remembering our dead

(fr Cyprian)

There are three points I’d like to address regarding the Commemoration of All the Faithful Departed, as it is officially called; All Souls’ Day, as it is popularly known. The first is this: the aim of this commemoration is to pray for those who have died, especially for those in purgatory, those who have not yet completed the journey. This whole notion of purgatory is one of those things that separate us from other Christian traditions. Some suggest that it was invented by the Benedictine monks of Cluny (specifically Abbot St. Odilo) in the 10th century as a “fund raising project,” and then it was later expanded on by St. Thomas Aquinas and Dante. As Saint Paul says though, what we are dealing with here is a great mystery[i]; in a sense it’s the telos–the ultimate end of life as Christianity explains it and that universal question, “What happens to our essential self after this body dies?” In some way this is the question that has spurred all religious traditions on. Think of the Buddha stepping out of his palace and seeing sickness, old age and death, the beginning of his spiritual quest. And all of our best guesses, even those based on Scripture and tradition, are still seeing in a mirror dimly,[ii] trying to describe what is on the other side of the veil. And this particular formulation about Purgatory has never bothered me, that at least in a first stage after the body dies whatever we still haven’t finished, whatever we are still attached to, clinging to, we still get a chance to work out on the other side. That’s a sign of God’s mercy! Paul insists, there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ[iii]; and the purgation, as horrible as it sounds, is more like the tongue of the mother horse washing the newborn colt; if there is fire, it is the fire of God’s love burning away all that is not godly so that we can be one spirit with God. And so we pray for our dead, as N. T. Wright wrote, “that they will be refreshed and filled with God’s joy and peace. Love passes into prayer; we still love them; why not hold them, in that love, before God?”[iv] And one other thing, which our Fr. Robert pointed out to me some years ago that I found very consoling, the dead are closer to God than we are now, so we could also ask them to pray for us!

For my second point I’ll describe something that happened to me years ago. Within my first two weeks of entering Saint Meinrad Seminary when I was 19, three deaths happened within a few days of each other: a close family friend who died in her 40s of lupus, my Sicilian grandmother, and a monk right there at St. Meinrad named Mark Toomb. I was able to attend the monk’s funeral and somehow it felt like me being able to celebrate it for all three of them. It was my first experience of a monastic funeral, and they do liturgy exceptionally well there at St. Meinrad, so everything was pristine and elegant and yet simple as well. I’ll never forget the long procession out of abbey church down to the graveyard, the monks with their black hoods up, the candles and cross and incense, the chanting… but the thing that really stands out for me was after I thought the whole ceremony was over at the graveside this monk went over to the graveside, picked up a shovel, and threw a shovelful of dirt on top of the wooden casket, and it hit the casket with a thwack!!, and I just about jumped out of my skin. And then one by one each monk went up and did the same. And I feel like, even after having experienced several deaths by that time in my life, I didn’t really understand the finality of the body being buried in the soil until then, and so the finality of death. With our embalming and make-up, and lead caskets and cement vaults, and the artificial grass that gets put on top of the hole, undertakers try to make it as easy on us as possible, but at some point we have to face the––are there proper words for it?––unfathomable mysterious final transition that death is. And that act of shoveling dirt in the grave, like every funeral, wasn’t for the dead monk––it was for the sake of the shoveler, so as to memento mori! Wake up to the reality of this so as to be able not just to be ready, but to recognize the precious fragility and the swiftness of this amazing life as well, so as to be awake and really alive.

And my third point, as I heard a young mother tell her children once when a close friend of the family died, it’s okay to be sad. Just like funerals, a commemoration such as this one is not just for those who have died; it’s also for us. We need to grieve. This is a point that Richard Rohr makes very strongly in his teachings about male spirituality: that men especially do not grieve well. The problem is, untapped, unacknowledged, unexpressed grief is dangerous. It turns into anger, passive aggression, rage, depression, lethargy, and worse. I think it has subtle powerful ramifications on us physically as well as psychologically, in all kinds of ghost symptoms from stomach problems and insomnia through cancer. We store it somewhere in our body, I’m convinced of it. The phrase that keeps coming to mind is Paul’s advice to Timothy: If we have died with the Lord, we shall live with the Lord.[v] It’s only by allowing ourselves to feel the full weight of our pain and sadness, the full weight of Good Friday, that we will be able to celebrate the full joy of Easter. I love the fact that we wear white vestments now when we celebrate funerals, and that we call them “Masses of the Resurrection.” But I must say, though I would never want to go back to it, I have heard people make pretty convincing arguments for the old way of wearing black. We need to grieve! My friend Fr. Tony and I were talking the other day about the old Italian wakes where the body would be left out in the living room, and at some point the widow dressed in black might walk up to the casket and start pounding on her dead husband’s chest crying and screaming, “You son of a *&^$#%! You left me with seven children! What am I gonna do without you?!” There’s something right about that. (Maybe one compromise would be to start out wearing black vestments and then change into white halfway through, like the New Orleans funeral bands that march to the cemetery playing a slow dirge, and then break into an ecstatic rendition of “O When the Saints Go Marchin’ In” on the way home.) It’s a good thing to grieve; as Stevie Wonder sings, there is “joy inside my tears.”

We here at New Camaldoli also have a celebration on the 6th of November to remember our Camaldolese brothers and sisters who have died. And all through the month of November we have requests coming in from our friends and oblates to hold their loved ones in prayer too. So, let’s remember our dead––who are in some way with us praying for us even as we pray for them––“that they will be refreshed and filled with God’s joy and peace.”[vi] And let’s keep death before our own eyes so as to pledge to ourselves to live this day and every moment ready and fully alive, “until the hour when we stand before [God],” as the 1st Eucharistic Prayer for Reconciliation says, “Saints among Saints in the halls of heaven.”[vii] And finally, let’s give ourselves permission to be sad, and learn how to grieve. The Resurrected Lord will change our mourning into joy, our death into a dance, at night there may be tears but joy comes with the dawn.[viii]


[i] 1 Cor 15:51.

[ii] 1 Cor 13:12.

[iii] Rom 8:1.

[iv] Surprised by Hope, 170.

[v] 2 Tm 2:11.

[vi] Surprised by Hope, 170.

[vii] Eucharistic Prayer for Reconciliation I.

[viii] Ps 30:12, 6b.

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