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.