Halloween story/sermon – audio & text

I love preaching about Halloween, this time of transformation, wonder, and possibility. This is a version of a sermon I recently preached at the Unitarian Society of Ridgewood. All the characters are fictional and any resemblance to people living or dead…well you know the rest. I’ll be preaching an entirely different Halloween sermon (also fiction) this Sunday. and will post it next week.

The recording the sermon is here:

And here’s the text:

“A Spirit in the Night”
Sermon by Rev. Bob Janis-Dillon
Delivered at Unitarian Society of Ridgewood

Cassandra Leahy wants to be a witch this Halloween. No, scratch that: Cassandra Leahy wants to be a witch all year long.

She puts on her dark, dark lipstick in the mirror. Her eyes, beneath her eye shadow, are deep caves of mystery. She is no eight-year-old girl wearing a hat fashioned by her mother from cardboard and a strip of black felt. Nor is she one of the gangs of sorority girls roaming the streets tonight in their identical sexy-fill-in-the-blank “costumes.” No, Cassandra is a woman and a witch of a woman. She has thighs, hips, secrets and regrets. And is ashamed of none of it. And is ready to chant incantations into the night.

This is a new phase for Cassandra. All her life, Cassie has been almost pathologically nice. She was so nice she would carry on relationships with men she did not love for months because she did not want to offend anybody. She is so nice that, just last week when a co-worker was spouting horrible things about immigrants, her response was to say, “I’m sorry, but I have a different perspective.” She immediately hated herself for saying it. I’m sorry? What was she sorry for? She wasn’t the bigot.

Cassie has never been the wicked witch. She has been the dutiful daughter. She has been the responsible sister, to a brother that has gone down just about every rabbit hole of catastrophic curiosity and addiction. She has been the loyal friend, the shoulder to cry on until her shoulders were ground down, tear by tear, to almost nothing.

Well, no more. It is time to try on a new face. Her friends at the Halloween party would not suspect she was in any way a real witch – they would just see the same old Cassie, in a witch’s costume. Little did they know the change went deeper than that, was infused into her bones.
Cassandra senses, in the spell book of her soul, some bold magic in her that she has been reluctant to call forth. She feels a wicked streak that is wider than the full moon and still growing in the night. A delightfully wicked streak.

It isn’t that Cassie wants to be evil. Far from it. She gets no thrill from causing harm to others, none at all. She still wants to save the world – she just wants to do it on her terms, careless to the artificial whims of human society, and closer to the rhythms of the earth. What is more, she wants to have fun with it all, a delightfully wicked kind of fun. She pictures herself strolling into the 7-Eleven, carrying her homemade ceramic mug. She’ll walk right up to the Slurpee machine – a guilty pleasure of hers, so what – and, without any guilt at all, she would fill up her homemade mug at the fountain. And if the clerk behind the counter dares question her on it, she would throw back her head, and cackle, and say, “just ring me up, sweetie.”

Cassandra is through living someone else’s life. She wants to live in the deep and misty woods of her true self. Anyone who dares get in her way had better like being green and six inches tall. Cassandra has powers even she doesn’t know about. And she’s ready to now to start giving them a try.

A little eye shadow. Some lipstick. Lots and lots of black layers. And the casting of the soul’s desire – perhaps this was enough to change a human being. Cassandra smiles a smile so deep it rattles the music of her life. Yes. Yes.

After all, Halloween is a time of possibility. A time when fear is faced, and courage is rewarded. Perhaps out there, tonight. there is a spirit moving for those who wait…to hear change come knocking in the night.

If the gentle spirits of the night were to fly down from Cassandra’s window and travel just a stone’s throw away, they would reach upon Oscar Santos, walking down the street with his two boys, one in each hand. On one side of Oscar is Iron Man, superhero: on the other, a ferocious lion toddles along the sidewalk. Both of his boys carry plastic pumpkins filling with candy as fast as the boys can make the magic happen.

