When I touch my lips to the altar at the beginning and ending of Masses, I am connecting our table-celebration on earth with the banquet feasts of heaven. Each Catholic altar-table contains a relic of a saint, usually cemented or encased, in stone. Thus, it becomes a touchstone from this world to the kingdom of God’s eternal reign which clergymen touch with a kiss. Some church altars, like ours at Saint Charles Borromeo, are fortunate to have a relic of the community’s patron.
This daily ecclesial ritual of touching life and death and eternity might help us better understand the annual late October ritual of Halloween that inaugurates the Days of the Dead. Los Dias de los Muertos was popularized in Mexico from roots in Native Aztec and Catholic spheres. As we know, death is the unavoidable result of life. These days—All Halo’s Eve, Feast of All Saints Day, and Commemoration of All Souls—can bring us to greater levels of comfort with mortality. At the base of the annual celebration is the ofrendas (altar tables) for loved ones; upon these altars are placed reminders of inevitable decay as well as remnants of their lives, relics that serve as touchstones for us.
Throughout the world, mostly in Europe, incorrupt bodies of saints lie in churches and oratories as astounding signs of their holiness. We even see severed body parts, like Saint Teresa of Avila’s ring finger or Saint Oliver Plunkett’s head, preserved for viewing. Relics are of various classes: a first class relic is a body part, such as a bone fragment or lock of hair; a second class relic is an item used or worn by the revered one, such as a prayer book or piece of clothing; a third class relic is something that touched a first or second class relic. Having a physical connection with a deceased loved one is a great treasure for some people. If it is for you, los Dias de los Muertos might be a valuable time to strengthen your spiritual bond with death as well as with those to whom you feel connected beyond earthen limits.
I contend that there is a thin veil between this world and the next and we are presented with connectors often through various encounters: dreams, hearing the voice of our loved one, feeling his or her presence in a song, butterfly, fawn, or random happenstance that profoundly accentuates the person’s character. While numerous items decorate the ofrendas table, among them is thin tissue paper that flutters in air, reminding us of the thin veil or close spiritual union we sometimes feel and embrace with loved ones. Like the breeze, we cannot see spirits, but we gently feel them. Though there is something unsettling, even frightening, about Halloween costumes of ghosts, skeletons, and the Grim Reaper, they point to our fate which we, as Christians, believe is good, though mysterious.
In the Days of the Dead, we revere the blessed saints and pray for the poor souls; and if they respond to our beckoning each October as the days grow darker, colder, and more death-like, they, too, can be our touchstones and help us straddle two worlds: this life that brings death and the other that is eternal.