Month of the Holy Souls

Although in the buildup to Halloween one may get tired of hearing from various sources that “the veil between the worlds is very thin this time of year,” in a certain sense it definitely feels that way in the Autumn. All Hallowtide, the triduum comprising Halloween, All Saints, and All Souls leads immediately into the Octave of All Saints, which even in the New Calendar exists as a period when plenary indulgences may be gained by visiting cemeteries. The entire month of November is dedicated to the Holy Souls — something echoed in Catholic folklores as remote from each other as the French Canadian and the medieval Estonian. Then there is the modern cultus of Great War remembrance and the Unknown Soldier, which starting in 1918 remembering the horde of dead on all sides in that and subsequent wars — with the wearing of particular flowers (red poppies in the Anglosphere, blue cornflowers in Francophonie, the forget-me-not in Germany, and the edelweiss in what were the Austro-Hungarian lands) in commemoration.

It is certainly true that as we get older, the number of our loved ones — family and friends — among the departed increases dramatically, just as the moment when we ourselves must join them draws closer. The Church, of course, in all her various rites, provides for the souls of her children, both as they are dying and if ensconced in Purgatory. The Last Rites and Apostolic Blessing, of course, are the most obvious for those leaving this world, as well as the Litany for the dying and other such prayers. The Requiem Mass, with its black vestments and Dies Irae are stark reminders of realty; but especially comforting are the “Mind” Masses, Gregorian Masses, Privileged Altars, and such paraliturgical practises as the “Daily Pilgrimage to Purgatory” made popular by the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart — whose church in Rome, Sacre Cuore del Suffragio, coincidentally hosts the Purgatory Museum. November is a good time for cultivating such devotions in our own prayer life.

The evidence of such returnees from Purgatory is at the centre of Catholic ghost lore, as exemplified by Sir Shane Leslie’s Ghost Book and such stories as West Virginia’s Wizard Clip. Indeed, traditional Catholic teaching on ghosts — to the degree there is any — from St. Augustine to the present would first indicate two divisions in “Hauntings.” The first is where an image of a deceased person does the same thing over and over, with no interaction with the astonished viewer. There seems to be no intelligence present. The other is where there does seem to be something to interact with. This latter in turn fell into three categories: a) demons masquerading as the dead (which is why the Church forbids her children to attend seances, use Ouija boards, and so forth); b) damned souls, who mean no good by the living — least of all those whom they loved in this life; and c) the afore-mentioned souls from Purgatory. In a sense, one might think of apparitions of the Saints as ghosts — but this is not true of Our Lady, who currently has the glorified body she has had since her Assumption into Heaven.

In the Byzantine Calendar, November 8 is the feast of St. Michael and all the Angels; turning our thoughts to the Blessed Mother, Queen of the Angels, and to All the Saints, must make us think of the other inhabitants of Heaven — the Angels. In the Latin Rite, of course, Michaelmas on September 29 is the big feast, and the Guardian Angels have one (although in the traditional calendar, there is a second for St. Michael, Ss. Gabriel and Raphael have their own, as did the Guardian Angels of various countries). But they are with us constantly. The Nine Choirs both praise God at all moments as the company of Heaven, assist Him in the governance of the Universe, and — as regards Guardian Angels — assist individuals, communities, and institutions as guides and protectors. Cultivating devotions to the Holy Angels is also a wise move in November.

The feast of All Saints ushers in the month of course, and while our eyes are Heavenward, we should remember and invoke them — those canonised and otherwise. In the new calendar the first days of November are celebrated by various religious orders (and by England and Wales on the same day, although the two countries commemorate their own batch of the holy separately) all the Saints of that order or country. These older brothers of ours are far more than just examples and intercessors; they are those with whom, alongside God, His Mother, and the Angels, we wish one day to dwell in all Eternity. Forging a relationship on this Earth with those who catch our particular fancy — and be assured that if you are in interested in them, they are in you — is a foretaste of what we hope to achieve. As Dom Gueranger quoted from St. Cyprian in his treatment of November 8: “Strangers as we are and pilgrims on the earth, let us fix our hearts and our thoughts on the day which will give to each of us a home, and restore us to Paradise. Who, that is on a voyage, would not hasten to return to his country! Who, that is on the way home, would not eagerly desire a favorable wind, that he might the sooner embrace his dear ones! Parents, brothers, children, friends in multitudes impatiently await us in our heavenly fatherland; blessed crowd! already secure of their own eternal happiness, they are solicitous about our salvation. What joy for them and for us, when at length we see them and they may embrace us!”

But, of course, while we still linger upon the Earth, the demons and our fallen natures shall continue to tempt us — and the nearness of the unseen in this month will remind us of the spiritual evil which lurks all around us. Theologians have argued about the reality of the vampires, werewolves, and witches of folklore for centuries, even as they have debated since St. Jerome about what for want of better words, we would call elves or fairies. But what is certain is that what we can see is like the tip of an iceberg. To help guide us through this maze of unseen enemies and allies, the Church has given us the sacramentals — Holy Water; St. Benedict, Miraculous, and other Medals; the various scapulars, rosaries, and chaplets; and many other weapons in her spiritual arsenal. A great many of these were delivered to different holy person by apparitions of Our Lord, Our Lady, of different Saints. These too, we can use November to learn about and employ.

At this strange and magical time, when the Year is visibly dying around us, let us prepare for Advent and the looming coming of Our Redeemer at Christmas by trying to supernaturalise our perceptions. Let us redouble our devotions, attend the Sacraments as frequently as we can, and attempt to submit our Will to God’s. The veil between the worlds is indeed thin this time of year — but it is that which lies between us and Heaven which we must seek to break through!