All Saints’ Day is one of those ecumenically happy events. While some Protestants object to the Catholic practice of declaring specific individuals saints in a way different from other people, most don’t have a problem with celebrating the reality that is depicted in John’s glimpse of heaven in the Book of Revelation—martyrs and virgins and great multitudes from all nations praising the Lamb who was slain. Even the Protestants who reject All Saints’ entirely and opt for “Reformation Day” generally tend to celebrate a particular band of “saints” like Martin Luther and John Calvin who, they say, returned Christianity to its pristine state.
All Souls’ Day, on the other hand, takes part in the paradoxical nature of Catholic teaching on the reality of death.
This paradoxical nature, Catholics claim, comes directly from the very foundations of Christianity. Jesus of Nazareth, building upon the preaching of the Hebrew prophecies, proclaims to his audience that the Kingdom of God is both here and now and…is coming soon. His resurrection from the dead is the definitive sign that for human beings, death is no longer the last word. Various cultures and religions have claimed that the soul survives death, but the Christian claim is startlingly new. It’s not just that you will exist as a lonely soul floating around in a dark, dank land of the dead, as so many of the ancient civilizations believed. It’s that you will be given a new and imperishable body. Your dead body, says St. Paul, echoing Jesus himself, is like a kernel of wheat “buried” in the ground. The transformation that takes place from seed to plant is like that from an earthly body to a heavenly resurrected body. In view of this reality, St. Paul writes to the infant Church gathered at the Greek city of Corinth, quoting the Hebrew Prophets Isaiah and Hosea: “‘Death is swallowed up in victory.’ ‘O death, where is they victory? O death where is thy sting?’”(1 Corinthians 15:54-5).
And even before that marvelous day of the final Resurrection, it is still true, says St. Paul, that to be “away from the body” is to be “at home with the Lord” (2 Corinthians 5:8)—and is thus a good thing. Thus, one side of the argument, and a strong one at that, echoing down through the centuries, is that death is indeed a good thing, something to be celebrated and not grieved. The Mass is itself a memorial not just of Christ’s death but also his resurrection. “We are a resurrection people,” said St. Augustine (354-430) in one of his homilies. The significance of death is that one has entered into the presence of God and is now preparing for the resurrection.
From this side of the picture grief could be seen as something somewhat suspicious, a sign that perhaps one loved the present life more than the heavenly one to come, or perhaps that one loved the deceased more than God himself. Better to take the attitude of the 13th-century saint Francis of Assisi and refer fondly to “Sister Death.” Yet there was always another side.
St. Paul’s words about death swallowed up in victory were themselves in the context of his own preaching about the completion of the Kingdom of God which Jesus said was both here and coming. “The last enemy to be destroyed,” St. Paul writes, “is death” (1 Corinthians 15: 26). Death is to be destroyed, but unfortunately it isn’t dead yet. And as it isn’t swallowed up in victory yet, it is still particularly difficult to swallow. If Catholics profess to experience the reality of Jesus’ resurrection here in this life, we also experience the reality of his death in the deaths of our loved ones. So grief has a place. Even if those loved ones “have gone to a better place,” we who are left have not. And our love for them must enter into the same mysterious sphere as faith—something that we do without the comfort of sight. Grief is not a sign of superficiality or weakness of faith. Instead, we mourn in faith because we recognize that the loss is real and deep.
This was no simple theoretical matter, either. Medieval people were especially attached to the necessity of the imitation of Christ the Lord. Upon finding his friend Lazarus dead, St. John’s Gospel tells us, “He wept” (John 15:35). He wept despite the fact that he preached the final resurrection of the dead. He wept despite the fact that he knew he would raise Lazarus from the dead that day if only to temporarily extend his earthly life. If Jesus the Lord of Life could grieve, his followers reasoned, then so could they.
Yet if grief was a legitimate reaction to death, it had to be a particular kind of grief. Writing of the resurrection in another place, St. Paul writes that this reality should affect our reactions to our beloved dead, “that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope” (2 Thessalonians 4:13). Catholic grief must be shot through with hope of the resurrection of our beloved.
Of course everything I’ve said thus far could probably describe most Christians and their attitudes. But what I learned when my mother died of cancer only a few short years after I had become a Catholic was that there were several elements of the Catholic approach to grief that were particularly helpful. These made my experience of grieving my mother slightly different from the grief I endured when losing my two grandmothers and a beloved aunt in the few years before Mom died.
