The thirty days of November have long borne a lugubrious designation: the month of the dead.
All Souls' Day itself, historians say, arose in the 11th century. One year Saint Odilo, the Abbot of Cluny, urged his monks to follow All Saints' Day with one consecrated to praying for the faithful departed. We may not think of monks as being on the cutting edge, but that holy practice gradually spread through the whole Church and here we are a millennium later.
The logic of charity
It makes perfect sense if you think about it. After exulting in the intercession of all the saints, the Church urges us — the love of Christ impels us (2 Cor 5:14) — to intercede for all those who need a bit more refining in the divine furnace before joining the company of heaven. "This is the dogma of the Communion of Saints put into practice," the great Carmelite theologian Father Gabriel of Saint Mary Magdalen explained:
The Church triumphant intercedes for us, the Church militant; and we, in our turn, hasten to the help of the Church suffering. Death has taken from us those who have died in the kiss of the Lord. The bond of charity continues to unite us, enfolding in one embrace earth, heaven, and purgatory, so that there circulates from one region to another the fraternal assistance which springs from love, which has as its end the triumph of love in the common glory of Paradise.
Think of it as a virtuous circle, or a whirlwind of charity from the heart of God, drawing souls heavenward.
Where they have gone, we will go
"Contemplation of the lives of those who have followed Christ," Saint John Paul II said, "encourages us to lead a good, upright Christian life which makes us worthy of the Kingdom of God. Thus we are called to supernatural vigilance…so that we can prepare ourselves each day for eternal life." For my part, it was not until I entered religious life that I began to think very seriously or very often about death. Aside from the natural tendency of youth to avoid such a preoccupation, very few people close to my family died when I was a kid. In fact, strange as it may seem, the first body of a recently deceased person I ever saw was John Paul II's, lying in state at Saint Peter's Basilica in 2005. I was then a graduate student in theology in Austria, and shortly after we heard the news the pope had died the students and faculty piled into buses and rode through the night to pay our respects. When we arrived in Rome the next morning, the line to get into Saint Peter's already snaked back and forth across the piazza and down the Via della Conciliazione, yielding a four-hour wait. As we inched along it felt like a metaphor for the much larger pilgrimage we are all on. We knew, of course, that we were moving little by little towards a confrontation with life's end — a human body lying in a coffin — but at the same time we were filled with joy, embraced by the arms of the Church in Bernini's colonnade, harboring no doubt about the Lord's promise: I am the resurrection and the life; whoever believes in me, even if he dies, will live (Jn 11:25).
Since then death has become a more frequent meditation, and praying for the dead a daily duty. Every evening before dinner in Dominican priories the community gathers while the superior reads the names of all whose anniversary of death it is, along with the year of their passing. We then recite Psalm 130, called the De Profundis for its first verse: Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord. As a young novice I recall noticing the older friars make some subtle reaction, a nod or smile, at the mention of certain names (usually the ones they had amusing stories about). Now, eleven years and quite a few funerals later, I recognize many names myself.
The first funeral of a fellow friar I attended also made a powerful impression on me. The old friar lying in the coffin was dressed exactly as I was, in a black and white habit — though he had a stole placed around his neck because, a priest in this life, he remains one in aeternum (Ps 110:4). I had never met him and hadn't even known his name — Father Raymond — until we received news of his death and were told by the novice master we'd be going to the funeral. But I was aware of a bond that didn't depend on having been old pals. Mere weeks into the life Father Raymond lived for decades, I was grateful to be part of the band of brothers gathered at his coffin at the end of the funeral, singing the solemn Salve Regina of the Dominican Order. It remains a great encouragement to me that someday others whom I may have never met will do the same for me, and my name will be read out year after year. Your rod and your staff comfort me (Ps 23:4)
"In praying for the dead," to quote John Paul II once more, "the Church above all contemplates the mystery of the Resurrection of Christ, who obtains salvation and eternal life for us through his cross." All Souls' Day, 2019, will be soon behind us like the thousand that have come and gone since Odilo's time. But each of us, no matter our age or condition, continues to walk in the valley of the shadow of death. Let us follow the lead of the good Abbot again and repeat his prayer: "The cross is my refuge, my way, and my life. The cross is my invincible weapon. The cross repels all evil. The cross dispels the darkness."
Father Sebastian White, O.P. "The thirty days of November." lead editorial from Magnificat (November, 2019).
Reprinted with permission of Magnificat.
Father Sebastian White, O.P., is editor-in-chief of Magnificat. Baptized Catholic as an infant, his parents left shortly after to worship in Assemblies of God and Evangelical Free congregations. Fr. Sebastian also attended an Anglican Church before entering into full communion with the Catholic Church.Copyright © 2019 Magnificat
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