In the Midst of Life We Are in October

Halloween, Cemeteries, and Death

Ian Olson / 10.15.19

What images come to mind when you think of Halloween? Ghosts? Skeletons? Gravestones? Some Christians cry foul at such “morbid” imagery, but it seems to me this stems from a safely modern, bourgeois outlook. Our older brothers and sisters in medieval Europe most assuredly wouldn’t know what to make of the bland, sterilized Christianity regnant in the Christian Living sections of Barnes and Noble, in arts and crafts stores, on “Christian” radio, and in American voting booths. The friars of the Capuchin monastery in Rome, who adorned the site with the skeletal remains of thousands of their brothers, wouldn’t recognize their chapels as macabre, nor would they recognize our contemporary vulgarities as being in service to the light, life, and love of the crucified Nazarene.

Capuchin Crypt, Rome

An offensive Halloween is only possible when and where the Four Last Things—death, judgment, heaven, and hell—are sterilized of their apocalyptic character and installed as identity markers for the comfortable class. That is, death as the de-fanged endpoint one reaches in the comfort of their own home; judgment as contempt for your outgroup; heaven as the free market of self-realization enjoyed today, everlastingly and statically extended post mortem; and hell as the destiny of the disgusting and wicked Other (to put not too fine a point upon it, those who don’t run with your crew). These distortions aren’t bad because they’re tawdry and superficial (though make no mistake, they are)—but because they are so out of touch with the reality they claim to describe.

The sanitized kitsch that insists we whitewash reality with Thomas Kinkade hues has no springboard in Christian theology. Fidelity to the gospel simply doesn’t translate to downplaying the darkness of the present evil age or coating our lives with the lacquer of garish “positivity.” We have not returned to Eden; the New Jerusalem has not descended. We have the first fruits of the age to come, not its fullness. Yet American Christians habitually speak and behave as though we are elsewhere than here in the soil of the sin-invaded world. Paul satirizes such hyper-realized eschatology taking root among the naïve, triumphalist Corinthians: “You are already full! You are already rich! You are already reigning without us!” (1 Corinthians 4:8).

It seems to me that one of the chief prophetic words Christians of the present imperium should heed is, “In the midst of life we are in death.” This can chasten our pretensions of glory and clip the wings of our Satanic ambitions. We have not pole vaulted over the reign of Sin and Death into a deathless existence among the stars. We reign with Christ, yes, but this Christ’s enthronement was enacted with an instrument of torture. Reality is more complex than the clean divisions and sexy presentation North American Christianity presents it as.

The Rule of St. Benedict admonishes one to “keep death daily before one’s eyes.” The intention is not to embrace futility or sorrow, or to neglect the beautiful and life-affirming. It’s the map for orienting ourselves within reality. What we would separate and spurn is interwoven with the life and glory we thirst for in the heart of our being. The Place of the Skull is the fissure through which the Fountain of Life opened in the sad history of Adam’s children. Whoever would live must embrace death.

Remembering that we must die brings our lives into sharp focus. As Samuel Johnson remarked, “When a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.” It prompts us to ask: Is this how I ought to be living? Is this what God has given me to do, or am I settling for whatever comes my way? Memento mori can jostle us out of the narcolepsy of accipio fati. What have you been putting off? What should you be using your time for? What goal should you be working towards? What has gotten in the way of these things and choked your hopes for this life? Remembering your mortality forces you to ask: am I living? Or am I trudging through this shadowy vale like a zombie on pointless paths?

But keeping death before our eyes presents a dialectical cross-current. That we will die is certain. This means there are limits to our doing. We cannot accomplish all that we will, and even if we shift our priorities in faithful, substantive directions we have no guarantee we will arrive at our objectives. Our capabilities are finite and subject to decay. We fall comically short of omnipotence. This means that even when we contemplate the paths we are on and resolve to take action the best that we can do is prayerfully pursue our aims in faith, trusting that the One who does all things well is presently working for our good.

For while it is salutary to remember the inevitability of one’s own death, it is of vastly greater importance that we are remembered by God. Our call to remember is situated within God’s self-consecration to remember our plight and the destiny he primordially assigned to our race. Memento mori is a graced, creaturely response to divina reminiscens. Short of this, any ascetic practice is only running a race without a course and without a prize, an object-less denial effecting nothing except depletion.

Keeping death daily before our eyes can only arrive at something fruitful because bearing Christ’s death in our bodies is the site from which his resurrection life manifests itself (2 Corinthians 4:10). For in Christ all things are ours, “even the world or life or death” (1 Corinthians 3:22)! The terror that has tyrannized us is shamed and subverted into our service through the Horror Defeater, the man who is no more subject to Death (Romans 6:9). Death doesn’t thereby become our friend or our pet, but a tool by which new possibilities can become visible for us. And in Christ we can begin to take hold of them.

So go visit a cemetery this month. Put a skull on your desk. Hang some ghosts from the tree outside your house! Grab a friend and slam in the back of your Dragula! In the midst of October we take hold of life; Halloween without end, amen.

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2 responses to “In the Midst of Life We Are in October”

  1. […] For a more sympathetic take on Christianity and Halloween, see any of Ian Olson’s annual reflections (here, here, here, or here). […]

  2. […] In the Midst of Life We Are in October – Mockingbird — Read on […]

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