All Souls Day 2014

Purgatory by Carracci

What do we mean when we talk about the Commemoration of all the Faithful Departed? Why do we set aside this day for special prayer for the dead; and why do we treat it as a feast, with a more elaborate liturgy than usual? In previous years I have shared a little of the history and theology of the day* but this morning I thought I’d try to address those three basic questions.

1. The Commemoration of All the Faithful Departed on All Souls
Most of us are unthinking egotists. We rarely reflect on all those who lived before us and to whom we are linked by bonds of faith and charity, yet on this day of the year we are invited to pray with and for them with special intensity. We are reminded of our immense dignity as human beings and our eternal fellowship with one another. We are also reminded of the goal to which we look forward: a place in the Kingdom, a seat at the Heavenly Banquet, the vision of God. How lightly we let those ideas trip off the tongue, yet they are serious, the reason for our being here, the fulfilment of every hope or dream we have ever had; the perfection of life and love. In the Commemoration of all the Faithful Departed the Church sets these ideas before us not as abstractions but as realities. Most of us appropriate them by praying for the dead we have known or with whom we feel a connection: our families and friends for the most part, but also those we have heard about in the news or whose stories have touched us in some way. In the Commemoration of All the Faithful Departed we are asked to enlarge our vision, to embrace every soul, to pray for the whole Church Suffering.

2. Praying in a Special Way Today
To pray for the dead is a work of charity and the Church encourages us to do so throughout the month of November, not just today; but because we find it difficult to keep our focus, we are given this special day to lay aside our personal concerns and pray for all the dead. The whole Church prays as one, and marks the day with special prayers and ceremonies, which is very powerful. Perhaps we can see better what it is  by looking at an analogy. Later this month we shall celebrate Remembrance Sunday. It is a kind of secular counterpart to what the Church celebrates in All Souls. For some it has become an awkward occasion, used to glorify war, bolster nationalism or vindicate current political preoccupations or activity. That shows how far we have drifted from the concept of praying for the dead, or even from recognizing our common humanity and frailty. At its simplest and best, I suppose, Remembrance Sunday is not, or should not be, about war at all but about praying for those who have died in war or as a result of war and our commitment to seeking peaceful solutions to the conflicts that arise among us. There is nothing sentimental or jingoistic about that. Here in the monastery, we have no difficulty in praying for every person, known or unknown, who has died, no matter what ‘side’ they were on, no matter what their beliefs or lack of them. As we remember the waste of war, we also ask God’s mercy for the future. Thus, the unique character of All Souls is grafted onto a secular commemoration which is given fresh purpose and meaning as a consequence.

3. A Feast
All Souls is an odd kind of liturgical celebration. I’m reminded of Gertrude’s ‘one auspicious and one dropping eye’. We have all the grandeur of a festival and all the bleakness of a funeral. There may be six candles on the altar and three lessons at Mass, but the vestments are black (or purple, if black is not available), the mood sombre, the music slow, plaintive and unaccompanied. Again, I think it is the Church concentrating our minds, so to say, on our dignity as human beings and on the dignity of human flesh. We celebrate not just life but death as entrance into fuller life. The rituals with which we surround the dead body at a funeral are a mark of our recognition that the baptised person is a temple of the Holy Spirit, not just a meaningless collection of cells. On All Souls Day we have no dead body in our midst; instead we have the whole Church Suffering surrounded with our love and prayer as it undergoes purification. So, a feast that is not exactly a feast; a celebration that is only half-joyful; instead of a corpse, living souls; and all these things because the vision of God has not yet been attained. The souls in purgatory are assured of their salvation but they are still in via, and we can identify with them on the journey we hope one day to share.

That, in a nutshell, is all I want to say about All Souls today. Three simple responses to three quite profound questions, but I hope they will encourage you to pray, if you do not already do so, and to share a little more fully in the meaning of this day. If you wish the community to pray for a particular deceased person during the month of November, please use this link to make your request via our prayerline.

* Theology and History of the Feast
I’ve written quite a lot about All Saints, All Souls, Purgatory and Praying for the Dead. The quickest way to find links is to use the search box on the right.

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All Souls Day 2013

Had he lived, today would have been my father’s 100th birthday. It was always a joke between us that I would never forget to pray for him in years to come because on this day above all others, the Church prays in a special way for all the faithful departed. It is our ‘Day of the Dead’ — and that’s not a morbid or sad thought. It is a cause for joy.

In several earlier posts, I sketched the Catholic doctrine of purgatory and prayer for the dead (see, for example, this about All Souls or this about prayer for the dead, or use the search facility in the sidebar). It seems to me that the connection between the Church Militant (i.e. those of us on earth), the Church Suffering (i.e. the souls undergoing the final purification of purgatory) and the Church Triumphant (those who enjoy already the vision of God in heaven) is worth pondering for many reasons, not least because it reminds us of our essential dignity as human beings. We are not mere clumps of cells, with no meaning before we are born and none after we are dead. There is a continuity in being that nothing can destroy. We are, as Hopkins says, ‘immortal diamond’.

