I have a copy of Dame Julian of Norwich’s Revelations of Divine Love in the original late-medieval English. In it she regularly uses the word “ghost” differently than we. She says, “The Seventh is our often feeling of weal and woe; (the feeling of weal is gracious touching and lightening, with true assuredness of endless joy; the feeling of woe is temptation by heaviness and irksomeness of our fleshly living 😉 with ghostly understanding that we are kept all as securely in Love in woe as in weal, by the Goodness of God.” For her “ghost” was not a disembodied soul, wandering around looking like a body in decay, but a way of referring to the spiritual dimension of the human experience. We have a vestige of that when we refer to the Trinity as Father, Son and Holy Ghost.
Put those two ideas together and you get an interesting way of looking at this day of Halloween. If “ghostly” refers to the spiritual dimension of life, and the third member of the Trinity is the “Holy Ghost,” then that which is “ghostly” about us is not that scary post-death half-rotten shade of a tormented soul, but that place where the power of the Great Mystery intersects with our own inner being. In classical theology this is what gives us physical as well as non-physical being, it’s what creates us moment-to-moment. In short, it is not what’s dead about us, but what’s alive.
So where did we get our Halloween ideas? My take on it is that perhaps here ancient Ireland meets modernity. On the fall festival of Samhain (pronounced “sow-in”) it was believed that the souls at rest in the Otherworld would sometimes by accident slip into ours. Disgruntled at having to return, they would cause mischief in the village unless appeased by sweets. Children capitalized on the idea and dressed up as such souls to blackmail villagers out of tooth-rotting goodies (all in fun, of course!) Modernity, that has no real use for any substantive afterlife, reduces such ideas to a perversion of this life—as if the dead actually rose in physical form, half-decayed and horrifying. It’s a shame, really, because the term “Halloween” comes from “All Hallows Eve,” the night before the Christian celebration of All Saints, all believers from all times. It was the Church’s way of coopting and reinterpreting the Irish festival to its own purposes. The reader may have feelings one way or the other about that, but the past is the past, and what we have now is something of a corruption (pun intended) of both the ancient Irish tradition and the best of the Church.
So, Happy Halloween to you all, and may the ghostly side of you live strong in you and give you peace and blessing.
Julian of Norwich. Revelations of Divine Love (Kindle Locations 11-13). Kindle Edition.