Pumpkins and Saints

I am wearing an orange dress and a black cardigan intended to look spider-ish today. It is Halloween, after all, but I am away on business at a professional conference. Clearly, the conference planning committee is not comprised of parents of school aged children, or this scheduling debacle would never have occurred. But, in spite of parental righteous indignation, I am apart from my child, family, and neighborhood for this cultural celebration of the spectacular and the spooky.

This conference is colliding with several spiritual events which I love as well. First, All Souls Day where my choir sings requiem selections from Faure, Rutter, and Brahams, and we liturgically commemorate those who have died, reading names and reflecting on the intersections of life and death. Grief is an inextricable part of my professional life and my daily movement through the world. The All Souls service speaks to my soul every year in a deeply meaningful way, and I am very sad to miss it. Then there is All Saints Day (or the Sunday closest to All Saints) where my faith community’s tradition is to have members of our congregation dressed up as saints outside, telling the stories of the saint’s lives in costume on church grounds and handing out prayers to remember and commemorate their contributions to the world through service, compassion, and faith. I have spent time in years past dressed as St. Brigid of Ireland as well as a more contemporary saint, Harriet Beecher Stowe. Episcopalians recognize a wide range of formally acknowledged holy women and holy men as saints, including many who work for justice. And, we consider sainthood in general something we all strive for in our daily lives, rather than reserved for the few, the proud, and the chosen. Thank God. I find it delightful to think about the saints…and our own saintly potential wrapped up in all the messiness and joy of our humanity…on this celebratory day.

So, here I am sitting outside my conference venue enjoying a gorgeous autumn afternoon and thinking about the irony that my spiritual side and my parental side are both taking a hit the same weekend. I am dealing with the parental through email and virtual “hang-outs” with my daughter. Carving out meaningful, spiritual experiences when one is professionally “on” seemed more elusive. But, as turns out, I have also been making a point to find the saints and creating my own sacred space here. My digital pictures filling my iPad are a mix of pumpkins and saints. This is probably a pretty good summation of how I move through the world, actually.

Yesterday, I snuck away to an art museum for lunch and was delighted to find Saint Catherine of Siena in one gallery, beckoning me to consider exploring the contemplative depths of my spirituality while I was busy conferencing. I listened to that wisdom. Today, there was a pumpkin carving contest among the hotel staff, so I snatched a few pictures of my favorites to send off to my daughter and voted on my own favorite. I also started the day by choosing a saint from Holy Women, Holy Men to read about with my colleague and conference companion. Pauli Murray emerged as today’s saint. Here is her brief bio:

Pauli Murray was an early and committed civil rights activist and the first African American woman priest ordained in the Episcopal Church.

Born in Baltimore in 1910, Murray was raised in Durham, North Carolina, and graduated from Hunter College in 1933. After seeking admission to graduate school at the University of North Carolina in 1938, she was denied entry due to her race. She went onto graduate from Howard University Law School in 1944. While a student at Howard, she participated in sit-in demonstrations that challenged racial segregation in drugstores and cafeterias in Washington, DC. Denied admission to Harvard University for an advanced law degree because of her gender, Murray received her Masters of Law degree from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1945.

In 1948 the Women’s Division of Christian Service of the Methodist Church hired Murray to compile information about segregation laws in the South. Her research led to a 1951 book, States’ Laws on Race and Color, that became a foundational document for Thurgood Marshall in his work on the decisive Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision in 1954.

Committed to dismantling barriers of race, Murray saw the civil rights and women’s movements as intertwined and believed that black women had a vested interest in the women’s movement.

Perceiving a call to ordained ministry, Murray began her studies at General Theological Seminary in 1973. She was ordained deacon in June 1976 and on January 8, 1977, she was ordained priest at Washington National Cathedral. She served at Church of the Atonement in Washington D.C. from 1979 to 1981 and at Holy Nativity Church in Baltimore until her death in 1985.

Murray’s books include the family memoir Proud Shoes: Story of an American Family (1956) and the personal memoir Song in a Weary Throat: An American Pilgrimage (1987).

That one stopped me in my tracks. Going about the work of one’s life, confronting and overcoming obstacles in order to move others toward understanding, justice, and social change. And, responding amid a successful career to a call to ordained ministry. Oh, I can relate to that. She has been speaking to me all day about the conflicts and intersections of professional vocation, and I am taking in that wisdom.

I realize something important in this. Professional life and spiritual focus are not a disconnect. Culture and spirituality are not a disconnect, either. In fact, sometimes we create dichotomies around these attributes of our lives and perpetuate our own stress, the same way we do with that other “work-life balance” false dichotomy. I reflect today that saints and pumpkins are not accidentally next to each other on the calendar. Our culture and our spirit ground our sense of identity and our ability to relate to the world around us. We need both to be fully human. And everything about Halloween, All Souls, and All Saints has to do with the whole-ness of being human.

So, as I head in to a plenary speech and the reception following, I consider how connected all this is. My striving for social justice is an attribute of spirit, which brings me to my profession. My profession grounds me in a cultural and professional identity which gives me a lens to see the world and consider places where change is needed and desired. That lens has given me insight that I pass to my daughter, and her innocence of spirit and honesty of questions helps me push forward and explain why I act, believe, and live the way I do. My parenting makes me appreciate pumpkin carving and saint walks as vital to understanding who we are, and where we are going. And I love Halloween, and All Souls, and All Saints for what each offers our humanness.

Pumpkins and saints…today’s small points of light.

About harasprice

Professor of Social Work and Priest in The Episcopal Church, parent, teacher, learner, writer, advocate, and grateful traveller along this journey through life
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