It is said that some places have thin air. In these places, the veil between this world and the next seems thinner, more charged with mystery and the sacred, a liminal space. No one knows what makes these places feel so different, but when you’re there, you find yourself catching your breath more often, you feel lighter, surrounded, awestruck, and held. I think there are also liminal seasons and days. I feel this way during Lent, the Summer Solstice, Advent, and the full moon, like there’s a different energy that is palpable and that energy is drawing me in like a mighty breath breathing the world into being.
For me, this weekend is a liminal time. It holds a triad of days where our calendars and rhythms open up to mystery, darkness, and death—All Hallows’ Eve, All Saints’ Day, and All Souls’ Day, celebrated collectively as “The Day of the Dead” in Mexico and beyond. When else do we invite ourselves to be moved and even frightened by what we don’t understand? When else do we let ourselves get caught up in superstition and the supernatural, take on the guise of someone else, and honor and celebrate the dead?
And it’s not the mere naming of these days that make them liminal times—something deeper is going on. Take, for instance, All Hallow’s Eve—Halloween—which originated from the Celtic harvest festival Samhain. This ancient festival was founded because people who lived close to the ground, close to the rhythms of the earth, sensed the seasons changing. They made towering bonfires, brought offerings of food and drink, and petitioned for protection and provisions during winter. They, too, saw this as a liminal time, believing that some threshold was propped open between worlds. So as their slice of the earth was cooling and turning back into herself, they turned inward, as well, giving themselves over to fear, superstition, and even hope. Sometime around the 8th Century, Christians merged the celebration of Samhain with All Saints’ Day resulting in All Hallows’ Eve.
This year, I’m spending this hallowed weekend in Charleston, South Carolina where $15 ghost tours abound, variations of Old South plantationism still thrive, and Spanish moss and the salty scent of marsh hang heavy in the air. I’m spending the weekend in Charleston because a 47 year old man died and gave my father, a 56 year old man, a kidney. So as I give thanks that my father is still on this side, I say a special prayer for the donor, his family, and all our friends and loved ones who have passed. I say a special prayer for all the souls that have departed and are journeying, mysteriously, somewhere between worlds, somewhere beyond the veil.
Thousands of miles away, something else is stirring: hundreds of millions of monarch butterflies making their annual migration south to the transvolcanic mountains of Mexico. They are, as usual, just in time for the Day of the Dead. They migrate from all over North America, charging thin air with a frenzy of flaming wings. What are they and where did they come from? Researchers still don’t know how the monarchs do it. Researchers still don’t know how they, all at the same time, find their way to the same place—a place thousands of miles from where they hatched, a place they’ve never been before. Perhaps it’s something embedded in the DNA that pulses through their furred and coal-like bodies. Perhaps it’s the position of the sun or some magnetic pull of the earth that guides their pilgrimage. But when they come in droves, it is said that they are the souls of the departed coming back to visit all those they left behind.
The monarchs spend the winter clinging to the bark and branches of oyamel firs, sometimes tens of thousands to each tree. Together, they form a living cloak lighting the trees with flame. When they lift in a single stroke, their wings make the sound of crackling fire dancing across live wood and the whole forest is like the bonfires of old—an ancient sign of protest against the coming cold or some petition to the sun or gods to remember us all. Yes, what are they and where did they come from?
In the heart of winter a couple years ago when our sunny hope of social change and direct democracy was dashed before our eyes on the cold granite of Legislative Plaza, I gathered with a group of about a dozen women and we set out into the woods at night. We were tired, yes, but when we came together, a kind of wildness was lit within us. We crossed the North Nashville train tracks into darkness and beat drums and sang songs. We climbed upon a stilled train, marched to a clearing in the woods, and lit a fire. We named our procession “5th wave feminism” and told stories about the radical women who had carved a place for themselves in our histories: our mothers and grandmothers fierce with their loving, Ella Baker, Dorothy Day, Lucy Parsons, Zora Neale Hurston, Joan of Arc, and the list went on into the night. We returned, drumming and singing, “swinging our great grandmother’s bones,” as Marge Piercy says, renewed.
Centuries ago, women were burned for less in Europe and beyond. Women who carried the knowledge of how to heal with herbs and deliver life into the world, who knew how to lean into mystery and darkness, who could sit with suffering and death, were burned at the stake. Why? The knowledge they held and passed down was powerful—a threat to patriarchy, the church, and pre-modern medicine. Their knowledge was a power that could not be controlled by men or their version of the Christian God. When we can’t lean into mystery—into what we can’t understand—we fear it. We crush it.
In his All Saints’ Day address at Verano cemetery in Rome, Pope Francis drew from the texts of the day—the seventh chapter of Revelation and the Sermon on the Mount. In his sermon, he calls us to lean into the mystery of suffering and hope. He calls us to open our eyes and remember the “unknown saints” around us—the discarded and unwanted, the un-housed and the jobless, and all those fleeing from war, hunger, and desolation.
“Who are they and where did they come from?” asks the elder in Revelation 7:13. “They have come out of the great tribulation” (7:14), and they are sanctified, says Pope Francis, through their distress. In other words, their sainthood, their salvation, comes through their suffering, their struggle. “They will be sheltered with the presence of God,” continues Revelation, and “never again will they hunger, never again will they thirst. The sun will not beat down on them, nor any scorching heat… And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”
Pope Francis continues, saying that we, too, are sanctified as we embrace and identify with the discarded, as we live into the Sermon on the Mount, as we mourn, as we hunger for justice, and as we sow peace, mercy, and joy into the soil of the world. And somehow, this path, this pilgrimage into the Beatitudes, will bring about our liberation.
Like the monarchs, I feel drawn to this path by something I don’t understand—some shifting of light, some magnetic pull, some holy breath drawing me in. What would happen if I—if we—were to fully give into this pull? When I do listen, when I do give in, I feel the beating of my heart join with the pulsing chorus of the discarded and oppressed. And then, something striking happens like the migrating monarchs, like our procession across the North Nashville tracks: I find thin air igniting into flame, dancing and crackling like oyamel firs and bonfires of old, the thick smoke rising into the night like a prayer. It is said that when the martyrs of the early church were burned at the stake, the smell of baked bread drifted throughout the town. Somehow, through their witness and the tragedy of their suffering, their bodies became a sacrament like the body of Christ, the bread of life. We are sanctified through tribulation, sanctified through struggle and fire, and this is pure mystery. So I pray for the courage to lean into this mystery with all I have. I pray for our collective lifting and charging toward liberation, toward hope.