Halloween has always been a tricky day for conservative Protestants. It has long been seen as a celebration of the dark—joking about bloody gore, the living dead. But this year, death and darkness doesn’t seem quite so amusing. October 31 comes as more than 1.1 million people around the world have died of COVID-19. Nearly 20 percent of those deaths have occured in the US, a country where COVID-19 cases are once again on the rise.
As parents are making last minute decisions about what to do about trick or treating, as churches cancel their harvest festivals and trunk or treat events, and parties are moved to zoom and even schools forego their annual costume parades, we wondered: Is this weird Halloween in a very weird year the opportunity for better Christian thinking and discipleship? Can rethinking this season where we oddly engage death and darkness help us deal with death and darkness the rest of this covid season, and the rest of our lives? If so, where do we look? Back to Halloween’s connections to All Saint’s Day? Or to other ways that the church has formed its spiritual disciplines around death?
CT columnist, a priest in the Anglican Church in North America, and author of the forthcoming book, Prayer in the Night: For Those Who Work, or Watch, or Weep, Tish Harrison Warren joined global media producer Morgan Lee and editorial director Ted Olsen to discuss what our celebrations of Halloween say about our beliefs about death, how we might confront our own darkness, and how prayer provides a place for us to wrestle with the night.
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The transcript is edited by Bunmi Ishola
Highlights from Quick to Listen: Episode #236
What would you say that our celebrations of Halloween say about our culture’s beliefs about death and how we understand it?
Tish Warren: That’s an interesting thing to think about Halloween tied to our culture’s beliefs about death. Because typically it’s silly, right? It sort of trivializes darkness in some ways and the portrayals of death are kind of funny or silly.
And actually, this is part of historic Halloween. Part of the idea of people dressing up like goblins and that sort of thing is that it was to mock the devil, to mock evil, to basically say “you have no power over us.” Some folks would say historically it wasn’t really about glorifying darkness as much as mocking the powers, showing them that they’re not all that powerful. So I don’t think Halloween is a true reckoning with death. I think it sort of makes light of it.
What’s interesting to think about with Halloween though is the supernatural. I read somewhere recently that more people believe in demons than angels. I’m not sure why that is, but even that is made kind of light and silly on Halloween.
There is a connection between the supernatural and death and associating it with nighttime, which your book gets into a little it. What do you see as the connection between nighttime, principalities and powers, and demonic oppression?
Tish Warren: The beginning quote to the book talks about how nighttime is always this symbol of lostness. And I also quote a poem that says there’s this primitive sense in us that knows good from evil and that at nighttime, in the darkness of empty rooms, there’s this vulnerability that we feel.
So the book talks about the night as a daily experience of human vulnerability. Vulnerability, not in the sense of emotional exposure, but in the sense that we can be wounded. Which is what vulnerable literally means—wounded in body and mind and soul and spirit. So it’s this sense of our smallness. I think all of us experienced some of that at night, our own vulnerability. And the more you get away from light, the deeper that you feel that.
And, of course, that’s with death, but it’s also with sleep. There’s been so much literature about sleep as a way of experiencing a little taste of death every night. There’s a chapter in the book is framed around a prayer with the phrase “give your angels charge over those who sleep.” And I talk about how the vulnerability that we feel is not just physical vulnerability, it’s to some extent supernatural, it’s metaphysical. There is some part of us that sits at night and feels like we’re in this vast universe, that anything is possible.
And I mention in there that every single human civilization that is on earth has some kind of spirit story at night—some kind of ghost story or goblin story or spirit story. There’s something about humans that when we get into darkness, there’s this wondering about if we are alone. Like what else is in the universe? It’s really interesting to me that across all human societies we see this.
As you were writing your book, how did the larger events of this year, like the pandemic, affect your thought process?
Tish Warren: So I wrote this book almost entirely before COVID hit. Books take a long time to write, and so I started writing this book two years ago and had written pretty much the completed draft turned in November of 2019.
And then I got it back in January and then turned in the edits around February/March, which the shutdown here happened in March. So on the very first page, I have a note to the reader that says I don’t talk about COVID in this. And it was a huge decision that the publisher and I had to wrestle through. Like, do I rewrite it?
Because it’s dealing with human vulnerability. I have an entire chapter on sickness. I have an entire chapter on grief and weeping, and the way our culture grieves. And there’s so much about vulnerability and anxiety and so much about death and weariness. And it’s so 2020.
We thought hard about if I should change it, but this was in March. And I know that doesn’t seem like so long ago, but in March we had no idea what COVID would hold. And I just felt like anything I could add to the conversation would then be obsolete by the time it comes out in January. That any reader will have more wisdom about COVID-19 in January than I had in March right as the very, very first weeks that it hit.
I didn’t write it with that in mind, but also, I hope that people continue to read the book for decades and decades after COVID-19. It’s a long-term book, not a short-term project. But it’s a little uncanny and it’s weird that I wrote this book and how some of the things resonate.
