God of Spirits and All Flesh

A few years ago I found myself talking to a coworker, who is not a Christian, about how her daughters dress up for Halloween. She was adamant that Halloween be “a day to remember the dead,” and as such, would not let them dress up as princesses or superheroes— unless they were dead princesses or dead superheroes. Part of me wanted to laugh at how secularism had run itself full circle: my friend was trying to add supernatural meaning to what was, as far as she, her neighbors, and her children knew, a completely meaningless holiday. It is a little like when people say that the “real meaning of Christmas” is not presents, but familial felicity. But the thing is, she really wasn’t that far away from the truth of this ancient Christian holiday, despite the zombie princess makeup.

There is so much to love about the Autumn Triduum (not a real term) of All Hallows’ Eve, the Feast of All Saints, and the Solemnity of All Souls, and it warmed my heart to know that, even in the midst of record level commercialism and unabashed secularism, modernity had not stripped everything of meaning away from this great tradition. There was, in my friend’s rather ghoulish idea for Halloween costumes for her first grader, a profound bit of grace.

Because, of course, All Hallows Eve is about the dead. As is All Saints, and All Souls. These three days force us to confront our own mortality, and my friend was doing that in a way that most people resist. When we read the Litany of All the Faithful Departed, or read aloud the names of those we love but see no longer, or place photos and mementos on a Muertos altar, or even hang a plastic skeleton outside our door to spook tiny princesses and superheroes (dead or otherwise) we are remembering those who have departed this life.

And, whether we dwell on it explicitly or not, we are remembering that someday, we will be the dead. Our children and grandchildren will place our photos on a Muertos altar and will send our names to the parish secretary for inclusion in necrology lists. The people who live in houses we once lived in will hang skeletons on doors that were once ours, while our own skeletons lie in the ground. In a world that would have us believe that if we just have enough money and things to distract us we can avoid death completely, reflecting on our own mortality is a counter-cultural act.

Halloween, All Saints, and All Souls are about remembering the dead, but not in a nostalgic sense. We aren’t simply reflecting on people who once were, and who are now no more. Christians remember their dead in the same way we remember Christ in the Eucharist: by participating in a perpetual, transcendental, reality. Most of the time we don’t stop to see it, but it is ongoing. All Saints and All Souls affirm that we worship the God of the living and not of the dead, as Jesus reminds us. But that is because even those who are dead to us are alive to God; our journey with Christ does not end when we draw our last breath. Our baptism brought us into the Church, and our death cannot take us out of it.

So, we the Church Militant do the same thing we are always commanded to do: we intercede for the world. We pray for those we love but see no longer. We pray for those who are near death, who are about to enter into a different stage of their Christian life. We thank God for the examples of those who have gone before us and ask these saints, whose journeys are over and whose rest is won, to pray for us on our own journey— toward our death and beyond death.

We cannot know what the other side of this world will look like. I very much doubt it will look like our usual Halloween decorations. But we do know who is king of that world, and that is enough for us.

Sacred, Ordinary Spaces

I’ve worshiped a lot of different places in my life. On the banks of a cold lake on a parish camping trip. In the cafeteria of a public high school. In the open air sanctuary of St. Agnes’s Catholic Church in Ao Nang, Thailand. 

St. Agnes' Catholic Church, Thailand 

St. Agnes' Catholic Church, Thailand 

Each of these places has its own sort of holiness. Mass in Thai is still sacred, even if I don’t understand it. Centering Prayer in a candlelit sanctuary with a few other souls is powerful, as is singing “Oh How He Loves Us” with 700 college students. 

Unfortunately, none of these spaces were available to me last week. Instead, I found myself in a Hampton Inn in suburban Southern California. If you have never had the misfortune of visiting the area, imagine your least favorite strip-mall in your hometown: Chain restaurants, payday lending, second-rate mobile phone dealers, and so on. Add a cloud of dingy grey smog, no trees, and miles of traffic, and you’ll have a good idea what the suburban sprawl that extends outwards from Los Angeles is like. 

The Hampton Inn was full of the usual suspects—business travelers in town for a conference in khakis, polos, and name tags; tired looking parents chaperoning summer cheerleading camp trips; and me—on day two of a drive from Sacramento, CA to Austin, TX. 

The view from my hotel room. 

The view from my hotel room. 

I woke up early and headed down to the breakfast area in the lobby, which the marketing materials call a “Communal Oasis” (which is just proof that you can be a marketing executive without knowing what the words “communal” or “oasis” actually mean), for coffee and Morning Prayer. 

