Monday, November 1, 2010

Allerheiligen and Allerseelen


In Catholic tradition the somber month of November begins with two holidays of remembrance, All Saints’ Day today and All Souls’ Day tomorrow. For me these holidays will always be Allerheiligen and Allerseelen, the names in German meaning exactly the same as their English equivalents, but with the word “day” understood rather than spoken—in German because the fortunes of war deposited my nuclear family in west-central Bavaria in 1945, in the town of Tirschenreuth. We lived there for several years in a cultural setting that in all ways except the minor (such as automobiles and electric light) might as well have been medieval. This was—perhaps even remains—a devoutly Catholic region where the religious life, the celebration of its holidays, indeed the whole rhythm of life was directly and powerfully governed by the liturgical calendar. If you rendered All Saints’ Day into ordinary, shall I call it secular, German, it would be Der Tag Aller Heiligen. Linguistically obsessed long before I knew it, the conjunction of all and saints and then of all and souls struck me as interesting and memorable later on after I’d mastered the language. And these words, therefore, have a strange reverberation in my memories.

When I mentioned All Saints’ Day Saturday by way of explaining the “hallowed eve” that comes before this feast, I dated its establishment to the thirteenth century—another rather subjective gesture. The feast’s origins, of course, go way, way back in time. But “thirteen” pleases and always has—and one could argue that All Saints’ Day reached its full definition in the reign of Pope Urban IV (1261-64). This pope, whose father was a shoemaker and hence came from the people rather than from the nobility, defined this day to be a celebration not only of recognized and canonized saints but also of those individuals who died without these public acts but had achieved sainthood in the eyes of God. Nice touch, that, I think. With that All Saints’ reaches a kind of completion.

This feast, followed by All Souls’, reminds me that the remembering and honoring the ancestors is something deeply embedded in traditional culture, not simply in the Chinese. It pleases me that in our culture this remembrance reflects a kind of hierarchical structure. First we remember the highest among us, then all the rest of us, the departed who, together, somewhere invisibly, represent the Church Triumphant.

The image shown is by Fra Angelico and called Christ Glorified in the Court of Heaven. It dates to 1428 or a little later. I have it from the German language Wikipedia here.

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