There’s a part about prayer and the human work that we do to bring justice and wholeness to the world. And how sometimes people put that against prayer as if those are opposed to one another. And I have this line about hand-washing and modern sewage and how stuff like that’s cut down on death—it’s a whole part of the book, there’s this line that says something like, maybe there’s not such a huge space between the act of washing our hands and raising our hands and prayer. Like maybe the goodness that comes and the health that comes from one is not so far from the goodness and the health that comes from another.
And I wrote that in like 2018, which is weird because hand-washing itself has become such a public conversation. So it’s kind of weird, but it’s more that my book has changed the way that I think about COVID-19 than COVID-19 changed the book.
Your book is hooked around the ancient office of Compline, which is kind of the final prayer service of the day within the Anglican church. For our listeners who may not be as familiar, can you go over the specific prayer that was your inspiration?
Tish Warren: So I pull from other parts of the prayer service and night prayers, but the prayer that it’s framed around is, “Keep watch, dear Lord, with those who work, or watch, or weep this night, and give your angels charge over those who sleep. Tend the sick, Lord Christ; give rest to the weary, bless the dying, soothe the suffering, pity the afflicted, shield the joyous; and all for your love’s sake. Amen.”
There’s been a lot of conversation about the importance of daily liturgy—you wrote a whole book about it. How does it shape us to have a prayer that we’re saying every night, especially as we’re laying down, that that hits these particular notes? What does this particular prayer do in our relationship with God as we pray it every day?
Tish Warren: So part of the reason that I wrote this book was because I really struggled with night. Nighttime, vulnerability, and everything we’re talking about on this podcast is stuff that’s hard for me.
So the book came out of a particular time in my life in 2017, when we moved across the country and a week later, my father passed away suddenly during the night. And then the next month I had a miscarriage and a pretty traumatic medical experience because of that. And then, I ended up getting pregnant again and had a really hard pregnancy and was on bed rest for a while, and then we lost our son in the second trimester.
So all that to say, at the end of that six- to nine-month period, nights had always been hard, but they were really hard then. It just felt like the darkness amplified—the grief, the anxiety, the doubt, the questions I had about God. I could kind of keep myself occupied during the day and then nighttime hit. I would cry or I’d be anxious. So I would just habitually go to like lots of Netflix, lots and lots of surfing the internet. I would just fill nights as a way of kind of numbing, not dealing with the vulnerability that I felt.
So going to Compline, for me, was a way to make space. To really enter into and lean into the vulnerability that was very real but that I was avoiding. I think that at night, the darkness we feel, the sense of supernatural vulnerability and physical vulnerability, mortality—all of that isn’t an accident. Those are the things we’re meant to live into because those are real. That’s what it means to be human, that we are creatures and we are made of dust. The universe is vast, and we are small.
And so I needed comfort. I needed some assurance of God’s love, of God’s presence, and God’s reality in the middle of all that. But it needed to not be shiny and happy. Like it needed to not be “everything’s chipper in the world.” And I think that there can be parts of evangelicalism that are just over-positive. They’re over-triumphalist and they’re over-shiny and resistant to vulnerability. And I needed a comfort that looks squarely at death.
And Compline is full of death. Throughout it, we just constantly come back to this theme of death and dying and vulnerability. You pray, “awake, may we watch with Christ and asleep may we rest in peace.” And you just pray that several times. “Asleep, may we rest in peace.” I mean, rest in peace. RIP. It’s what we say when people die. So it’s all throughout.
And I think this prayer, in particular, names vulnerability in really specific ways. We don’t just say, ”God be with those who are weak.” Like we mention the weary, the sick, the dying, the afflicted, the suffering, and the joyous. We talk about angels. There are these very specific things that we sit in front and name, and doing that has changed my perspective on those things.
The book is this sort of large exploration of a practical theodicy. How can we hold on to the love of God and be absolutely honest about the brokenness and darkness of the world at the same time? And I feel like the words of that prayer is what has let me enter into that more deeply.
We also name each of these vulnerable human states, and in doing so we remember those that we know that are sick and that are dying. We remember those we don’t know that are also sick or dying or suffering. But I’ve also come to see myself in all of those. There will be a time when all of those things apply to me.
What have you observed about how Christians are grappling with death in 2020 that seems unique from previous years?
Tish Warren: Death is so widespread right now. Every day we look at the statistics of COVID. But they’re mind-boggling—200,000 people—that I think we drown it out and honestly, I’m actually concerned that it hasn’t changed the way we view death enough.
I mean, what strikes me is that we, as a country and as a world, are facing this global catastrophe, this pandemic, and there hasn’t been a lot of collective mourning. Michael Wear and I wrote a piece together about how odd it is that in this time where way more people have died than 9/11—and I remember 9/11 and just such a huge time of national morning—and we haven’t seen the same here.
