Helen Daly, one of our Wisdom students in Brattleboro, Vermont, emailed me last week to ask if I could write a couple of paragraphs by what I mean by the “Fall Triduum.” Aha! A question! Happy to oblige.
Triduum, of course, is the name applied in Catholic liturgical circles to those great three days that form the heart of the Holy Week celebration: Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and the great Vigil of Easter (Triduum means “three days.”) The solemn passage through this sacred space is experienced not only as a set of external observances, but as a journey deep within the interiority of our own hearts.
Many years ago, it occurred to me that the fall also offers us a Triduum in those great three days encompassing Halloween (October 31), All Saints Day (November 1), and All Souls Day (November 2). Though Halloween is by and large celebrated only as a secular holiday and All Saints and All Souls are relatively unknown beyond monastic circles, they do in fact comprise their own sacred passage, which is not only authentic in and of itself, but also a powerful mirror-image of the energy flowing through the spring Triduum. For several years now I have led silent retreats at the time of this fall Triduum, most recently for the monks and lay community of Our lady of the Holy Spirit Abbey in Conyers, Georgia. The original “Fall Triduum” retreat was pioneered—as with so much else in my life—with The Contemplative Society, at a retreat house on Vancouver Island.
Both spring and fall Triduums deal with that passage from death to life which is at the heart of the Christian mystical path, and in fact, all mystical paths. But they do so in very different modes, with a very different emotional and spiritual coloration. At Easter the days are lengthening, the earth is springing forth with new life, and resurrection energy is already coursing through everything in the physical universe, like Dylan Thomas’s celebrated “force that drives the green fuse through the flower.” Resurrection is sort of a no-brainer, if you want to think of it that way; all the currents of our being are already set in that direction.
In the Fall Triduum the movement is more inward, against the grain. The days are shortening, the leaves are fallen, and the earth draws once again into itself. Everything in the natural world confronts us with reminders of our own mortality. The scriptural readings as the time just before Advent approaches are more and more preoccupied with the end, not only personally but cosmically: the last coming, the end of time. In this dark and inward season, there is little that encourages us to somersault over death right into resurrection; we must linger in the dark, allow the dawning recognition of how fragile we are.
And yet in the midst of this broody season of dark and inwardness, the days do offer themselves as a journey, a progression we can take. Halloween, that great druidic celebration is often lost in excess and revelry. But if you pay attention, it is actually asking us to acknowledge the false self (yes, head out trick-or-treating dressed as your false self!), let the “ghoulies and ghosties, long leggity beasties, and things that go bump in the night” cavort as they will without causing us alarm. “All shall be well, and all manner of long leggity thing shall be well.” The shadow faced, we are then free on November 1 to move into that most exquisite and subtle foretaste of the glory to come, the mystical communion of saints. From my own personal experience I can say that not Easter but All Saints is the thinnest of the thin places between heaven and earth, where the boundaries between ourselves and all we have loved but deemed lost, all we have grieved for, all the roads not taken in our lives, are met in the gentle solace of “yes.”
From there, having glimpsed on November 1 that (in the words of a wonderful old children’s book) “all land is one land under the sea,” we are then invited on November 2 to return to our human condition and particularity; to acknowledge and grieve the ones we have lost (from the viewpoint of this world) and to prepare ourselves to live more deeply and courageously this strange dual walk that we humans seem cosmically appointed to traverse, poised “at the intersection of the timeless with time” as the poet T. S. Eliot depicts it.
In the quiet, brown time of the year, these fall Triduum days are an invitation to do the profound inner work: to face our shadows and deep fears (death being for most people the scariest of all), to taste that in ourselves which already lies beyond death, drink at its fountain, then to move back into our lives again, both humbled and steadied in that which lies beyond both light and dark, beyond both life and death. What better tilling of the inner soil for the mystery of the Incarnation, which lies just ahead?
I encourage all of you who have the inclination to keep these days as best you can for this quiet but extraordinary rite of passage.