Everyone knows about All Saints’ Day, principally because it comes right after Halloween. All Saints’ Day was instituted to commemorate all the saints in heaven, known and unknown, and to emphasize the oneness of the Church in heaven and the Church on earth, the Church Triumphant and the Church Militant. It’s a lovely idea. It’s a pity it never really caught on.
Our culture enthusiastically took up Halloween, with all its emphasis on death and the darker side of spirituality. All Saints’ Day, with its brighter spirituality and emphasis on life after death, never gained a place. There is a great deal of opportunity for social commentary in that fact. Probably too much, actually. The celebration of Halloween, and the neglect of All Saints’ Day, have a tangle of causes. Prominent among them is the human need for the concrete. The most spiritual celebrations require material rites, or they will never be popular. We all know what you might do to celebrate Halloween. No one can think of what you might do to celebrate All Saints’ Day except go to church, if you can find a church that’s open.
All Saints’ Day lacks the universal expressions of human celebration: food, decorations, some convivial custom such as presents or costumes. The holiday also lacks stories. Christmas bursts with the Christmas story, in carols and readings and manger scenes. Easter has an even grander story, evoked in the simplest of images: a bare cross, a tomb with the stone rolled to the side. Halloween lacks the one overarching story, but it has a boisterous anarchy of minor ones. Even the Fourth of July, purely secular, comes in the name of a story. Every holiday has its story, or stories.
What is the story of All Saints’ Day? The saints in heaven, the unity of the Church, are ideas, and – however lovely – abstract ideas. What stories could we tell? Some people trace the holiday to the commemoration of the martyrs in the Roman Empire; there is an abundance of stories there. But the stories of the martyrs are often ghastly, a too-exquisite rendering of physical pain thickly overlaid with spiritual sentiment. The lives of the saints would be more cheerful material, but even less to the point. The heart of All Saints’ Day is not the lives of the saints, or their deaths, but their life after death. It is heaven.
Heaven eludes us in our stories. There are a million good stories about about ghosts and goblins and witches, if you go in for that sort of thing. Have you ever heard – could you even imagine – a riveting story about the perfected saints in heaven? Not even the great masters did heaven credit. Milton’s hell outshone his heaven; Dante made a name for the ages with Inferno, not paradise. Those writers who touched heaven most effectively – C.S. Lewis, Tolkien – did so by suggesting glories they did not try to tell. I’ve never seen a portrayal of heaven that didn’t seem hollow and colorless.
We don’t know what heaven is. It seems we can’t imagine it, either. Our stories, like our imaginations, fail in this place. It’s a pity; stories of heaven should be among the best stories. They are, maybe, too good to tell.