Today, as you have no-doubt recognized, is Halloween.
Like just about every holiday we celebrate, Halloween can be followed back through well-understood recorded history into a murkier past. It’s often that nearly lost ancient history that tells us the most interesting and important things about the way we live in the world.
In present times, of course, Halloween has become a big American holiday where children go from house to house seeking handouts of sweets. Be careful – like some invading demon, this tradition is creeping onto these shores too!
Each year in the US, we would lay in a gigantic supply of candy and wait for the doorbell to ring and find adorable little ghosts, goblins, and super-heroes standing on the step.
Bigger children often take to the rather less adorable activity of committing pranks. In the US, you go out on the morning of Halloween hoping not to see your trees or roof covered with toilet paper, your house and car pelted with raw eggs or decorated with shaving foam, and smashed pumpkins festooning the streets and gardens.
But these traditions are not actually new at all – and – with the possible exception of the massive candy consumption – they are not even all that American. They date back at least to the middle ages, when it was the poor who could go begging from door to door on All Hallows Day, the 1st of November.
But Halloween goes much further back – to the ancient Celts – about two and a half thousand years ago. Their celebration at this time of year was called Samhain – a celebration that has been resurrected by modern-day Pagans.
Samhain is derived from words meaning summer’s end. This time marks the end of summer even today as we change our clocks back, ending the official British Summer Time.
At Samhain, the veil that separates the world of the living and the world of the dead was thought to become thin – so much so that beings from the other side could cross over into our world.
This was not a welcome prospect. This was not an opportunity to commune with the loved and longed-for lost ones. No, the concern was more that malicious spirits would enter the living world and cause misery here. So, Samhain called for ways of dealing with those intruding spirits.
One was to prepare gourds with glowing lights inside to frighten away any malevolent entities. And that tradition is with us still - it lives on in today’s jack-o-lanterns.
It also became customary for people to disguise themselves with costumes, masks, veils, or paint. In this way, they hoped to appease or frighten away the evil that might come their way.
Putting on a mask to appease or to repel something we fear? And maybe, in a different way, that will sound familiar too.
How many of us have done the same?
A friend from the US told me about living in one part of New York City and then moving to another. He said that he loved the dodgy area where he lived before. It was affordable. It was lively. But it wasn’t until he moved to a safer neighbourhood that he recognized what he had been doing for several years.
When he left his flat and walked toward the front door of the building, he would transform himself. Beginning inside, where he showed his authentic kindly, open self, he changed his facial expression to make it harder. He changed the way he held his body to look tougher. And he changed the way he walked to signal “I’m bad – don’t mess with me.” And then, after walking a few blocks away – where to a more upscale, safer area - he relaxed again. His face softened, his body relaxed, and he walked a walk that was true to him.
And there was the gay man who wore his straight mask almost every moment of every day so he could pass.
There are those among us who use injections, make-up, or surgery to create a mask of youth.
Who has not put on the mask of courage to give the appearance that we are not hesitant or weak. If you ever wear such a mask, you might want to bring the paper mask from your order of service to your face now.
How about a mask of false friendship?
A mask of false happiness?
A mask of false toughness?
A mask to pretend you don’t care about the hurts you have received?
A mask to falsely pretend that you are not in pain?
We have plenty of reason to put on these masks. Sometimes, our reasons are justified. Sometimes the world really is as cruel and unforgiving as we imagine it to be.
Sometimes our differences or failings are enough to render us unacceptable to many people. But these fears are far less valid than we imagine.
At Halloween, wearing a mask is fine. It’s fun for a day to pretend to be someone else.
But, as may Sarton puts it, we too often wear “other people’s faces.” We think those faces are better or more acceptable than our own.
And when we do that all the time, the mask twists and contorts who we are. We have to force our faces to conform – to force ourselves to fit the image of something we are not.
The sheer effort required is exhausting, but the greatest loss is the connection and communion that we never experience. The mask prevents us from ever knowing and being known more deeply. It prevents us from loving and being loved. Masks keep all of us from experiencing and enjoying the diversity among us.
And, of course, those masks are awfully tough to take off – especially when we’ve been wearing them for many years. We may even forget what our face looks like under there, we’ve been wearing a false face for so long.
Every once in a while though,we may catch a glimpse. It happens with a fleeting ecstatic feeling of freedom, and it may be mixed with a bit of fear or shame as we match our real face against what we think others expect.
But there is that brief thrill of freedom.
And that is part of why we are here in this community. This place should offer, more than almost any other place in our lives, the chance to lift the mask and see what happens.
Rachel Naomi Remen, the author and physician, writes about seeing the legendary pioneering psychiatrist, Carl Rogers. Rogers was speaking to a class of doctors and asked for a volunteer to act as his client. Rogers sat opposite his volunteer. As Nemen describes:
The session that followed was profound. Rogers conducted it without saying a single word, conveying to his client simply by the quality of his attention a total acceptance of him exactly as he was. The doctor began to talk... In the safe climate of Rogers's total acceptance, he began to shed his masks, hesitantly at first and then more and more easily. As each mask fell, Rogers welcomed the one behind it unconditionally, until finally we glimpsed the beauty of the doctor's naked face. I doubt that even he himself had ever seen it before. By that time many of our own faces were naked and some of us had tears in our eyes.
Our congregation can be a sanctuary – a safe place – where we can experiment with lifting our masks and being the people that we truly are. This can be – if we make it so - a place of complete acceptance, of unconditional love, a place where we can breathe freely and relax into our true selves.
I would like to invite you to write something on your paper masks – in a few words – identify a mask or masks you would wish to shed. Do not identify yourself in any way in your writing. When you are done writing, the masks will be collected, mixed, and redistributed so that each of us can read aloud something that another has written. Of course, you are not required either to write anything or, to pass in your mask, or to read.
Pause for writing and collection
Words are read out by members of the congregation
Our masks are not who we are, but who we think we should be – the faces that we think will make us acceptable. The truth is that we are who we are and that each of us carries within a divine spark that we must cultivate and allow to blaze forth.
You are good. You are loveable. Every person on earth has a worth and dignity within. It is our duty to help it grow, in ourselves and others. It is our duty to stand on no side but on the side of love – a love that makes it possible to be ourselves.
May it be so.