Last week was Halloween.
As anyone familiar with my work knows by now, my family was dragged into the Charismatic Renewal for a few agonizing years when I was in grammar school. The religious sister who was my mother’s manipulative “spiritual director” was obsessed with the Satanic Panic. She taught us that everything was dangerous and an occasion for demonic possession, and we had to be very careful to be safe.
When I was about ten, and the Charismatic superstitions were reaching their apex, my mother explained to me with perfect earnestness that jack-o-lanterns could get us possessed by demons. She had heard from another woman in the Charismatic Community that jack-o-lanterns attracted witches. The woman had claimed that a pack of witches had actually shown up at her door at Halloween, and pointed to her Jack-o-lantern, and told her that the jack-o-lantern was a sign that they were welcome in her house. And we knew that witches were pure evil, “crazy, insane, wack-o women who worship the devil” as my mother had put it before. The mere presence of witches could get us all possessed or stricken with “demonic oppression.” We had to be extremely careful who we associated with, for fear that we’d run into a witch. As one step toward this effort, we had to stop carving jack-o-lanterns.
This is complete gibberish, of course. Jack-o-lanterns are an Irish Christian invention, originally made from turnips. They were carved to repel evil spirits, not attract them. And besides, most animist religions my mother would call “witchcraft” don’t believe in a devil anyway. But that didn’t matter. We weren’t taking any chances. We didn’t carve jack-o-lanterns.
My whole life was like that, for years.
Everything was something to be afraid of. Everything was an occasion for demonic oppression.
Just after turning eleven, I had a breakdown: severe OCD with a strong spiritual bent. At first this itself was treated as a demonic oppression and I got prayed over, but eventually I went to a psychiatrist. My mother couldn’t imagine how it happened. My PCOS, which can cause anxiety, wouldn’t be diagnosed for a long time yet, and she couldn’t face the fact that the Charismatic Renewal could be bad for your mental health. The Charismatic Renewal was the only thing saving us from the devil. It had to be a good thing.
It’s taken so many years to deconstruct all that I learned.
My daughter is now ten. She has been raised very differently than I was. We still practice Catholicism, but I don’t teach her the nonsense and lies from the Charismatic Renewal and the Satanic Panic. She carves Jack-o-lanterns and likes to go trick-or-treating. We know all kinds of different people: traditional and “liberal” Catholics, independent Catholics, Protestants, pagans, people of no faith at all. When questions come up about the differences in our beliefs, I try to explain respectfully. Religion doesn’t spark fear in her. She is bored in church, and doesn’t understand why I sometimes have panic attacks and have to excuse myself to breathe in the foyer. We’ve been going to a friendly church across the river in West Virginia, because they project the words to the prayers on the wall beside the crucifix, and it helps her pray along. Her first Holy Communion was put off due to our not having a car to get to the mandatory parent meetings at first, and then due to the pandemic, but hopefully it will happen sometime this year.
And I still have fear about all of this: fear that I will go to hell for not being frightened or cautious enough. Fear that I will go to hell for not instilling that fear in Rosie. Fear that God will be angry with me for throwing away the nonsense of the past and seeking Him in the real world I know, instead of in my family’s superstitions. But I think what I’m doing is better than what was done to me. We all mess up our children in different ways. This way seems like less of a mess.
Last week, we went to Mass on Sunday night, Halloween. Rosie had already been trick-or-treating on Beggars’ Night, a few nights earlier. She’d also gone to a fall harvest festival twice, to play in the barn and enjoy the spooky hayride. She’d gone to a “trunk or treat” and a church harvest party during the week as well. Halloween isn’t so much a night for her, as a whole season of sweets and tacky decorations.
At church they had a short, unusual prayer service for the souls in Purgatory after the homily and before the general intercessions, with people shuffling forward to place an incense cube in a flat metal plate. I watched the smoke rising to curl in the ceiling, and prayed.
“Fear the LORD, your God,
and keep, throughout the days of your lives,
all his statutes and commandments which I enjoin on you,
and thus have long life.”
That was the opening of the first reading, and that was what I pondered as the incense rose up to the ceiling. I meditated for the rest of Mass, on the fear of the Lord.
The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.
The fear of the Lord is a good thing.
The fear of the Lord is not the fear of things that go bump in the night. The fear of the Lord is a different kind of fear.
The fear of the Lord is the heart-pounding excitement before jumping off the high dive. The fear of the Lord is the jitters before running a marathon or dancing on a stage before a live audience. The fear of the Lord is looking up at a steep mountain trail, and realizing that hiking that trail will take every ounce of your strength, but deciding to do it anyway because it will be so beautiful. The fear of the Lord is looking into the eyes of the person you love the most, and seeing them love you back, and reveling in that love, and saying “I would do anything in the world, anything at all, except hurt you.”
The fear of the Lord is the excitement that stems from the most passionate Love, and drives us to love, and draws us up in impossible love. In perfect love, we are powerful and bold. In perfect love, we would do anything, anything in the world, except hurt our beloved. Perfect Love drives out all other fear. Perfect love dives into the pool, and runs the race, and dances for joy, and hikes the trail until the end.
When you are filled with perfect fear, you will have the courage to do anything, anything at all, except hurt the people you love. And the people you love will be everybody, because the Lord loves us all. And nothing else will matter very much, least of all the devil.
The fear of the Lord drives out the fear of the things that go bump in the night.
The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.
The beginning of Wisdom is the end of fear.
It was dark when we got out of Mass. We drove home quietly, admiring the Halloween decorations on porches and in store fronts.
“You went trick-or-treating a few days ago, but this is the real Halloween,” I told Rose. “Many cultures have a celebration this time of year where they think of the dead, because it’s late fall and so many things look like they’re dying. We prayed for the dead in church because the day after tomorrow is All Souls’ Day, when we think about all the people who have died and pray for them. For our Celtic ancestors this was a festival called Samhain. Many people still celebrate Samhain. It’s a big thing in pagan religions. Remember Holly, my friend we met up with in Columbus? You met her and her partner and played with her chickens? Holly is a witch. She celebrates Samhain. I hope we get to see her again at Christmas.”
And I wasn’t afraid to say that.
I wasn’t afraid of anything at all, just then.
Image via Pixabay
Mary Pezzulo is the author of Meditations on the Way of the Cross and Stumbling into Grace: How We Meet God in Tiny Works of Mercy.
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