our beloved deceased
We monks of New Camaldoli commemorate our beloved deceased once a year, in February. The readings this year, though not especially selected, were amazingly appropriate.
In the first reading King David’s son had been attempting to kill David and seize the throne. Nevertheless, when David hears of his son’s death, he mourns in heartrending cries: My son Absalom! My son Absalom! If only I had died instead of you, Absalom, my son, my son. The grief of losing a loved one is intensely expressed in this early Jewish text. If we love deeply, we are going to suffer and grieve deeply, whatever be the faults of the person lost.
In the Gospel the crowd is grieving the daughter of Jairus, a Temple official, convinced she is dead. Jesus says she is just sleeping, and ordering all the others out of the room, he raises her up. Another powerful prefiguring of the central Gospel proclamation for us that Christ broke out of the grips of death and rose to endless Life, and will raise us up similarly, into the boundless joy and peace and love of heaven.
How should we relate in our time with our beloved deceased? Some of us have had wonderful experiences in this life with them, others less so. But if we are at all at peace with who we are, where we are, how many good things of life and the spirit we enjoy, how much of all of that do we owe to our family members who have gone before, maybe parents, brothers and sisters, grandparents, etc.? Our sheer existence, our having been fed, physically, mentally, and hopefully spiritually, able to make it to where we are. We can thank them in heaven, and thank God, Who worked so providentially through them.
Then our fuller, deeper genealogy links us to a huge multitude of deceased family members, the great majority unbeknown to us. In the past, families might trace their lineage back only through the male line, father, grandfather, great grandfather, etc. It was assumed that the male was decisive in the begetting, the female only a “receptacle” for the growing life within her from the male. But just our DNA knowledge demonstrates how decisive the mother and all previous mothers have been for the offspring, for us.
And in this fuller tracing of genealogy, connections rapidly fan out exponentially. One has only 2 parents, but then 4 grandparents, then 8 great grand parents, etc. etc. and with all the uncles and aunts and cousins to consider. Not so much a family “tree” as an immense family Amazon forest! So if we go back far enough our own genealogical fan connects with every other. Finally our family becomes the human family! And we are indebted to so many, by their decisions, their life commitments, their good works, in ways we will never know. A great mystery, inspiring our awe and deep gratitude.
So we want to pray for those deceased close to us, but also for all of the human family gone before. And in the perspective of doctors of the Church and theologians like St. Gregory of Nyssa, all those in heaven are constantly growing in the boundless, limitless wisdom and love of God.
They cannot taste God’s boundless goodness without yearning for still more, and God is constantly granting that yet fuller union. We can pray that that growth, that divinization, might go on and on and on and expand ever more.
And we can ask their prayers for us, that we also grow daily in God’s wisdom and love, in preparation for our great Passover. Those who have gone before are not, in the Christian perspective, unconcerned about us, or fatalistically cut off from us. Rather they are interceding for us, helping us on our way. And for many still “down here” there is the experience of a subtle, mysterious communion with them, nothing spooky, but an awareness of their gentle, loving presence and care.
And if we reflect on those we have known, recalling them at their very best, their finest qualities, words, and deeds, we can realize that what limits and defects and faults they had, their fears and angers etc., are now fallen away, so that we need to expand our conception of what they were at their very best, now beyond what we can even imagine, as they become ever more “image and likeness of God.” They can also reveal to us what we are called to become in our fuller, mysterious destiny in God.