On All Souls’ Day, however, this paradoxical attitude to death is lit up by the specifically Catholic teachings on purgatory and the continuing connection of the dead to the living. All Souls’, after all, isn’t merely about grieving over death or celebrating it. It is primarily about helping the dead reach the fullness of union with Christ. If death is a good thing for the faithful Christian ultimately, it is, Catholic teaching asserts, not necessarily instantly a case of heaven. My discovery when I became a Catholic was that it was these aspects of Catholic teaching, rejected by the Reformers, that not only seemed true but were comforting in the deepest sense. And I discovered it when my mother died.
My Protestant friends complain that purgatory denigrates the work of Christ in saving us, making salvation something Christ doesn’t really accomplish, but simply makes possible. This theological error, they say, results in a psychological block to our grief: we can’t say that our loved ones’ suffering is over and thus we cannot really grieve properly since they aren’t really in a better place. But my friends mistake the theological nature of purgatory. It is simply the continuing work of Christ in sanctifying (making holy) people whom he has saved, not those people making up for Christ’s shoddy work. My friends also mistake what it means for grieving loved ones.
What Catholic teaching about purgatory gives the mourner is something to say and something to do. No one ever knows quite what to say to mourners. “She’s in a better place” can seem hollow, as C.S. Lewis commented in his marvelous A Grief Observed. “I’m sorry” is always good. But what a number of my non-Catholic relatives and friends observed to me was that they appreciated how my Catholic friends could say, “I’m sorry” but also, “I’ll be praying for her” or, “I’ve had a Mass said for her” or, “We’ll pray the Rosary for you.” It is, my relatives said, a wonderful testimony to the Catholic belief that our beloved dead are beyond our sight, but not beyond our reach. Purgatory means for grief that when we believe in hope that our loved ones have joined Christ we are also capable, in our union with Christ in prayer, of still helping them along as they are made finally and fully their truest and best selves in Christ.
It’s not just a one-way street. What many friends often say and half-believe—that our loved ones still “look down” and “take care of us”—is something that Catholics believe is literally true. Saints (those who’ve made it all the way into heaven) and those still being cleansed in purgatory do not pray for themselves: they pray for us. What details they know of our lives is a mystery nobody can know, but the fact that they still look down on us and pray for us is a comfort. This strong belief and the help it gave to me was another thing friends and relatives commented on.
Finally, the beliefs about the two-way connection between us and our beloved dead meant something for me as I dealt with my own grief. They helped me realize the truth that mourning and grief do not end with the funeral. And the practices associated with those beliefs both reinforced this truth and provided a means for living out those beliefs. Early Christians celebrated the funeral Mass as a memorial and a plea to God to fulfill his promises and “complete the good work that he began” generally on the third day after death. This was symbolic of the identification of the Christian with Christ who was raised on the third day. But this tradition was complemented in various other Churches by Memorial Masses variously on the seventh, ninth, 30th, and 40th days after death, as well as on the anniversaries of death. In the Church universal there grew up the custom of remembering all of the dead. In the Eastern Churches, a number of days throughout the year were designated for prayer for all the faithful. They were generally on Saturdays, since it was on that day that Christ’s own body rested in the tomb. In the West the various customary days eventually settled on November 2, the day after the commemoration of All Saints, the commemoration of all those who are in heaven.
William Faulkner observed, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” This is the Catholic view of the dead as well. They’re not just in the past; they live in Christ’s presence no matter whether they are fully there or are being cleansed of anything unholy. All Souls’ Day is the big reminder of this. My kids, even the ones who didn’t know her, still have my mother as part of daily life. We remember her death every July 25, but also daily at mealtimes when we add to our blessing, “God bless Grandma Deavel…and may the souls of the faithful departed rest in peace.” And we remember her today, along with all of the souls of our faithful departed, even those whose faith, as one of the prayers of the Eucharist has it, “is known to You alone.” They still love us, we still love them. As Catholics we know we don’t have to “get over” our grief for our loved ones. We can allow it to grow further and further in the hope of Christ’s promises until it blossoms fully into love.
(This essay originally appeared on the CWR site on November 2, 2012.)