All Saints' Day
It was All Saints’ day, and not at all the time for new seeds to grow in the garden.
The rain dropped gently on the ruins, running down the old cathedral wall, soaking the many coloured branches, aiding them on their journey from crisp, crackly autumn leaves to the soggy brown mulch that would help the grass spring green again next year. This is how it is in the world: things grow, they bloom, and they die, and in their dying, they help a new thing grow. It is a beautiful thing, they growing and blooming, the life-giving death. But death is woven into the whole thing, inextricable, a permanent and unwelcome guest.
Trees were not the only thing planted there.
People were planted there too.
Once upon a time, this was one of the greatest cathedrals in Europe. But bickering bishops and impatient reformers conspired to smashed its windows, and then, undecided in their fervour, they left it to decay with the years. Eventually, the town started to use the cathedral stones to build cottages in town. Just like the trees shed their leaves and fertilise the ground where new life will grow up, the cathedral shed its stones so that fishermen and bakers and scholars could be warm in the winter. And then, when the cathedral had shed nearly all its stones, they began to use it as a graveyard. In the place where the sanctuary used to be, where worshippers used to walk, they were now buried.
I had often thought that the stones markers looked like the little tabs in a spring garden that say “carrots” or “lettuce,” proclaiming, rather remarkably, that from the ash black soil, tender life will soon shoot up. Every year it is remarkable. Seeds are locked in their little death chambers, deep in the cold ground, but come Eastertide, they peek out of the earth, tender and small, and very, very alive.
But these markers are not for carrots, they are for people.
Hamish. Elspeth. Alasdair. And a thousand other Scottish names, a garden variety! Some of the names had begun to fade, washed away by a thousand autumn rains. It’s odd, really. Usually, when things in nature die, they feed the earth and new life springs up in its stead. It’s this way with the autumn leaves, the spring seeds, even the great stone cathedral gave new life with its dying. But humans keep dying, being planted in the earth, and staying there. The world is full of graveyards full of people! Every year, I’d watched the rector plant new people in the cathedral, and mark their graves, like carrots, in hopes that next year they might emerge. But each year, they stayed stubbornly planted. Stubbornly dead. Unwilling to yield new life from their own death.
And so, it seemed, it would be for ten thousand more.
But that is why I’m writing to you. In the blink of an eye, it all changed.
It was All Saints Day. I walked into the side gate at the ruins, in the back. A dense fog hung over the town that morning, but all at once, burst of warm, fragrant air spread over cathedral grounds. The grass quivered under its touch, and as it quivered, the whole earth seemed to rattle. The grass was green, but from some unknown centre, a greater vividness began to spread over the earth, the took on a deeper more pungent green, as though it had actually been grey all along.
For a moment, I had forgotten to breathe, but as the rattling earth began to shake more violently, I couldn’t help but shout in fear. Golden light streamed from the cracks in the cathedral wall. The unsettled earth had torn the green grass, and the rich brown earth lay in clumps around the graves. Then, the most frightening thing of all began to happen.
From the unsettled earth, bright white bones began to emerge. Hands, heads, legs, spines, began to assemble themselves and to stand, clumps of earth falling through the empty frames of the skeletons as they began to stand at their full height. There were tall skeletons, short skeletons, sturdy ones and frail, adults and children. I stood, terrified, could they see me?
Again, a warm breath, cast itself over the ruins, tossing my hair into my eyes. When I cleared it away, what I saw caught the scream in my throat, paralysed with terror and wonder.
Where skeletons once stood, I began to see human, fleshly bodies. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a terrible light. There, a skeleton stood, almost patiently, as ribbons of light twirled around it, carefully spinning layers of flesh and skin back onto its body. In the course of a few moments, the skeleton was a discernible human figure, a stout young man with dark curly hair, and a long noble nose. Was he naked or clothed? I could not tell. He gazed down at his hands, turning them back and forth from their palms. As he did so, a great delight spread across his face. He began to run, to shout with joy.
