status.

November 2nd is All Souls’ Day, and though not obligated to attend Mass on that day, prayers were expected to be shared for friends and families who had passed on. Not so many stories were told on that day, as parents went to work, and children went to school. Those who went to parochial schools were surely reminded on that day to pray for their relatives who might still be in Purgatory, and to pray for all those unbaptized and relegated to Limbo. It was a sobering thought, following so soon on the day that celebrated the Saints’ humility and goodness.  To think that we might fail to earn entrance into Heaven … to consider that all our venial and mortal sins might still be logged against us, and that days or years or decades of Purgatory might await us, where we would be dependent on our friends’ and relatives’ prayers being offered in our name … worrying that, if during a Novena we were not sufficiently attentive and penitent we might then not earn the days or months or years of ‘indulgence’ being removed from our scorecard toward salvation … these were the heavy thoughts that were connected in my young mind with All Soul’s Day. To earn what I recall as a “Plenary Indulgence,” a complete erasure of guilt and a fresh start with a clean slate toward Heaven and eternal peace was what we would strive for when we completed those Novenas, and prayed for those missionaries far afield converting others and baptizing souls. It was like a hedge fund, there in case we hadn’t gone to confession just before our death, and had some unerased blots on our record.

To think back on those school days, and holy days; to remember the weekly family rosary night, when we all knelt in the living room to pray together as a family, with our mother or father beginning each prayer and the children and parents together finishing them … to remember the sisters passing a collection cup around the classroom asking that students donate coins for the missions in Asia … to recall sitting in classroom at the end of the day rolling strips of torn sheets into bandage rolls for the lepers being cared for somewhere far away … those are my childhood memories of parochial school. That is the foundation of my belief system today. And it is that belief system, long ago established, that guides my path today. It is a path that includes obstacles such as memory lapses, confused directions, and missed intentions. It is a path strewn with good wishes for others, and prayers for those I love and feel responsible for. It is a path that I walk carefully, sometimes with weakened balance, and sometimes barefoot among sharp egg shells.

But it is also a path that shares soft green grass, and leads to quiet walks alongside Rick, hand in hand, sharing events of the day in our lives, and in the world. It is a path that leads to home, our  home. We are so fortunate to have our home, and we know that, and are grateful. The worries of the newscasts invoke silent prayer from me, along that path, and that sometimes interrupts my processing of our discussion. But when I ask Rick to say that again, repeat a story or name, he does so patiently. He never questions whether I’d stopped paying attention, or where my mind may have wandered. He accepts that it happens … it is part of who I have become. It is reassuring to know that despite the changes that have happened in our lives … despite the losses we have both shared, and the effects these losses have caused in my health, he still loves me and is willing to share life with me.

I guess somewhere in the world there are children still learning those positive stories of beatification … and those worrisome lessons of All Souls’ Day, Purgatory, and Limbo. The vague descriptions of what Purgatory and Limbo might involve were in sharp contrast to the eternity of either Heaven or Hell. I remember them being presented as a sort of vacuum, a nothingness … and that only the prayers of others could end the duration there. And so I share my prayers for others, and I ask my favorite saints and my true favorite, the Blessed Mother Mary, for their intercession and prayers for me, and for mine.

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