Arnold Böcklin, Island of the Dead, 1880

This article first appeared in November 2018.

Yesterday was Halloween, a day we go out of our way to be scared. By means of a costume, haunted house, or horror movie, we enjoy and dread the thrill of some controlled danger. We know it’s not real, and anyway, we can trust sugar crashes and moldy pumpkins to bring us back to earth.

Halloween as we celebrate it is more or less a cultural practice, rather than an observance of anything meaningful, let alone mystical. Perhaps we relate it vaguely to All Saints Day or Samhain, but we likely don’t consider this connection when we take kids trick-or-treating or watch the Charlie Brown special.

For the ancient Celts, Samhain was the beginning of the dark half of the year, a time to consider the mysteries of celestial and earthly patterns. For Catholics, Halloween is a sort of prelude to the feasts of All Saints and All Souls. November 1 is a holy day of obligation to remember the blessed among us; on November 2, we are encouraged to remember our faithful departed. They are near us in a communion of saints, but also quite separated by death. Surely there is something mysterious, maybe even fearful, about that.

Perhaps, then, we should consider Halloween in light of the feasts that follow – less a day of vampires and crazed killers than of the unknown. Good moderns that we are, we tend to focus on the cataphatic aspects of God, those of which we can have positive knowledge, what God is. God is loving, God is merciful, God is present to us. He is these things, but there is another way of contemplating God – the apophatic, what God isn’t. Where is God? Why does He remain hidden to us? Why might His works inspire awe, or as Kierkegaard put it, “fear and trembling,” in us? Perhaps Halloween and the feasts following it are days to savor the apophatic.

When we step into a mystery, we cannot know what we will find. The fun of Halloween is toying with the idea that there is something just beyond our sight, something we brush up against but don’t quite touch. We are surrounded not by things that go bump in the night, but a world saturated with grace. But this is meant as no comfort. The wisdom and mercy of God are, as authors such as Flannery O’Connor and Graham Greene remind us, horrifying and destructive, rarely conforming to our expectations or conventions.

“It is a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the living God,” Paul tells us, a reminder that the path we pursue is not for the fainthearted. Moses knew this too well. “No one may see me and live!” God warns the ancient prophet, sounding more like a sign outside a haunted house than a loving Father. God is certainly loving and kind, merciful and gentle; He is also mighty and fearsome, impassioned and glorious. This promise and peril infuses our world at every turn.

In entering into this mystery, we cannot be sure what we will encounter, but we embrace fear and obscurity even as we hope. On this day of All Saints and tomorrow on All Souls, we might carry over some Halloween mystery to recognize the great and mighty Mystery binding us all.

Regina Munch is an associate editor at Commonweal.

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