Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Blessed All Hallows

Last weekend in England, the clocks fell back. Now the long northern darkness is closing in. People who live in more southerly climes might have a hard time imagining just how DARK it is in the North in this waning end of the year.

Imagine the English gothic novel brought to life as a living reality, everything pitch black at 4:30 on an overcast day.

Today is one of the biggest turning points of the year--All Hallows Eve. Its secular and commercial manifestation with the mass-produced trick or treat paraphenalia cannot hold a candle to the true signficance and gravitas of this ancient feast.

All Hallows has its roots in the Celtic Samhain, which marked the end of the pastoral year and was considered particularly numinous, a time when the faery folk and the spirits of the dead roved abroad. This was a time of inclement weather, when the Wild Hunt, that endless stream of ancestral spirits, raged overhead--something that might feel all too close to home for those who dwell in Hurricane Sandy's path. Even in the digital age, we are still very much at the mercy of the elements and the all too fragile balance of nature.

Many of Samhain's folkways were preserved in the Christian feast of All Hallows, which had developed into a spectacular affair by the late Middle Ages, with church bells ringing all night to comfort the souls believed to be in purgatory. Did this custom have its origin in much older rites of ancestor veneration? This threshold feast opening the season of cold and darkness allowed people to confront their deepest held fears—that of death and what lay beyond. And their deepest longings—reunion with their cherished departed.

After the English Reformation, these old Catholic rites were outlawed, resulting in one of the longest struggles waged by Protestant reformers against any of the traditional ecclesiastical rituals. Lay people stubbornly continued to hold vigils for their dead—a rite that could be performed without a priest and in cover of darkness. Until the early 19th century in the Lancashire parish of Whalley, some families still gathered at midnight upon All Hallows Eve. One person held a large bunch of burning straw on a pitchfork while the others knelt in a circle and prayed for their beloved dead until the flames burned out.

Long after the Reformation, people persisted in giving round oatcakes, called Soul-Mass Cakes to soulers, the poor who went door to door singing Souling Songs as they begged for alms on the Feast of All Souls, November 2. Each cake eaten represented a soul released from purgatory, a mystical communion with the dead.

In Glossographia, published in 1674, Thomas Blount writes:

All Souls Day, November 2d: the custom of Soul Mass cakes, which are a kind of oat cakes, that some of the richer sorts in Lancashire and Herefordshire (among the Papists there) use still to give the poor upon this day; and they, in retribution of their charity, hold themselves obliged to say this old couplet:

God have your soul,
Bones and all.

What do these old traditions mean to us today?

All Hallows is not just a date on the calendar, but the entire tide, or season, in which we celebrate ancestral memory and commemorate our dead. This is also the season of storytelling, of re-membering the past. We honour all those who have gone before us. The veil between the seen and unseen grows thin and we may dream true.

Wishing a blessed All Hallows Tide to all!

Source: Ronald Hutton, The Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain


Soul Cake Recipes

Souling Songs

In 1106, on November 1, the Eve of All Souls, eight-year-old Hildegard von Bingen, a child dedicant to monastic life, endured a searing rite of passage that marked her death to the secular world and her new existence as an oblate-anchorite. (See the video at the top of the page.)


At dusk on the Eve of All Souls, the rite began.

In our guesthouse chamber, I froze, bare feet on the cold stone floor, as Jutta tugged my earthly garments over my head and let them tumble to the ground.

“You don’t need these anymore, ” she told me.

She wore nothing but a death shroud of sackcloth woven from coarsest, scratchiest goat hair. As goose pimples rose on my naked flesh, Jutta made me raise my arms so that she could fit an identical shroud over my body. The goat hair dug into me, making me want to claw my skin to relieve the itch.

Jutta then bowed her head as low as it could hang and shuffled out of the room, leaving me to shuffle after. We processed to the abbatial church, now alight with tapers, as though a funeral were underway.

At the west end of the church lay a bed of black earth strewn with bare branches and dead leaves. Jutta flung herself belly down in the dirt. Dust to dust. I bridled, my stomach lurching. I remembered the story of Saint Ursula, the 11,000 murdered virgins, the rotting flesh, and then it struck me like a blow, the full weight of what it meant to be an anchorite. The funeral tapers, the bed of earth—this night, I was to die. To be buried with Christ.

Flinging myself toward Mother who watched with the rest of the congregation, I mouthed the words save me. Mother’s face flushed. Weeping in earnest, she stepped toward me while my heart pounded in mad hope. But her gaze left me mute. It was as though she had taken a silken thread and sewed my lips shut so I could only mewl, as weak as a kitten, not sob or wail or rage. Taking my hands, Mother guided me downward, into that dirt.

“It’s God’s will, ” she whispered. “We must all obey those who stand above us.”

With trembling hands, she arranged my prone body till at last I lay corpse-still beside Jutta.

Holy water fell on my back like rain, wetting me through the prickly hair shirt. Incense and the stink of dank earth filled my nose. Finally the archbishop commanded me and Jutta to stand. Numb, my head ringing, I staggered to my feet and chanted the words they told me to chant.

Abbot Adilhum gave me and Jutta burning candles to hold in each hand.

“One for your love of God, ” he said as the hot wax dripped down to sear my fingers. “One for your love of your neighbors.”

I felt no love at all, only shuddering emptiness.

The monks sang Veni creator. At the abbot’s prompting, I mumbled, “Suspice me, Domine.” Receive me, Lord. I placed my candles beside Jutta’s on the altar before hurling myself back into the grave dirt beside Jutta. My ears burned as the monks chanted what even I recognized as the Office of the Dead.

“Rise, my daughters, ” said the archbishop, leading us out of the church and into our tomb, our sepulcher, the narrow cell built onto the edge of the church.

My eyes flooded as he swung his incense thurible round and round. There was only the low doorway and no windows, save for the screen viewing into the church and the revolving hatch where the monks could pass in food to Jutta and me without our even seeing who stood on the outside. Mother and Rorich were already lost to me, outside in the courtyard, chanting along with the monks. I’ll never see their faces again.

“Here I will stay forever, ” Jutta sang. “This is the home I have chosen.”

I choked and coughed as the archbishop sprinkled dust on us. Every part of my body shriveled as he spoke the Rite of Extreme Unction, reserved for those on their deathbed.

“Obey God, ” he told us before leaving our cell.

Tears slid from my eyes as I watched the lay brothers brick up the doorway that Jutta and I had passed through but would never be allowed to leave. As Jutta murmured her prayers, I lay rigid on that cold stone floor as though I were truly a corpse in my crypt.

When the last brick was laid in its place, blocking every hope of escape, Jutta took my hands and pulled me to my feet. In the light of the single taper the monks had left us, I saw her smile.

“My dearest dream has been made real, ” she said.

At that, she blew out the taper, and coffin-darkness enclosed us.


  1. I just finished reading ILLUMINATIONS this afternoon. It was far better than the film, VISIONS, which I'd watched for the second time one week ago (before I heard about your book). You've accomplished a stunning feat. Thank you.

    Christin Lore Weber

  2. Thank you so much for your kind words, Christin! I'm so happy you enjoyed ILLUMINATIONS!