The Smile of the Skull
Some thoughts on one of the symbols of the season
The Catholic liturgical year has a rhythm that keeps our lives tied to the seasons, and keeps those seasons tied to the eternal. As the leaves fall, the weather turns colder, and the day shortens, we naturally think of the shortness of our own "day" on this earth. The Church feasts that come around this time of year--All Saints Day, All Souls Day, and the resulting popular secular celebration of Halloween (the eve of these feasts, or All Hallows Eve)--help us reflect on those realities. They also bring out one of my favorite Christian symbols, and one that is perhaps currently least understood--the skull.
As a preface, please let me state that I mean to discuss here the skull as a Christian symbol. If the skull is used in any context to symbolize things of the occult, I obviously object to such uses! However, they are not my topic. Just because the skull has perhaps lost its faith-affirming connotations in our day does not mean that the symbol should not be fully embraced and re-claimed for the incredible consolation it can be to the Christian heart. In this post, which is somewhat tangential to the main thrust of the blog, I'd like to explain why.
My affinity for the skull goes back to some of my earliest memories. In northern New Mexico, processions of faithful penitents celebrating a particular feast day would often be followed by "Dona Sebastiana"--a local and somewhat humorous and affectionate name for death. Dona Sebastiana was a life-sized hand-carved figure of a skeleton riding along in a cart pulled by the last person in the procession. Armed with a bow and arrow, she reminded all present that death follows us closely and takes aim at us, wherever we go.
Why would this be a thought so worth keeping in mind that it bore literally dragging around such a physical representation? Because it affects profoundly the way we live. Interestingly, and in stark contrast to this memory, one could say that one of the most defining features of our modern society is that we have worked very hard to push away the thought of the reality of death and its any representation.
We are as distant as any society can be from the necessity of hunting and from the farm, through which we once witnessed and relied upon the death of animals for our own lives, and it seems we push the death of even our own family members out of our homes and therefore our experience as well. As grandma becomes forgetful, she is too often forgotten about and ends her days out of our sight. We even try to forget about our own death, and often make our lives a quest for distraction from the thought of it.
Utterly on the contrary, the Church has always taught us that awareness of the inevitability and nearness of death is one of the most healthful things for our souls and our minds. She teaches that souls who regularly meditate on what are collectively termed the "four last things," (death, judgement, heaven, and hell) can never loose their salvation. Why? Because it encourages us to live and love like today could well be our last day, reveals to us that even if we were to live many years, they would still amount to less than a "blip" in the scheme of eternity, and reminds us that our choices now, in this tiny precious chance we have for the decision, result in one of two final, irrevocable, and eternal consequences.
A while back, a country song became popular called "Live Like you Were Dying," in which the protagonist was misdiagnosed with cancer. While he believed he had the disease, he expressed his love for his wife, his forgiveness of his enemies, and his sheer joy in the company of his friends better than he ever had. He also did things he never previously had the courage or motivation to try when life seemed indefinite. (If I recall correctly, he also savored even the most common can of Budweiser more than he had ever previously.) He ends the song with the wish that everyone could be so blessed as to believe they were dying for a few days.
Well, my friends, we do get that blessing! We are dying! Why not live like it? Why not be reminded of it or even celebrate it? In truth, our eternal fate depends upon our keeping it in mind.
C.S. Lewis, in his Screwtape Letters, offers an amazing assessment of human psychological and spiritual vulnerabilities by telling a wry tale of two demons, a master and an apprentice, who want to take souls to hell. The master teaches his pupil that subtle tricks work much better on us than storm tactics. We need only to be convinced that there is nothing but time left to us--that we can turn away from God now and have plenty of time to repent later. The devil would love nothing more than for us to live under the illusion of an indefinite life, and that, of all things, is the illusion we try to create for ourselves today. It is as if we are doing the devil's work for him!
Why? Why not instead take a good long look at a skull and remember how short, fragile, vulnerable, beautiful, and precious is our life now, and how critical this moment is in our eternity? This was not a foreign thought at all to Catholics a few generations ago. Why has it become so now?
Take our representations of St. Francis for an example. If you were to surmise anything about him from the representations which are popular today, you would think he was the patron saint of zookeepers. Yes, Francis had a great love of God's creation and a great affinity for animals. However, the Disney-style birds and squirrels that surround him today almost block from our view his astounding mysticism and wisdom. Traditionally, what was most notable in his iconography was his stigmata, his share in the marks of the suffering of Christ (Galatians 6:17), and a human skull near him or in his wounded hands.
St. Francis was indeed notable for his joy--but his joy was real because it was rooted in the truth, not in the avoidance of it. That's better than Disney-fied hyper-cheer any day in my book. And we can't have St. Francis' kind of joy in this life without sureness in both its passing nature and the eternal realities to come.
However, skulls, or the remembrance of death, the memento mori as the medievalists would put it, hold out even more gifts to us. Besides joy, another is courage. When I was deployed years back, a tattoo design was circulating among the boys that became wildly popular. It featured a grinning skull. Surrounding the skull were the sentences, "Death smiles at everyone. Marines smile back." There was something to what those tattoos expressed. They conveyed a courage and confidence that came from young men who, instead of isolating themselves from the realities of death, embraced it and with a certain swagger and even mocked it.
Here's the thing. We as Christians have even more right to that courage, confidence, and swagger in relation to death than even my Marines did. They had it by virtue of their own personal sacrifice. We have it by virtue of an even greater and more secure one in Christ's. Doesn't Paul himself actually mock death in celebrating Christ's victory over it? Almost like a child says "nanna nanna nah nah!" he asks:
"O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?" (1 Corinthians 15:55)
That’s why I myself love to see not only skulls, but skulls that express joy, confidence and courage both in sure acceptance the inevitability of death and even surer faith in Christ’s promises. The skull, and even and especially the joyful and/or beautiful skull, is our symbol—a profoundly Christian symbol. First in the Christian catacombs of Rome, and then eventually throughout the continent in the 16th and 17th centuries, Europe once loved and venerated the beautifully decorated skulls of saints and martyrs. They were clearly not considered morbid or frightening and therefore something to be hidden by the adorners. If they were, why make such exquisite an effort?
Where I disagree with Dia de Los Muertos practices if/when they should incorporate false or dangerous traditions or beliefs, I do love the Mexican art surrounding All Souls Day when it reminds us of our potential future place in the Communion of Saints and the presence of our family and loved ones who precede us there—especially in helping us imagine that they are “themselves” there still. These images also poignantly remind us to continue to pray for our beloved dead (II Machabees 12: 40-46), sometimes by reminding us of their personalities or what we loved best about them.
Further along those lines, why not consider ossuary chapels like the spectacular Sedlec Ossuary, beneath the cemetery Church of All Saints in the Czech Republic, or the Capela dos Ossos in Portugal adjacent to the Church of St. Francis.
The effort to construct places like this would clearly not be put forth just for the sake of being morbid or causing fright. In fact, a place like this heals the mind and enriches the soul by encouraging contemplation of the eternal, and consoles the Christian heart, or at least once did, in days when our Faith was less delicate and formed within a less antiseptic world than it is now. Oh that we would return to such robustness in our Faith that the sight of a skull could cause us no fright, but only reason for examination of our lives, firm resolution toward the good, and sureness in the eternal truths!
Stay Catholic, my friends!