Very soon the little darlings will prowl the streets for Halloween again. Some will be angels, some will be Pokémon heroes, some will be Maytag refrigerator boxes with two cut-out eyes, pipe-cleaner antennae, and your father's army boots. A tiny percentage will know the etymology of the word Halloween.
Meanwhile, the perennial debate will rage among the churched as to how to handle this ritual that doesn't go away. A faction of my friends will keep their kids indoors and counter the profane tide with homespun, wholesome fun. Another faction, who perhaps "protesteth overmuch," will defend their little spike-tailed red devils, fulminating that one must allow expression to the forces of evil in order to better appreciate the forces of good in this cosmic play. Another faction, blithely agnostic, will throw theology to the wind and join in the merriment with abandon.
I leave this discussion to my betters. For I have an ax to grind with the "eve of the saints" that's of a different stripe; a personal score to settle.
When I was a child-and not only on October 31st-my grandfather, rasping instructions through a tracheotomy tube, but speaking mostly with his eyes, sent me often on another ritual, secretive and solemn, clutching a nickel and not a shopping bag, with a single house and not a neighborhood to beg from-the house of God. And not precisely to God either but to Saint Jude, patron saint of lost causes. (By all accounts I heard in later years, my Pepere's self-assessment was not exaggerated.) The coin was deposited in the copper box, the votive candle was lit, and the hope was that St. Jude was in the mood and had some clout with the Almighty.
But my grandfather was a man who had been robbed. A figure of tragic proportions. For he was a man living 500 years after a great insight that, for some reason (the perpetrators will pay, whoever they be), never filtered down to him: that Jesus is the patron of lost causes, and that all who believe in Him are saints.
Across town was Memere (on the paternal side)-who said her beads every day at 1 p.m. sharp, who walked the straight and narrow, who groomed me for a Vocation (there was only one kind) with the French Canadian order of Jesus and Mary, who walked me home from Mass on Sunday and exposed, only to me, an octogenarian's terror: Have I been good enough?
We had St. Anthony for lost things, St. Anne to give good luck to sailors, and Our Lady of Perpetual Help nailed over every lintel of every house for protection. I perceive that in every way we were very religious-and huddled together in fear.
And so indeed it took another strange creature prowling the streets and going from door to door, an interloper to this modern Mars Hill, to break the witch's spell and let in the breezes of old Geneva and Wittenberg. From Tulsa, Okla., he was, and sported neither bag nor nickel but a black leather-bound book, and the Reformation: "Would you like to know for sure you're saved?" "Would you like to go to God directly?" Don't know why it took him five centuries to get to Woonsocket, R.I., but we didn't hold it against him.
Nowadays my favorite constellation of saints has names like Lynn, Mary, George, Dennis-who were there with me (hallowed but not haloed) at the oncology ward, through the night watches at home, in the empty kitchen afterward, performing at least the three required miracles for ascending through the pantheon of "Venerable" to "Saint." And all without a nickel from me.
We should have known the truth all along. We had a Bible all that time, before the Oklahoma reverend blew into town, an ornamental volume mother purchased from a peddler in her paper year of marriage, that talisman collecting dust on every shelf of every den in town. I wonder that it didn't of its own accord vibrate off its perch, all that harnessed power-like the Ark that Ashkelon, Ashdod, Ekron, and Gaza could not tame, like Josiah's dangerous discovery in the bowels of the Temple. We could have dusted it off and read. But such things were not done.
I mention it now, belatedly for Pepere-but if you had seen the terror in those eyes you would think it worth an essay too. Worth repeating that with God it's never trick-or-treat, and maybe-you're-saved-and-maybe-you're-not. But it's "yes and amen in Christ." That assurance is not just Chapter XVIII of the Westminster Confession of Faith. It's personal."