TONIGHT is Halloween. Instead, let’s celebrate All Saints Day tomorrow. The Church has observed All Saints for 1,600 years. A saint is a holy person, but the word holy has nothing to do with someone who goes round with a soppy look on his face and can’t stop talking about altar frontals and frilly cottas. The word holy originally was meant to refer to otherness, strangeness. Think of Moses alone in the desert before the burning bush, the voice of God saying: ‘Take off thy shoes from off thy feet, for the ground whereon thou standest is holy ground.’There is something fearful about holiness, as when Jacob senses the presence of God in the desert and cries out, ‘How dreadful is this place!’
Whatever else the saints are, they are not normal, run-of-the-mill members of the bourgeoisie. There’s not one of them who would go within a mile of Songs of Praise or the twee wokery of Countryfile. Think of St Paul. How strange of him to devote his life to killing Christians, then suddenly to see the light on the road to Damascus and spend the rest of his life making Christians. Or Augustine, living on raw vegetables and promiscuity for years while praying: ‘Lord, make me chaste and continent – but not just yet.’ Then he met God in a garden and became the most inspired theologian of the first Christian centuries.
How about what St Vitus inspired? On his Feast Day, devotees in the 17th century used to dance all night in a most abandoned fashion at two chapels in Ulm and Ravensburg. Vitus became the patron saint of dancers and comedians. Then there was St Perpetua who, with her companions, had many a bizarre adventure until finally she was put to the sword after being tossed by an infuriated cow. Even some of the greatest spiritual teachers offered some weird holy cures fit to rival Auntie Maggie’s Remedy. The 13th century St Albertus Magnus said: ‘If an ounce of elephant bone is drunk with ten ounces of wild mountain mint from something which a leper has first touched, it is an excellent cure for a headache.’
But you can’t get the elephants, you know!
My favourite holy eccentric is St Simeon Stylites, who lived all by himself on lentils in a cave near the Dead Sea for 29 years. He left his cave one day and made for the town of Emesa in Syria. There he found a dead dog on a dung heap. He picked it up, tied its leg to a rope around his waist and went through the streets dragging the creature behind him. He attached himself to the local church and during the services he threw nuts at the clergy and blew out the candles. This from a saint, mind you – not just a disaffected member of the General Synod. Simeon developed a theatrical limp. In the baths, he ran naked into the women’s section. On solemn fasting days he feasted riotously, consuming vast amounts of beans – with deliberate and entirely predictable results.
St Simeon was of the type known as the Holy Fool and there was method in his madness. His behaviour was an acted sermon, an indictment of the world’s false and foolish standards to show, as St Paul said, that ‘God chooses the foolish things of this world to shame those who think themselves wise’. The bizarre behaviour of the Holy Fool does good by making us think about our own behaviour. Who is madder in King Lear – the Fool or Lear himself? Or think of the sad clown Pagliacci. Or any clown. There is something strange and unsettling about a clown: we feel uneasy even as we laugh at him.
Consider how comedians often get nearest to the truth; how we say, ‘I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.’ Many of the best comedians live desperate and anguished lives off stage. We are helped by these strange people because their jokiness, their pretended shallowness both conceals and reveals depths. The only useful psychiatrist I ever came across would tell his patient to sit down. Then he, the psychiatrist, would start to sing nonsense songs or cluck loudly and keep on asking, ‘Why did the chicken cross the road?’ Then he would ask his patient, ‘What do you think’s wrong with me?’ In so many cases, this was the beginning of a cure simply because the completely comical reversal of roles provided the key by which the patient could begin to unlock his own imprisoned mind.
One Halloween when I was a priest in the City, the weather turned cold and it was dark. To go to the Lighting-Up Dinner at the Guildhall, I put on my priest’s cloak and unwittingly made some girls scream in Postman’s Park. Very disturbing: when people see a cloak why should they think Dracula before parish priest? This is worryingly typical of the modern world: instead of celebrating All Saints, it celebrates All Hallows’ E’en – the night of the demons and witches. At this time of the year, no trendy modern parent would dare neglect to provide son or daughter with the witch’s hat and the candle-stuffed pumpkin.
But how many parents would tell their children about the only thing Halloween is good for? It is good only because it foreshadows All Saints. Arrogant witches and hubristic wizards are useful only insofar as they remind us of their opposite: the holy men and women who are the saints – lights of the world in their several generations. It is a decadent and faithless civilisation and culture which finds the dark more attractive than the light; evil more interesting than good.
And what of us? We are all saints with a small ‘s’. We cannot live up to the intensity of devotion of the great Saints with a large ‘S’. But for God’s sake don’t strive to be holy: you will only end up being holier than thou. The saints are the SAS in God’s armies of light, and the rest of us are only the poor bloody infantry. The image of God – a tiny pinprick of light in most of us – blazes like the sun in the face of a saint.
There was once a village in Poland where the people survived a plague that had ravaged the surrounding country. The village elders were grateful they had been saved and they ascribed their good fortune to the great piety of a hermit who lived in a cave on the edge of the village. They went to thank him but he replied: ‘I haven’t saved you from the plague. God saved you because he was pleased with the old woman at the end of the village street who lights her oven every morning and lets her neighbours use it.’
This is what we can all do: small acts of kindness; modest attempts to make my neighbour the centre of my universe and not myself. It was a Saint who said, ‘Don’t worry about your sins. Try to do a little good and your sins will lose their hold over you.’
And when we do good, it must be a local, specific and personal good. No one can go about doing good in general – despite what some progressive politicians think. As William Blake said: ‘He who would do good to another must do it in minute particulars; General good is the plea of the scoundrel, hypocrite and flatterer.’
My parsonage was in Giltspur Street EC1 in a house with Charles Lamb’s statue on the outside wall. Lamb once declared to Coleridge what gave him most pleasure: ‘To do good by stealth, and have it found out by accident.’ When you’re in the mood to berate yourself because you don’t think you’re as good as you should be, just remember what Mr Eliot said: ‘Ours is only the trying: the rest is not our business.’