Many years ago I spent a few months in Europe on an exchange program – in Austria, to be specific. November 2nd, or All Soul’s Day, is a big deal for much of Western Europe. In fact, it’s something akin to our Thanksgiving. Many living away from home travel home for meals and prayers and an assortment of special traditions, one of which includes a trip to the local graveyard to leave candles and flowers on the graves of loved ones who have passed away. I remember visiting the graveyard on that day years ago. I’ve never seen a cemetery look so beautiful. It was a sea of stones, flowers and twinkle lights.
It was a striking contradiction – something representing the permanence and cold finality of death being decorated to look so beautiful and inviting. But it was, and is, a really good metaphor for the liturgical reality we’re celebrating today.
The tradition of remembering and honouring the souls of the faithfully departed, especially those of our own families, is important because we’re all headed in that direction. Someday we are all going to die. And death – something that the Pagan world sees as distressing, grim or macabre – for us Catholic Christians, has “lost much of its terror in the mystery of the death of Christ. The New Testament speaks with almost startling insistence of Christ’s triumph over death. “Where then, death, is thy victory; where, death, is they sting?” (1Cor.15:55) It is a cry of joy. …By his death and glorification our Lord has brought death to naught, has trampled upon it, so that for the just there is no more death, but everlasting life.” (Manual of Catholic Prayers, p. 430) This day, November 2nd, which celebrates those who have died – our friends and family in Christ – in actual fact, celebrates the life they now live in Christ and because of Christ.
I sometimes forget that there have been many, many generations that have gone before mine. Each of those generations was filled with persons like me, those who have had lives full of joys and sorrows. They did great and wonderful things and they made errors of epic proportions. A handful of those people have been named saints – the Church declaring with certainty that they are in heaven – but most haven’t. That doesn’t mean those souls are not in heaven. They could be. What it does mean is that regardless of where they reside at this point in (our) time, we should remember them and pray for them, and ask them to pray for us.
My grandmother is 93 and she spends 93% of her time praying for the souls in purgatory. She’s sort of adopted them in her old age, taking them under her wing and caring deeply about scores of people she’s never met. (How feminine!) Her devotion moves and inspires me! It gives me hope that someday there will be a little old lady or two that will adopt me long after I’m gone and pray me into heaven.
Because I, rather we all are going to need those prayers! Unless we’re living lives of extraordinary grace and circumstance, many of us aiming for heaven are likely headed to purgatory, brought about solely by the choices we make daily. We’re imperfect. We make bad choices and take wrong turns. And what we do now has eternal significance. I used to think, when confronted with some minute detail life would throw at me, that whatever I decided to do didn’t really matter. “What is this in the light of eternity?”, I used to say to myself.
But in all honesty (not to over-spiritualize things) small things sometimes matter. Large things matter. And everything in between matters. Most of what we say and do (or don’t do), matters in the light of eternity. Are we sure that the things we are spending our time, energy and money on right now are making us better people, people more and more worthy of heaven?
While I was in Austria, I lived in a 13th century Carthusian Monastery that had been converted into a hotel/dormitory. On the walls of the buildings remained the faded fresco’s that had once been painted by the monks – paintings of life-like skeletons in habits and skulls and bones, with the words “Frater Momento Mori” underneath, which means “Brother, Remember Your Death” in Latin. The idea, we were told, was that the monks lived their lives in constant recollection of where they were going, living every moment with their eyes set on Jesus, the final prize. In every mouthful they consumed, in every piece of wood they chopped, they would see God’s Will and strove to choose to do what God expected them to do in all things, big and small. The Carthusian Monks when they died were buried beneath the church, in a ‘mass’ grave of sorts. There were only a set number of graves so that when a brother died, the living brothers would dig the “next” grave and bury him in it. It was often found that the “next” grave would contain an incorrupt body – a classic sign to us here on earth that the soul of the man was living with God in heaven as a saint – and the monks, such was their humility, would merely cover that body up and dig the “next” grave.
Blogger Brett McKay, in his post on the usefulness of meditating on death in order to become a better man, gives many examples of how the depictions of death in classical art can help us “momento mori”. He ends his post with these words: “Am I dedicating my life primarily to activities and things that will simply fade away like smoke and bubbles? Or am I making the most of life by creating a legacy that will live beyond the grave?” Now is a good time to ask ourselves these questions, as we remember and pray for those who have gone before us.
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