Like many, I have been haunted by the thought of those people from Niger whose bodies were found in the Sahara. Each was buried according to Muslim rites where he/she lay. In death they were accorded more respect than many of them probably experienced in life. But somehow that burial, that reverent consigning their dead and decomposing bodies to the sandy soil, is a sign of hope, whether we be Christians, Muslims or whatever. It is a mark of humanity, the triumph of simple decency over everything callous and inhumane.

Love does not end with death, nor does our fellowship with one another. Prayer and reverence is an expression of that. As a Catholic, I believe that my prayer can help those who have died, so I pray for those people of Niger as I pray for my father and all the departed. Requiescant in pace. Amen.

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Hallowing Hallowe’en Again

Anyone who has read my Universe column on the subject will know that I am not an enthusiast for Hallowe’en as it is now celebrated in this country. Happily, however, once we have sung First Vespers of the Solemnity of All Saints at five o’clock this evening, we shall be safely on the other side, rejoicing in Christ’s victory over sin and death and the prospect of eternal life. All will be light and gladness, and anyone who comes to our door ‘trick or treating’ will be sent away with a blessing and a sentence or two about the wonder of the Resurrection (sure to put them off trying it again next year). We don’t do ghosts and ghouls; we do saints instead; and I think we might all be happier and healthier if more of us did saints, especially on this night of the year.

Why the fascination with horror and the celebration of death and destruction which now accounts for £300 million of spending in the U.K.? Surely, it is something to do with getting in touch with our inner caveman, the pleasurable thrill of being slightly scared by things that go bump in the night, knowing that at any moment we can switch on the light and not be scared any longer. Only, it has gone rather further than that, hasn’t it? We have gone beyond the thrill of the horror story to sheer terror instead. I don’t want to go over ground I have already covered, but in my view many of today’s Hallowe’en artefacts are quite sinister and open the way to the occult. Those who have never had to confront evil will laugh dismissively and say it is ridiculous to get worked up over plastic skeletons or ouija boards, tarot cards and the like. Plastic skeletons are a matter of taste, but the ouija boards and tarot cards are a much more serious matter. Ignorance is not bliss: it is dangerous.

I am all for conviviality and hope many of you will be enjoying a pleasant evening with friends, but I hope it will be a celebration of light and life you share, not a celebration of darkness and destruction. There is so much tragedy in the world, we do not need to fabricate horror. There is so much evil, we do not need to manufacture feelings of shock or revulsion. Those 87 people found dead of thirst in the Sahara are a reminder of the reality of suffering and death. The feasts of All Saints and All Souls affirm the unity of the living and the dead, so tonight let us pray for all those whose experience of moral darkness — in Niger, Syria, the DRC, to name just three — is so much more intense and terrible than anything we can produce with our broomsticks and plastic cobwebs. Let’s hallow Hallowe’en again.

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Religious Literacy

Aaqil Ahmed’s claim that we have become a nation of religious illiterates should come as no surprise. Even among those who claim to be Christian, knowledge and understanding of scripture and doctrine has been in decline for years. As regards knowledge of other religions, that tends to be even more sketchy. We may know the names of some important Hindu or Muslim festivals; we may be vaguely aware of how the Jewish calendar unfolds; but, for the most part, we rely on having a neat little summary of the main facts given to us in a call-out on the web page or in a sidebox of the newspaper column. I think, however, that it is not just religious illiteracy about which we need to be concerned. There is a cultural illiteracy that includes religious illiteracy and is becoming more and more pervasive in the west.

Literary types argue about the existence or otherwise of a western canon, a body of thought and literature that every educated person can be expected to have some acquaintance with. In a plural, multicultural society such a canon becomes less and less identifiable. Add to that our increasing reliance on the internet for our grasp of ideas, and it is easy to see why one cannot take much for granted. We are not alone, for example, in prescribing a course in Christian doctrine for new entrants. We cannot assume that well-educated, well-motivated people will necessarily have the intellectual grounding in faith of previous generations.

Should we worry about this? Personally, I think there are two aspects to consider. There is a cultural impoverishment when we no longer understand the story of our past—when literary references are not understood and the art and artefacts that embody the story are no longer recognized for what they are. There is also an emotional impoverishment when we no longer relate to the story of our past in a personal way. When we cease to be moved by the holiness of places where our forebears worshiped, or have no real sense of the values by which they lived, we are cut adrift. We become existentially lonely. That is, of course, quite the opposite of what Christianity is about: incorporation into Christ and so into fellowship with all the living and the dead. As we journey towards All Saints and All Souls, it is worth thinking about these things. ‘No man is an island, entire of himself’— not even the religious illiterate.

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All Souls 2012

Catholicism can be an uncomfortable religion to live by, but it is a wonderful religion in which to die. As death draws closer we are surrounded by prayer, our bodies are anointed and we receive the Viaticum to help us on our way. At the moment of death a singularly beautiful prayer is prayed, and after death our bodies are accorded the simple rituals I described in an earlier post. But that is not the end of of the matter. The Church goes on praying for us, perseveringly. November, in particular, is a month when we pray for the dead with special earnestness. Today, on the feast of All Souls, everyone will join in praying for all the faithful departed — not just the people known to us, but those unknown, those who have no-one else to pray for them. The feast of All Souls thus unites the living and the dead.