It ended up that the piece didn’t get published, but I think Americans are resistant to mourning, we’re resistant to grief—not all Americans, but as a culture, many of us are. And we’re kind of conditioned to keep going, keep moving forward, don’t make time for grief.
I talk about this in the book. Some of the very, very first English words written in America are from Mary Allerton, a poet who sailed over on the Mayflower. And she had a stillborn child and she wrote a poem afterward and it said, “There is no time for grief. There is no time. There’s only time for labor and the cold.” And this idea of we have to keep going, we have to keep working, we have to keep building, is just like part of our national identity.
But there’s been moments of crisis, like 9/11, where I think that that’s been interrupted and what’s been concerning to me with COVID is that it hasn’t been that. There hasn’t been a lot of time of collective grief because it’s been so politicized. And because it’s been politicized, it’s gone really to outrage. So we’ve reacted in anger, which is very legitimate, but underneath anger is always fear or grief and we’re not going deeper. We’re not having as a larger society those deeper conversations about grief.
Whatever side you’re on, the fact is that nearly 250,000 people have died and that’s something worth grieving. This is a common place where we can come together in our humanity and I don’t see that happening.
You’re a mom and a priest, and you’ve been a campus minister, how have you engaged your kids and others you minister to with death? And what has been their responses?
Tish Warren: So our kids have been somewhat shielded from the scope of it. They know a lot of people have died, but I don’t think they don’t follow the statistics and I don’t think they could even conceive the hundreds of thousands of people.
But I feel like young adults are eager to have a space that acknowledges human weakness and mortality in the church. They’re drawn to things like Ash Wednesday and the contemplative reality of our mortality, I think because we were so connected to technology that in ways it’s difficult to remember how to be human. There’s sort of a limitlessness in our technology that is that we know isn’t real.
And so I have found that things like embodied liturgy, things like silence and contemplation, things like remembrance and mortality on Ash Wednesday, but also things like Jesus’s creatureliness through Lent and Holy Week, and All Saints Day, which is this idea that like we are worshiping and learning with all of these people that are dead—younger people tend to be drawn to that because there’s a dehumanization that comes in our technological society, that embracing of limits is re-humanization. People are yearning for re-humanization.
in terms of my kids, we do these “Would You Rather?” questions on the weekend and one was, would you rather have infinite money or always be happy? And both of my 10- and 7-year-old were like, “that’d be horrible to be happy all the time. We need sadness.” They have a sense that there needs to be a space for dealing with mortality and grief. And they know these prayers and pray these prayers.
I think kids know things are not right in the world and can actually enter into that in ways that we don’t give them credit for.
As we close this conversation, what might you say to Christians who are feeling a strong sense of darkness right now, or who might be seeing that in other people?
Tish Warren: I would say to them that they are right to feel a strong sense of darkness right now. I think that the world is dark now, that it feels wrong because it is wrong. We were not meant to live in a world with a global pandemic and with this level of injustice and brokenness and darkness. So don’t deny the reality of what you’re feeling.
I’ll talk about some practices in the book that kind of help us walk through and enter into that vulnerability. And I look at weeping and watching and working.
And so weeping is learning how to lament, learning to make time for grief—which is counter-cultural, but there are great Christian resources on lament. The Psalms are actually the biggest gift in this. But also, we have to fully admit the brokenness of the world. There’s there is nothing incompatible with the Christian life and just being very, very honest, about how things can hurt like hell here on earth. And so, learning to walk in grief, and not just alone but grieve with others, with the church.
But then we don’t just grieve, we watch. We watch for the ways God’s at work. We watch for light in the darkness. For me, in 2017, I craved beauty and silence. Silent prayer became very important to me to tune in to paying attention to the world around me, but also, I needed to see goodness. I needed to see that God was still at work in the world.
I needed to see there was still beauty. I needed to see there was laughter and joy and levity. So weep—don’t deny that—but I think that we also keep our eyes peeled for light in the darkness.
But also watch for the glory to come. We need Jesus to set things right, to make all things new. The darkness we feel is a longing that’s right. It is right that we long for Jesus to set all things new. But we watch for that. We need to wait in anticipation for things to be set right, and let ourselves long.
And then work. Work is doing the things that we can do to comfort the afflicted, to help the suffering. And some of that could be things like political change, but I mean really small things too. Like what can you do to bring beauty to those right around you, to bring wholeness and healing around you? If you’re a doctor, that’s going to look different than if you’re a writer for CT or you’re a financial advisor or a stay-at-home mom, but what can we do to be part of the light in the darkness?
I think we have to hold all those together. Cause if just go to work that doesn’t honor the real sense of grief and mourning that you have. And if it’s all about watching for Jesus to make things right, it can be this real passivity instead of being part of the work of redemption in the world.
So make time for grief, watch for God at work, and join Him in the work that He’s doing.