One of the distractions I had during the long weekend was trying to find out the etymology of the word “undas.” I thought it might be an old Tagalog word, but my Tagalog colleagues could not tell me its origin. Neither could the ones steeped in Spanish. The dictionaries themselves simply say “All Saints Day” or “Todos los Santos.” I guess I will have to wait until someone gives me the definitive answer before next “undas.”
Another fascinating question during this time of the year is about the origin of Halloween. I guess the explanation given by one Jesuit writer might be as good as any. He says: “The real tradition of All Hallows’ Eve is that before the day of holiness, there is a crack in the fabric of the cosmos, which allows evil spirits from the underworld to assault us: At that point in time, we are vulnerable, as traditionally we are vulnerable at the moment of death and need the name of Jesus to be spoken to us loudly because hearing is the last faculty to go and the devil needs to be outshouted in the name and power of Jesus. And so, on All Hallows’ Eve, people are meant to go out into the streets in scary costumes and make loud noises to frighten the devils away and to enact annually the victory of holiness over evil. It is a mythological extension of the themes of the Easter vigil, but who tells you that now? No one. We are to outshout the devils and cast them back down to their captivity in hell, and that’s what All Hallows’ Eve is about. It is both Christian and mythological, and I want you at this point to see that there is such a thing as Christian mythological thinking which is significant and truth-bearing.”
The mythological thinking has its underpinning from the Council of Trent that “there is a purgatory, and that the souls therein are helped by the suffrages of the faithful, but principally by the acceptable Sacrifice of the Altar.”
From the Jesuit writer again: “But the underpinning of this religious vision has gone now: How Halloween is now celebrated comes from how Hollywood imagines the forces of evil, and the young people on the streets and in the clubs imitate the images from horror films they have seen. They evoke demonic presences that no one takes seriously in any ontological sense, but have an imaginative power that derives from the world of digital reality, and in popular imagination, death-dealing demons, robotic killing machines and seductive vampires have taken the place of metaphysical evil. In the Christian vision metaphysical evil is only what comes from the twisting of human and angelic freedoms. Creatures go wrong through the exercise of their freedom; evil is a twisting of the will, a by-product of freedom, not a feature within the natural order. This is why one can say in all seriousness that death is not evil because it is a feature of the world’s order that expresses the divine nature.”
From my window in the Jesuit Residence at the Ateneo, I have a panoramic view of Loyola Memorial Park. On All Saints eve it is all lit up and one can see cars and people moving around. I don’t believe that the preoccupation of the hundreds who stay overnight there are the mythological Halloween images. They are there to pay tribute to their loved ones and to pray for them to be hastened to their final destination because they believe in what the Council of Trent teaches about Purgatory.
What can be said of Purgatory? If I may again quote a Jesuit: “The first thing that this name may evoke in us is the troubling image of a ‘god’ who makes us pay right down to the last penny, or at best the image makes us think of a ‘waiting room’ through which most mortals will have to pass in order to be able to reach celestial beatitude. If we add to those images certain liturgical practices of dubious quality, we have more than enough reasons to ignore the topic.
“Nevertheless, we cannot deny a certain plausibility to purgatory, first because our access to celestial beatitude will always be a creaturely access. Heaven does not mean that we fuse into God and disappear into him, but rather that we become united with him while preserving our own identity, an identity which, in its likeness to God’s, becomes supremely relational.
“We know, of course, from experience that making our very own the love God gives us inevitably presupposes a process, or better: a way. Every forward movement on the way is a source of joy, but progress on the journey can also be very painful at times. John of the Cross points out quite correctly that the real misery of the human condition consists in this: what is most helpful and beneficial for us becomes harsh and difficult to absorb.
“We are blinded by the excess of light. Possibly this is what purgatory is all about: knowing that we are utterly saved and nevertheless still on the way to taking full possession of that salvation. In other words: purgatory is heaven, but seen ‘from this upward slope.’”
Do I really understand all that? I am not sure I do. But I know and believe that our God is a God of love. And that is the reason why millions of people flock every year to memorial parks and churches to pray for their departed loved ones, even if they do not know exactly how their prayers can hasten their loved ones up the upward slope.