THE ROMAN MISSAL identifies this past Sunday as The Commemoration of the Faithful Departed. I prefer the secondary name, simply All Souls, otherwise we are left to ask, what about the unfaithful departed, the not-so-faithful departed, the sporadically faithful departed, the faltering faithful departed? In Mexico the day is simply called, The Day of the Dead.
The word commemoration is important: with remembering. Remembering everything that was good, healthy, life-giving, edifying in the relationships where the other is now deceased. Or perhaps remembering the relationships where the other is deceased where there was sorrow, pain, abuse, sickness - and I survived it and even grew through it all. The element of gratitude is strong on this feast day.
There is also the theme of praying for the forgiveness of sins committed by those who have died. Does Jesus need to be convinced by our prayers to forgive? When Jesus loves, he loves by forgiving. More than anything, maybe the prayers for the dead are simply expressions of love for those who have gone to the other side.
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There is a theology of the deceased called a toll theology. That when someone dies, the journey continues as the souls of the departed wend their way to heaven. The soul stops along the way (at tolls) to kind of pay up. While devils appear announcing every sinful act, angels rush to announce every pure-hearted, good and kind act. There's a contest over the soul.
We're able to help the soul pay by offering Masses, prayers, candles and good deeds in the deceased's name. This rather fanciful theology has never been approved or endorsed, though many people live by it. We each work out our salvation in this life. Again, perhaps the real thing being expressed here is our love for those who have go ahead of us - or perhaps a desire to express repentance for where we came up short in love or a desire to forgive.
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In the mid 1980's I was chaplain to a University Hospital where I witnessed many people who in their dying lingered long. Often they needed to be told, "You can go now." Sometimes they were told this because loved ones hated to see a dear one suffer or, truth be told, the relatives needed to get on with life and this dying was taking too long.
Maybe the dying person had some kind of business to finish up with God. Or maybe they were just controllers, persons un-surrendered who couldn't imagine the family could carry on without them.
But it seems to me that in this life the Christian is called to practice abandonment - entrusting everything of life to the loving kindness of God. We call it Divine Providence: trusting that God will provide, that God will take care. And if we are abandoned now, then, when death approaches, we will already be in the good habit of surrender, allowing for our physical death, our stepping over, to be the easiest.
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In the 1950's and 60's we spent so much time thinking about and talking about death, sin, guilt, judgement, heaven, hell, purgatory - even flames - that we neglected to talk about what it meant to be alive - except to avoid sin and behave well.
I'd suggest that as the garden is put to bed for the winter, the old, frosted and dead stems cut back and the new life already showing close to the ground where it will weather the winter, the November question is just that: What does it mean to be really alive in the time of this life that God has given me today? In my first parish there was an old man who was the weekend rectory cook. I never saw him go to Mass and he had no obvious spiritual reference. I asked him one day, "Do you believe in heaven?" and he answered, "I believe in right now." That's not a bad answer.