“Of course I pray for the dead. The action is so spontaneous, so all but inevitable, that only the most compulsive theological case against it would deter me. And I hardly know how the rest of my prayers would survive if those for the dead were forbidden. At our age, the majority of those we love best are dead. What sort of intercourse with God could I have if what I love best were unmentionable to him?” – C.S. Lewis, Letters to Malcolm
After the hubbub surrounding All Hallow’s Eve and All Saints Day, there quietly follows a day too often overlooked: All Souls’ Day. It is a day of commemorating and remembering those who have passed on before us.
“We should have a daily familiarity with death, a daily desire for death. By this kind of detachment our soul must learn to free itself from the desires of the body. It must soar above earthly lusts to a place where they cannot come near, to hold it fast.” – St. Ambrose
What Ambrose is talking about is that we should not be so afraid of death that we cling too tightly to this life. If you look around you see evidence of this throughout our society. We hoard possessions. We pop more pills. We pursue more and more plastic surgery or take similar actions in order to make ourselves appear and feel younger. So much of what we do is predicated around trying to avoid death. Newsflash: The mortality rate is 100%. We’re all gonna go.
He goes on to say that death was not a part of nature originally; it became a part of nature. God prescribed it as a remedy from sin and the toils and burdens of this life. In my favorite sentence on the subject he writes: “Without the assistance of grace, immortality is more of a burden than a blessing.”
We should have a daily familiarity with death. It keeps us humble and focused on the things that really matter. In our fast-paced world of soundbites and short attention spans to be out of sight means out of mind. All too easily do the dead slip from our conscience. Not always, of course, but in general terms I think it would be hard to deny this. When a celebrity or public figure passes there is a tendency to post articles or quotes by him or her for a few days and then they’re gone…we move on to the next thing. Witness the passing of Steve Jobs a few weeks ago. I could not believe the number of quotes or photos or sayings by the man being posted on Facebook in the first days after he’d died. But just as quickly they stopped. People moved on.
I’m not suggesting that we do the same thing regarding our closest friends and family members. At least I hope that’s not the case. But even still, when was the last time you visited the grave site of your grandparents? Or your parents? A sibling? How about your best friend? Our transient society may make that more unfeasible. I’ll grant you that. Then how about this: when was the last time you remembered those persons? I mean really remembered. When was the last time you remembered and celebrated someone close to you who has died, someone whom you no longer see and touch and take to lunch?
But Jeff, praying for the dead? I don’t know. That just seems too…weird for me. I mean they’re dead. That’s ok. I get that. So here are a few ideas for something else you can do that I got from Vinita Hampton Wright over at Loyola Press:
- Journal about five key moments you spent with the person. They could be joyful or painful moments—but they should be important to your own life journey.
- Create a picture or collage of the person. Use color, symbols, pictures from magazines, anything at all.
- Tell a story about the person to someone else. This is especially wonderful when you can tell stories of grandma to the grandkids who never met her, or stories of a dad to the son who is now a teenager and needs to know more about the father he can barely remember.
- Journal a conversation with the person. You can’t take her out to lunch, but you can imagine her across your kitchen table. Have a chat. And don’t be afraid to listen.
Number three is probably my favorite. How often do we hear it said that as long as we remember someone and pass those memories on to others, the spirit of that someone never really dies. Now as a Catholic and a Christian I don’t believe in the death of the soul. I believe it lives on. But I think one of the best things we can do to honor our loved ones who’ve gone before us is to speak of them…to remember them…to share their stories. I also like number four. I’ve had those conversations with my deceased grandmothers. One of them has been the voice of my conscience; the other the voice of common sense.
I don’t expect to be a man to whom great monuments will be built. My name will not likely grace the side of a building or a bridge or a street. My monuments are my children and (I hope) my children’s children, as well as those friends or others whose lives I affected for the better. It is to them that I trust my story will be told so that I am remembered after I’m gone.
God, our creator and redeemer,
by your power Christ conquered death
and returned to you in glory.
May all your people,
especially those we remember today,
who have gone before
us in faith
share his victory
and enjoy the vision of your glory for ever,
where Christ lives and reigns with you and the
one God, for ever and ever.
From the Office of the Dead
Addendum: Frank Weathers has posted what may be one of the best poems I’ve ever read for All Souls Day. It’s long, but well worth a slow, deliberate read. I echo what he says: it does help to explain why the Catholic Church celebrates the Feast of All Souls, and why we pray for the faithful departed. And I really enjoy the chivalric aspects of Kenelm Henry Digby’s poem.