I was born on the Day of the Dead, which has always struck me as more than a little odd. November the 2nd, All Souls Day in the old Catholic tradition which I grew up with, is set aside to celebrate everyone who has died, or at least “all the faithful departed,” as it was said when I was young, since the unfaithful were damned to hell anyway, and there was little reason or need to remember them.
Somehow the notion of being given the gift of life (and it is a great gift!) on the very day dedicated to a special remembrance of death still strikes me as both curious and instructive. Although as a child I thought of it as strange and a bit disturbing, as an adult, I have come to understand it in more of a mythic or symbolic kind of way. It’s well known today, for example, that in traditional Mexican culture there has long been a close connection between life and death, and not necessarily a negative one either. Indeed, almost all cultures which relied on agriculture, as opposed to primarily hunting and gathering, had a special place for death in the stories they told themselves about how to make sense of the world. Everyone knew that it was only when the seed was buried in the earth that life could begin to stir. Additionally, it did not take early farmers long to realize that the dead and decaying plants of the year before made excellent fertilizer, the very stuff in fact from which new life grew most abundantly. So, the equation was a very natural one to make: from death came new life in a most dramatic and tangible way.
In Aztec mythology too, Mictlantecuhtli, the god of Mictlan, the land of the dead and the lowest region of the netherworld, fought with Quetzalcoatl, the Feathered Serpent and bringer of rain, who had descended into Mictlan in order to gather the bones of the ancestors from the previous fourth world in order to make a new creation. He was just about to escape when Mictlantecuhtli caught up with him, which caused Quetzalcoatl to drop some of the bones. These bones fell and got smashed, which is why some people are shaped differently from others, and some are smaller, some larger. The point to be made is that it was necessary to go underground to the abode of the dead in order to create new life. So once again we see the emergence of these old agricultural myths playing out in the everyday lives of the people. There is even speculation, as well, that elements of the Christian faith originate from these ancient mythic themes, with Jesus, the Son of God, who died and was subsequently buried in the earth. New life sprang from him when he rose again from the dead, just as buried seeds do to this day.
In Celtic mythology, too, we see the celebration of Samhain (pronounced “sah-win”) at this same time of the year. Samhain was thought of as the end of the old year and the beginning of the new. It was a time when cattle, those life-giving beasts for the old peoples of Ireland, Scotland and Wales, were slaughtered both as offerings to the gods, and to sustain the people through the long, cold winter months to come. Bonfires were lit, and in some places still are, and the bones of the slaughtered cattle would be burnt therein. It was also a time when the veil between the two worlds, that of the living and the dead, was considered to be particularly thin, and the dead could come back and walk among the living. As with Mexicans today, this was not necessarily seen as all that morbid or lugubrious, but instead as a time to reconnect with loved ones who had passed on. Even so, certain rituals had to be followed very closely, or great harm could come to the living. The sídhe (pronounced “shee”), those remnants of old Celtic gods now called fairies, were also known to frequent the world of the living on Samhain. Some of these fairies were not necessarily thought of as all that benevolent, to say the least, and people would sometimes dress up in disguises in order to fool the sídhe into thinking that they were other than who they actually were. Herein, of course, we see the beginnings of the modern costumes worn on Halloween, which is celebrated the day before All Saints Day (Nov. 1st), and otherwise known as the “Eve of All Hallows,” or “Hallows’ Eve.”
Much of this mythologizing has become commingled in my mind of late with another event in my life which took place recently. I returned just this past week to New York in order to attend the 50th reunion of my high school graduating class. However, to refer to it in this way is actually something of a misnomer, because the group that gathered was much more than classmates who happened to graduate from high school at the same time. Instead, at age fourteen we had entered into what was then known in the Catholic parlance of the day as a Junior Novitiate, a kind of very strict religious boarding school meant as preparation for entrance into a religious order upon graduation. This was followed by the Novitiate year, when one takes the robe, as well as a religious name, and becomes a novice. This is a year of the strictest possible religious discipline. We kept silence almost all of the time, and spent the majority of our days either in private or communal prayer, or in manual labor. People still do not believe me when I tell them that I remember digging sumac roots out of the solid, frozen earth in the middle of a snow storm, simply because the Brother Director had told me to do so. This was known as “holy obedience.”
Very few of my classmates remained in the religious order I had joined. Some thirty of us showed up for the reunion, several with their wives, who must have thought us all very odd indeed, and I will admit that, before going, I had some degree of hesitation about attending. I was wrong to feel any hesitancy, however. In the end, I rediscovered a very fine group of men, many still Catholic, but some of whom (as I think of it anyway) have now outgrown any need for organized religion. But all of them have gone on to distinguished careers either in academia, or the sciences, psychology and counseling, the military (perhaps not so surprisingly), journalism, the arts, and in even politics. The timing of the reunion, so near to the old Celtic New Year of Samhain, or the Mexican Día de los Muertos was, I am sure, accidental. If you actually believe in accidents, that is. But it nonetheless made me think of the connection between these kinds of events.
First of all, there is a way in which all or most of us have, if you will, resurrected into a new life. We have gone on to create these new forms of ourselves out of defunct monastic ones and made lives which now fit our contemporary individual needs and our own requirement to grow and prosper in ways that corresponded to our talents. In the process, we learned what we needed to discover both about ourselves and the world around us, a world which, prior to our departure from “religious life” was a thing of mystery, full of anxiety and fear for most of us.
Having entered upon this life at age fourteen, it is obvious that six or seven or ten years later, when most of us had finally left the confines of monastic life, we knew almost nothing about “the world.” It was of course a place of wonder and delight for us, as much as it may have caused a degree of trepidation and consternation. All of the things that boys are supposed to learn during adolescence, how to date, how to work for a salary and make a bit of money, how to travel, to explore, to investigate the world, and especially how to rebel against outside authority and to create one’s own inner authority, all this was new to us. In that sense, I suppose it could be said that we were, of necessity, late bloomers. But bloom most of us did, each in his own unique way.
So, it may have turned out to be quite appropriate that our 50th reunion took place so close to these other events in mythic time that I have mentioned above, when one year is ending and a new one beginning, and when what has died is now celebrated as the beginnings of a new life to come. Mythology, in this sense, is still very much alive and applicable to our everyday lives. And maybe it wasn’t so bad after all to have been born on the Day of the Dead, if we think of that day as the ending of one phase, and the subsequent beginning (the resurrecting) of a new one.
In the end, I am glad that I went back to New York for the reunion. I did almost, but not quite, get caught in Hurricane Sandy on the way out, but even that can be viewed, if you have a mind to, in a symbolic way. I had visited my past, and I saw that it was still alive and vibrantly contributing to my present. And I had seen, too, that I had been able to escape the worst of the roiling, crashing, battering parts of that past, which can cause such damage and destruction in a person’s life. That, to my mind, is the real meaning of the Day of the Dead, a time when the past rises and contributes in a positive way to the lives we are actually living. It is a kind of Samhain of the saints, a new year filled with hope, and with a renewed eagerness to go on living, laughing, and creating – always, let us hope, creating.