The lobby was surprisingly full for so early on a weekday. There were a handful of guests eating cold cereal from paper bowls and staring with glazed looks at the overly loud local morning show blaring from the TVs. Two teenaged sisters still in pajama bottoms argued with each other at the waffle maker. I poured a cup of coffee from the counter and looked for a place to sit. 

I approached the only available space in the Communal Oasis: a few empty seats at the end of a longer table for eight, which was only occupied by one person. He was middle-aged, reading a book,  accompanied only by a spiral-bound notebook and paper cup of coffee.  “Do you mind if I sit here?” I asked. He just looked up and nodded with a half smile as I set my Bible and Prayerbook on the table.

Ever curious about what people are reading, I glanced over at my new tablemate and was startled to see that he was reading the Bible too. 

Nothing really grand happened between us. I didn’t ask him to pray with me, or even speak to him. He didn’t look up again from what he was doing. I just opened my Prayerbook and began the office, silently. Oh Lord, open our lips, and our mouths shall show forth thy praise. Come, let us sing unto the Lord. Let us shout for joy to the rock of out salvation.

It was a completely ordinary event, but my heart felt just a little lighter. What were the odds that two people at the same hotel, in the same unadorned town, would get up early, come downstairs, and read scripture? How many more little spots of glory were around that I didn’t notice? I felt like Jacob, awaking from sleep: “Truly, the Lord was in this place, and I did not know it!” 

This, I suppose, is what makes a sacred space. Of course stained glass, incense, soft music, candlelight, a gentle breeze, and towering trees help one feel the presence of God. But if God is who we say He is, then someone must also fill the lobby of the Hampton Inn with praise.

What We Talk About When We Talk About God 

Christ Creating the Stars 

Christ Creating the Stars 

When I announced that I was leaving my job with the California State Legislature to go to seminary, my dear friend and coworker, Daniel, offered me 30 pieces of silver if I agreed to stay. When I pointed out that such an offer hadn’t gone well for the last guy who took it, he tried a different track. “What if I disprove the existence of God? Then will you stay?” This, I agreed to readily. 

Daniel has a PhD in bioengineering, and he doesn’t believe that God exists. And in a way, he is right. God is not a distinct being that exists within the universe. Too often, the God that contemporary atheists spend their time trying to discredit, and the God that many faithful Christians spend their time defending, is not the God that the Church worships, or has ever worshiped. In fact, what the atheists argue against isn’t God at all, but merely a god. Disproving the existence of a god in no way disproves, or even answers the question, of the existence of God. 

The material world cannot, by its very nature, account for its own existence. Quantum physics may eventually be successful in proving that universe is infinite and constantly expanding, or that our experience is only a simulation, or that dark matter is being sucked up by aliens for galactic conquest, but so what? What does that have to do with existence as such? How can it ever answer the question: why is there is something rather than nothing? And not only why is there a universe, but why does that universe (or even multiple, ever expanding universes) continue to exist?

Christians do not believe that God is a being that exists in the universe. Beings are limited. They are some things, and they are not others. A cat is a cat and not a dog. Its “catness” defines it and limits it. God is not limited like this. He is Being and He is Existence. He is “that, without which, nothing could be.” He is the Infinite, the Uncreated; not just the maker of all, but the sustainer of all that is, seen and unseen. Or, in the words of the Apostle Paul, “the one in whom we live, and move, and have our being.” 

It is only recently that we have forgotten what our ancestors took for granted: that the universe is infused in, out, and through, with the shimmering light of Existence. To our forefathers, the heavenly bodies were not mere cold rocks and distant gravitational fields, hurtling mindlessly through a vacuum, but spheres of celestial light that pulsed with the energy that made them, and which holds them in existence. Cliffs and oceans were not random collections of minerals and molecules, but expressions of the infinite mind that gave them their forms. And human beings — the most dangerous and wonderful of all the beings in the cosmos — were not mere biological machines with squishy computers executing a genetic program, but energetic, noble, and intelligent creatures, capable of love, consciousness, and creativity. Creatures made in the image of the One Who Is infinitely loving, infinitely conscious, and infinitely creative. Because God is the infinite fullness of all things, all the universe points to Him. 

In the end, it may not be wrong to lie on one’s back and look up at the stars on a clear summer night and not think about Him who called them forth, who gave them their names, and who holds them in existence, but to instead see them only as mindless matter, and to not bother asking why they are there and how they came to be. But to do so would require a faith that I will never have.