Last year I summed it up by saying

Instead of pushing the dead out of sight or surrounding them with euphemisms, we state the facts baldly and pray for the dead as we pray for ourselves, asking God to remove every trace of sin from those not yet ready for the blessedness of heaven. We believe that our prayers can help those who have died and are undergoing the final purification of purgatory, when the soul is prepared for the vision of God. To pray for the dead is thus a work of charity, a way of helping those who cannot help themselves.

Inevitably, there was a clash with some of my Protestant friends who reject the idea of purgatory. I very soon realised that few of my objectors knew what the Catholic Church teaches about purgatory (as distinct from what they thought the Church teaches) so in later posts I went into it in some detail. Underlying such misunderstandings is a much bigger question which no amount of explanation will ever really help. I would have liked to have taken my friends on a journey to a cemetery in southern Europe on the eve of All Saints, or transported them through time to the tombs of the early Christians. Possibly our very correct English sensibilities would be a little shocked but perhaps the sense of ease with death would take away some of the terror of death and dying that afflicts many people. All Souls is a reminder of the importance of death, and our part in assuring the entry into blessedness of all our fellow Christians.

Eternal rest give unto them, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them. May they rest in peace. Amen.

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All Saints 2012

Last year, in my post for this feast, I tried to express the connection between All Saints and All Souls:

The thought that you and I are saints by virtue of our membership of the Church is always uplifting. Weak, fallible, crotchety creatures that we are, there is something about us that is infinitely more important than the sum of our failures. Add to that our fellowship with the saints in heaven, and you can see why the Church regards the Solemnity of All Saints as one of the most important feasts of the year. With the celebration of All Souls tomorrow, this great feast of the Church will be complete: the Church in heaven, the Church on earth and the Church in purgatory, awaiting the resurrection.

I realise, however, that for many people both feasts are problematic. As always, I suggest reading through the preface of the Mass in order to gain insight into the theology of the feast in question. Today’s is rich in scriptural allusion, but I’d like to single out one aspect that doesn’t depend on knowledge of scripture so much as a modicum of imagination. The preface ends with the words

And so, we glorify you with the multitude of Saints and Angels, as with one voice of praise we acclaim . . .

They are a reminder that the Saints now enjoying the bliss of heaven are one with the saints (= Church members) on earth and TOGETHER we glorify God. Neither is complete without the other. We can go further and say that we are the connection between All Saints and All Souls, for it is our privilege, as it is our duty, to be the bond of prayer between the two. In short, today invites us to reflect on the meaning of the communion of saints, a phrase we repeat often enough in the Creed without necessarily seeing how it reaches into own ordinary, humdrum lives. If we could but see the glory that surrounds us, how changed our lives would be! We are, so to say, the theology of today’s feast enfleshed. Or at least, we ought to be.

 

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All Souls

All Souls, the Day of the Dead, is something Catholicism does rather well. Instead of pushing the dead out of sight or surrounding them with euphemisms, we state the facts baldly and pray for the dead as we pray for ourselves, asking God to remove every trace of sin from those not yet ready for the blessedness of heaven. We believe that our prayers can help those who have died and are undergoing the final purification of purgatory, when the soul is prepared for the vision of God. To pray for the dead is thus a work of charity, a way of helping those who cannot help themselves.

In the monastery, prayer for the dead, like prayer for the absent brethren, comes at the end of every Hour of the Work of God and at the end of every meal. We are constantly reminded of our connection with those who have ‘gone before’. They are as familiar to us in death as they were in life and death itself is much less terrible as a result. I find purgatory a very comforting doctrine. I like the idea of being prepared for the vision of God; I like the idea that the Church will continue to pray for me when I can no longer pray for myself. Best of all, I like the hope of mercy that purgatory proclaims.

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All Saints

The communion of saints is something I never tire of meditating on. The thought that you and I are saints by virtue of our membership of the Church is always uplifting. Weak, fallible, crotchety creatures that we are, there is something about us that is infinitely more important than the sum of our failures. Add to that our fellowship with the saints in heaven, and you can see why the Church regards the Solemnity of All Saints as one of the most important feasts of the year. With the celebration of All Souls tomorrow, this great feast of the Church will be complete: the Church in heaven, the Church on earth and the Church in purgatory, awaiting the resurrection.

I suspect that for most people this rather lofty and liturgical conception of All Saints is much less interesting that the ‘tents and temple’ situation at St Paul’s. I don’t pretend to understand what is going on, but it is deeply troubling that, as many have mentioned, a dispute about capitalism should have become a dispute about the Church. It is in the nature of tent dwellers that they should move on; the temple stands as a reminder of the eternal. St Bede’s most important book, De Templo, was a sustained meditation on Solomon’s temple as an image of the Church with lots of number theory thrown in. Perhaps it would make good reading today for the tent dwellers around St Paul’s because it asserts the unity of the Church, both those who dwell within and those stuck outside in the courts, and the salvation possible to us all in Christ.

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