All Saints Day is an edgy holy day, dangerously syncretic, carved as it is over early layers of pre-Christian worship–Samhain, when observed at the harvest, and the Feast of the Lemures, in which the unsettled spirits of the dead were propitiated, if kept as a spring festival.
In the Episcopal churches where I have been a member, All Saints didn’t simply honor the canonized, but those who had died as faithful congregants as well.
As the days grow short, those blessed dead can seem nearer and restless perhaps, if only in our memories, and so yesterday I traveled to an old sacred site, where some worshipers say people gathered on a rock outcropping in what is now Cottonwood County. When they drowned, the Dakota story goes, their blood stained the quartzite red. For 7000 to 9000 years, people have been drawn to those rocks, flood or drought.
Some friends passed over the last couple of years, and I found myself drawn to remember them and pray at the Jeffers Petrogylphs, though my common prayer is not the same as those who carved some 2000 drawings in the rock. But then, the waves of rock carvers–from different native nations–may have also had different ways to pray.
I drove across McLeod, Renville and Brown Counties, passed farmers harvesting corn and sugar beets, past shattered jack-o-lanterns, past frost ruined pumpkin fields, through the Minnesota River Valley, to Cottonwood County’s Jeffers Petroglyphs to honor those recently departed saints.
All Saints is an edgy holy day. Even the readings appointed for the day in Rite I of the Episcopal Church begin with a deuterocanonical book in the Apocrypha, drawn from Ecclesiasticus, or the Wisdom of Jesus the Son of Sirach. After the famous first line which calls the singer to praise famous men, the lectionary offers this:
There were those who ruled in their kingdoms,
and made a name for themselves by their valor;
those who gave counsel because they were intelligent;
those who spoke in prophetic oracles;
those who led the people by their counsels
and by their knowledge of the people’s lore;
they were wise in their words of instruction…
Some are remembered, the passage says, the names of others fade from memory.
Those who put together the interpretative materials at Jeffers understood the that some things are not known. The rubrics along the path suggest that the rock carvings might have been hunting tales, prayers, prophecy, vision quest, map-making and kinship initiation. Listen to what the place says, a sign recommends.
Though I was the only person at the historic site, I was not alone. A few late-season moths flew by; a flock of snow buntings nosed around on the rock. The sound of combines and corn dryers hummed in the background; pheasant hunters’ shotguns peppered that constant drone. I drew myself into the rocks, studying the shadows, watching the moon rise before the sun set.
Night falls swiftly this time of year, and I was happy I’d brought my parka along with. The sunset was gorgeously orange, but cold. As the prairie darkened, the grass around the rock suddenly blossomed with cackling pheasants; about a dozen took random wing and coasted across the light of the setting sun.
Across Cottonwood County 2, the silhouette of a six-point buck ran south on the ridge.
The moon rose and grew brighter, cooler. By the time I reached the outcropping polished by five thousand years of buffalo rubbing off their winter coats, the moonlight was strong enough to reflect in that mirror rock.
I can’t say if the new saints were peaceful by then, but I reflected on the Gospel for the day, the Sermon on the Mound, and thought it time to go. Rolling south toward Minnesota 30, I slowed to a stop when a six-point buck stepped onto the county road. He stopped too, for thirty seconds or so, then meekly sauntered off into a standing corn field. A blessing, certainly.