I looked about me. Nearly all the skeletons had been reclothed in skin, and waves of pleasure seemed to sweep over the graveyard, as the skeletons realised they were no longer skeletons. They greeted each other with laughter and embraces. Amongst all this hilarity, I saw a tall, lean woman with cascades of curly red hair, awaken and look calmly about her, a furrow on her brow. She looked down and her eyes widened. Beside her a small skeleton was being wrapped about with the golden light. Out of the blinding glow, a child, with wild red hair like her own emerged. He looked at her and laughed, reaching out his arms to her. Relief from a long spent grief spread across her face as she scooped him into her arms and held him tightly. In their embrace, they seemed to both grow grow and shrink. When they finished embracing, they were the same size. She had grown somewhat younger, and he somewhat older. They looked to one another, joined hands and set out, it seemed, to find someone else.
All around me I saw such scenes of reunion and transformation. Sisters and brothers, husbands and wives, a whole family with the same chestnut wavy hair. They all came to life, embraced, and laughed. They all seemed to be the same age. They were neither young nor old, but they were certainly not middle aged. They seemed to be the age toward which youth strives, and which old age remembers as if it was a dream. And when they greeted each other, they began to sing as if it was the most natural thing to do. A cacophony of melodies echoed through the graveyard, but somehow they were all in tune. They bounced off the walls of the cathedral, and as my eyes followed the sound, I realised that I had nearly missed another miracle: the resurrection of the cathedral.
In their midst, and yet towering over them, there was a woman made of the stones of the cathedral. She was sleepy, and the strands of her hair, made of moss and grass and tree branches hung down past her waist. As she lifted her hands to rub her sleepy eyes, pigeons flew in every direction, off to tell the good news: the Cathedral is finally awake!
And she was! Her eyes glistened a transparent blue, and as she surveyed the merry surroundings, she began to laugh. Her whole stoney body shook with delight, pebbles and stones came tumbling off her walled body, but posed no danger to anyone. Her throaty joy echoed through the town, a glorious crescendo to the already magnificent chorus of voices. She laughed until she cried, and her tears, turning to diamonds and sapphires and rubies as they streamed down her face, fell unceremoniously on the ground around her. She shook her mighty head. Strand by strand, the grass fell from her hair, revealing streams of radiant light that floated in the air as though she were suspended in water. The Cathedral spoke:
“All my friends are awake! You known, you unknown saints!”
Her voice washed over the cathedral grounds like a power wave. All the souls turned toward her and cheered.
“Let us go to see the King! For it is my wedding day.”
She turned away from them, toward the sea and the east. As she did, her gown of light, laced with beams of radiant colours spread over the graveyard. Without instruction, the spirits climbed upon her train, helping each other up and singing as they did. The Cathedral raised her arms to greet the morning, as the sun crested the sea’s horizon. Had it been night all along? How had I not noticed?
With all the spirits aboard, the cathedral began to walk. Over the cliff, onto the beach, and finally onto the waves of the North Sea. She glided on the waves toward the sun, walking on the water as lightly as a feather. The saints, still riding on her train, were bent on their knees staring into the waves with amazement and delight. They began to reach their arms into the lapping water, wet up to their shoulders. All at once, men emerged from the waves, and some women too. Sailors and seafarers who had drowned. The were pulled up on the cathedral’s trail, embraced, and met with laughter and song. Some ran to find their loved ones, some simply took in the glory of all the saints and the cathedral, and knelt to pray with thanksgiving.
They began to pass out of my sight, and into the sun.
Suddenly, I was taken with a desperate sadness. I longed to be with them! Had they gone where I could not go? I fell to my knees, my face to the ground, and prayed:
“Oh, Lord! I want to join their company! To worship you forever!”
When I raised my eyes, all was as it had been.
The Cathedral was still there, it’s stones grey and wet with rain. The sun was setting. The graves untouched, patient, un-sprouted. But, it had all happened, I knew it to be true. Was I left behind? Was it still to come? Did I, too, need to be planted before I could rise?
I heard the bells of All Saints on North Castle Street. I took myself to church, to pray that I might be ready when that Holy Day came, that with the Saints and with the Church, I might rise and run and worship forever in God’s glory.
O ALMIGHTY God, who hast knit together thine elect in one communion and fellowship, in the mystical body of thy Son Christ our Lord: Grant us grace so to follow thy blessed Saints in all virtuous and godly living, that we may come to those unspeakable joys, which thou hast prepared for them that unfeignedly love thee; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen