For most Americans, Halloween is a festival of candy, costumes, and scary stories. But Halloween has its roots partly in All Hallows’ Eve, the beginning of the feast of All Saints, a time to honor the memory of saints now departed. I never thought much about the connection between the two days, until a Halloween a few years ago.
I was a seminary student, doing my first unit of chaplaincy training at a large hospital in North Carolina. I had just finished helping some of the pediatric patients go trick-or-treating around the hospital when one of my colleagues asked if I would accompany her to make some visits in oncology. A bit nervous, I agreed. As we walked into the first room together, my heart sank. I greeted the familiar patient with, “Hey, Patsy.”
Patsy was the wife of my favorite seminary professor, and they both had become good friends of mine. When Patsy was diagnosed with stage-3 ovarian cancer, I felt angry and helpless. I prayed for her constantly, but I longed for something tangible I could do for her and her family. One day, I decided to bake a pie for Patsy. I sent it home with her husband, who reported back that she (and he) loved it. After that, I started baking different pies for her on a regular basis, and later, I began sending dinner along with the desserts.
By the time of this Halloween hospital visit, Patsy had been fighting cancer for a year and a half. She suffered a lot of loss, but she never lost her faith or her sense of humor. Now, standing by her bed, all the skills I had learned in her husband’s classes on pastoral care left me. I found myself chatting awkwardly with the visitors in her room, who were just as uncomfortable as I was. Patsy put up with it for a few minutes before interrupting, forthright as ever. “Why don’t you pray with me before you leave, Stacy?” I took the hint, and grasped her hand as I prayed a nervous but heartfelt prayer. When I finished, Patsy smiled and announced to the room, “Wow. She prays almost as well as she cooks.”
The following Halloween, I found myself remembering that visit, and most of all remembering Patsy, who had died in March. It seemed more than appropriate to spend All Saints’ Day honoring the memory of a saint I had the privilege to know personally. In the worst days of her illness, when all the prayers of Patsy’s loved ones seemed to go unheard, my own faith wavered, but Patsy’s never did. Her certainty of God’s love for her sustained her, and she was quick to remind the rest of us how much God loved us, too. Her husband was a great teacher, but I learned just as much from “Saint Patsy.”
Dear God, thank you for the saints who have gone before us. From the ancient mothers and fathers of the faith, to those who have only recently left this world, they have taught us so much. Help us to honor them by following their example today, so that our own lives might have something to teach those who will follow us. Comfort us when we feel the absence of those saints who have passed through our own lives, and help us to cherish those who are still with us. Amen.-- Chaplain Stacy N. Sergent