In my neighborhood, the soft maple trees are already shedding their leaves.
All the wildflowers are gone from the roadside, and the grasshoppers are gone from the yards, replaced by shiny threads and fat brown spiders. The gardens are long gone too—just a few jalapeños are left lingering on broken stems. The nights get dark faster. The crickets are more feeble. The starlight is stronger.
It is Hallowtide: All Hallows’ Eve (Hallowe’en); All Saint’s Day (All Hallows); and All Souls’ Day.
After Christmas and Easter, these days are for me the holiest ones of the year. We have fulfilled our yearly obligation to Creation, planning and planting and harvesting. We have not yet begun to prepare our hearts and homes for Christ with Advent. There is a gap. But a gap, for God, is just another space to fill with love. And right smack dab between our love of Creation and our love of Creator, the Church nestles our love of neighbor.
But who is my neighbor?
On Halloween, this question is the easiest to answer. My small country village excels at community, and this excellence is on full display at Halloween. My neighbors are the five little girls with the same Elsa costume. The family down the street that makes homemade donuts for trick-or treaters. The parents darting back and forth across dark sidewalks or sputtering along in old minivans. The civic organizations that run the town trunk-or-treat and give out handfuls of candy and whole cans of soda. Even the crotchety soul who passes out only Bible verses. Even the houses whose porch lights remain stubbornly off. All these are my neighbors, and we commune with Tootsie rolls and plastic fangs and a night of misrule–candy for dinner, children leading their parents, mischief over manners, imagination unseating reality. The humble become princesses and the fearful are great warriors. Even vampires and monsters are cuddly. Evil itself becomes toothless when worn with a gap-toothed, sugary grin.
The next day, All Saints Day, we free the concept of neighborhood from its earthly confines. We are commanded to gather at Church, the ultimate meeting place between the communities of heaven and earth, and offer the sacrifice of the Mass. On the north side of the gap, my neighbors are a cloud of witnesses and wings. They are names like Linus, Cletus, Clement, Sixtus, Felicity, Perpetua and Agatha. Zelie and Zoe. Thomas and Therese. James and John and Julius and Joan. But there many more of them known and named only to God, greater in power than even the most famous miracle-workers. On the other side, my neighbors are gray, bent heads. Scrubs and fatigues and work boots and school polos rushed in to make it to the church on time. Squalling babies. Snotty toddlers. Young men who kneel through it all, and old women who can’t kneel at all. Even the crotchety soul who scowls at the priest. Even those whose attention is stubbornly elsewhere. All these are my neighbors, and we commune with an even greater and purer misrule–word into flesh, bread into body, wine into blood, death into life. Our crowded neighborhood shouts “HOLY” and then we all get together to eat, visible and invisible.
Finally, there is All Souls’ Day. Who is my neighbor now? My village has come together. My parish has met to worship. What is left to celebrate?
My neighbors are still waiting under the ground in the graveyard around the block. They are the ancestors who settled in Bavaria and France and Massachusetts and Missouri. The great uncles and aunts whose stories I can recite by heart, the ones I have never met and will always know. The sweet grandmother who died years ago. The new friend who succumbed to cancer. Even the lonely old soul whose headstone is washed clean of words. Even the ashes that caught the wind and tumbled away to be forgotten. These are my neighbors, and they deserve to be prayed for and fussed over and remembered and celebrated. They deserve to commune with us through prayer and incense and passed-down stories and graves made neat. There is misrule here too. Even the dead are a lively part of our community in the great tradition of the church. We reject that they are separated from the living with a mysterious, impenetrable wall. It’s more like a gap, permeable for prayer, and sometimes sacrifices or even souls themselves.
These are the days when the artificial distinctions between dead and alive, here and there, real and unreal, are let down, and we can see across the gap—in both directions—to our friends, family and forgotten dead. These are the days of holy Hallowtide misrule. These are the days that remind us our neighborhoods can be as pinched or as roomy as we want them to be. These are the days where we can clearly see that our only real limits are the limits of our love.