Oscar is dressed in jeans and a sweater. But what Oscar really wants to be, more than anything, is to be a mermaid. Or a merman, maybe. It isn’t about the cross dressing, although Oscar has no problem with anyone dressing up however they want. But if Oscar were to suddenly sprout fins, and discover an extra sense of gills beneath his skin, without even stopping to wonder he would run away from his life, run to his favorite beach, feel the sands on his feet, and then dive in, to travel, deep, deep into the oceans of God.

Oscar isn’t sure he believes in God. He hasn’t tell his mother this, she’d pick up her walker and chase after him if she heard such blasphemy. But nonetheless, the idea of some cosmic force pulling the strings behind the curtain – well, the idea just doesn’t hold Oscar like it used to.

Still, when he remembers the tiny, storefront Pentecostal Church of his childhood, as everyone raised their hands as they sang those songs, “Peque Peque Dios Mio”, Oscar knew he had felt the spirit, moving among the people, a presence that was seperate from any individual yet tied them all together. He felt that presence so near, as a child, he could close his eyes and feel like he could be picked up and carried wherever he needed to be. Which always turned out to be right where he was.

Nowadays, as a grown man – well, Oscar loves his life, even though it’s mucho trabajo, poco dinero – a lot of work for not much. But working at the hospital is deeply meaningful, and he gets a lot out of it. He loves his boys, of course, and his husband, more than words can say. His life is a good life. He means to be grateful.

But sometimes it just seems like he’s skating along on the ice, careening from moment to moment, without ever having learned how to ice skate. He gets it done, somehow: he puts one foot in front of the other, but it takes so much strength just to stay upright, and then life pushes him a little further along the ice. It’s exhausting. And so he wants to be able to keep going and yet let go, somehow, to swim below its surface, to relax in the waves of the love of God. It’s not about a vacation, though God knows he needs one. There is a depth to life that Oscar is always glimpsing. But he never quite finds himself immersed in those depths. He is gasping for air on the brink of a vastness that seems so serene, if only he could learn to how get below the froth.

Life on land is fine. But if he could take a kind of celestial time out now and again, step away from his life and rest in infinity – not death, exactly, but not the surface tumult of everyday life either. If he could only change shape, go out into the ocean, frolic and play with dolphins and then bring it back home, somehow, play with his family with the same abandon, the same frolicking. Life is urgently important; far too important to be taken seriously.

“Can we go to that house, can we?” Iron Man and the lion are vying for Oscar’s attention. He squeezes Junior’s hand as he takes his tired toddler up in his arms. Perhaps Oscar is on the beach of the oceans of God still, to this day. And perhaps, he thinks, with a little practice, he can breathe deeper in the depths of everyday life than he ever could before.

After all, Halloween is a time of possibility. A time when fear is faced, and courage is rewarded. Perhaps out there, tonight. there is a spirit moving for those who wait…to hear change come knocking in the night.

The spirits of the night, if they are travelling alongside those children – as spirits are wont to do – would come upon the house of Nathalie Bollitt, with Nathalie herself on the front porch. Nathalie is dressed in a cat’s ears and whiskers. Truth be told, Nathalie doesn’t really care what she is. She just doesn’t want to be a monster anymore. Oh, she knew most people don’t see her that way, as a monster. Maybe no-one did – it was so long ago that it happened, and how many people really knew or cared about it even then? But public opinion was one thing. Under the pitchforks of her own self-regard, she still felt a lumbering and terrible beast, less than worthy of the mantle of humanity.

Could a monster ever change? Was she condemned to be created by one act, all those years ago? She had tried all the phrases of self-help: “find your bliss”, “just move on”, “I’m ok, you’re ok”, and so on, but they had bounced off her like paper airplanes off King Kong. Time was a better healer than catchphrases. Nowadays, after all those years, she could go days at a stretch not thinking about it – and just feel like a normal human being, glory hallelujah. But then a night would come when she would get up to use to the bathroom and it would all come flooding back – that feeling of reproach, the groaning sense of horror for her misshapen past. And when she woke up she felt hangover, though she hadn’t drank in years, moaning to escape her life and just wanting the world to go on without her.

