Francis and the Jack O'Lantern

This week's reflection is written by
Mr. Joseph McDaniel, OSFS, seminarian.

Early next week, streets of neighborhoods across the country will be filled with young children dressed in an eclectic array of Halloween garb. Some will don themselves in simple home-made outfits reminiscent of Charlie Brown's Great Pumpkin escapades; others will be outfitted with gadget-loaded suits inspired by the latest Marvel movie. Candy will be exchanged, apples will be bobbed for, and perhaps some minor heart palpitations experienced on the doorsteps of particularly spooky-looking houses. Overall, innocuous enjoyment on a holiday of endearing peculiarity.

Our ancient forebears who resided in ancient Ireland and Britain, approached this festival, which they called Samhain, with a much graver sensibility. They believed that on this night, the barriers separating our world from the spirit world were lessened, and that other-worldly entities such as the souls of the dead, as well as more malevolent forces, would come and mingle among us. In order to keep these ghostly beings at bay, it was necessary to hide behind the safety of ghoulish masks and costume.

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It was precisely the arrival of Christianity, and the association of this observance with the eve of All Saints, that made our rather benign contemporary observance of Halloween possible. The dead are hoped to experience the joy of union with God, and while personified evil is definitely confronted in scriptural and other Christian writings, its power has been relativized and diminished in the face of the ever-present power of God. Putting on unusual masks and costumes can become a matter of recreation, rather than a necessary act of ritual vesting.

Although it is unlikely that St. Francis de Sales would have encountered this holiday that was more popular across the English Channel, he nonetheless had to confront his own personal insecurities and worries regarding the experience of nighttime. If one were to read his Rule of Padua, a spiritual guidebook he wrote for himself while a law student, one cannot help but be struck by the length and detail of its prescriptions concerning waking during the night. Was Francis afraid of the dark and what possibly lurked within it, or did the absence of visible light simply and remind him of various kinds of interior darkness that we experience in our everyday lives?

Whatever their exact motivation, his reflections upon nighttime became another powerful reminder of an insight characteristic of Salesian spirituality: the presence of a good and loving God in each present moment. For Francis, God "neither slumbers nor sleeps" and "the most intense darkness of midnight can present no obstacle to God's divine activity." In fact, it is precisely in this darkness that God's presence can be most visible to us, whether it be the darkness caused by fear of other-worldly powers, or the darkness of our own failings and imperfections.

With this wisdom of Francis de Sales to guide us, as the light of tea-candles flickers from inside hollowed lanterns on one night each year, may we recall God's light burning ever more brightly in our own lives, every single day.