It is a beautiful night, tonight, though; the Jack-O-Lanterns are winking at her with their flickering light. Look at these adorable children, how easily they become one thing then another. First a pumpkin then a princess, then a ballerina and a soccer player. If only she, Nathalie, could only become something else, find some other mask to change into. If the monster that she knew herself to be was somehow – burned away, what could she be then? Why, a phoenix of course. Rising from the flames, isn’t that what they did?

All these years, Nathalie had tried, to no avail, to keep a clamp on the shame and the sorrow. These emotions threatened to become intense as to burn her up. As a phoenix, though, she had nothing to fear. The flames that were her destruction were her salvation. Her deepest fears could burn her up, and a new her, a newborn Nathalie Bollitt, would simply emerge and take flight.

It sounded an unlikely magic trick. But maybe it was like that silly old man had said to her the pharmacy the other day – “another day, another chance to be a human being.” Corny, sure, but he must have been through enough changes, old as he was. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger – no. What does kill you – what takes out your insides and leaves you feeling so raw it’s as if you’ve burned alive – makes you human. And what then? Maybe you could fly above it all, fueled by the embers of your past.

After all, Halloween is a time of possibility. A time when fear is faced, and courage is rewarded. Perhaps out there, tonight. there is a spirit moving for those who wait…to hear change come knocking in the night.

Not far from Cassandra the now-witch, only a little ways from Oscar the merman of the soul, and nearby to Nathalie, who had been a monster but now is a phoenix, Norman Rallowitz is becoming a ghost. He is slipping through the cracks of the homes, dissipating into the night. Norman was a biology teacher for thirty-nine years. He had explained the processes of life to the incoming sophomores over and over again. And each time he saw some new magic in it. How photosynthesis turns light into life. How mitosis turns life into itself, and something else.

It was all a miracle, and every day Mr. Rallowitz was honored to live and breathe and talk that miracle in the halls of the high school. But that was a long time ago now, many years. He had indulged in golf and sailing, and learning about Pokemon and rap music and from his grandchildren because, hey, Mr. Rallowitz was not about to let the kids have all the fun without him.

And then his body did what bodies inexorably manage to do, and he was subject to another set of processes he had studied. The processes of the end of life happened in spite of the best medical care available on his health plan.

He didn’t mind it, not much: he knew what was coming, and he had lived long enough to experience that gentle softening in the obsessive need to always be vibrant and young and alive – he had faded well, he thought. He sometimes got lost in the plot of a book, forgot where he was a little bit, forgot that his home was his home. And when he did Mr. Rallowitz thought to himself, “well the book will go on, Norm, but you might not.” He even said that out loud, on occasion. It gave him a curious kind of comfort.

He died a few days before Halloween, and the textbook that describes what happened after has not been written. But we do know that his spirit came through the trees as surely as the moonlight, and lit upon the lives of the men and women, girls and boys of that little town. Mr. Rallowitz was there, haunting the home of Cassandra Leahy, his former student, to whom he had once given two points extra credit for a goofy drawing in the margins of a test. It was against the rules, perhaps, since she had got the answer wrong, but Cassie, a straight-A student, was such a stranger to mischief it seemed only right to encourage a little of it. And there was no question at all that Norm was striding alongside Oscar Junior, and Jose, even though he had only ever seen them in photographs proffered by their father, his nurse, at his bedside at the hospital. But the love and joy and gratitude and connection which Oscar and Norm had felt in that moment had to go somewhere, it couldn’t be contained in a test tube for goodness’ sakes, so it only stood to reason that it must be floating around in the ether on that sacred night in October. And just as surely Norm Rallowitz was still floating into and out of the lives of a thousand people like
Nathalie Bollitt, spouting his glorious nonsense into their ears still, years after he crossed their paths at the pharmacy.

So lean a little into the wind this Halloween, and make a wish. You never know who might be listening.

After all, Halloween is a time of possibility. A time when fear is faced, and courage is rewarded. Perhaps out there, tonight. there is a spirit moving for those who wait…to hear change come knocking in the night

About bobjanisdillon

Unitarian Universalist minister, poet, husband, father, three-chord guitar wonder.
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