All Saints picture ("Allerheiligenbild") by Albrecht Durer (1511)
A seminary in Ireland,
now closed, was dedicated to the training of priests for foreign missions, for
strange places such as California. It was called "All Hallows", that is, All
Saints, November 1. Oxford University in England has a college called "All
Souls," November 2. Taken together, all saints and all souls are designed to
cover all of the final combinations of the human race except all the still
living, who are waiting to join one or the other of the previous categories.
Come to think of it, all "all saints" all have souls. What are left are all
lost souls who, presumably, have already also made their final choices about
how they are permanently to be.
Most of my relatives are buried in the Catholic Cemetery
just at the edge of Pocahontas, a small county seat in rural northwest Iowa. My
mother's grandparents, my grandparents on both sides of my family, my mother
herself, and, I believe, all but one of her thirteen brothers and sisters are
buried in this neat cemetery. Two of my father's brothers are also there; his
other brother is a few miles east in the cemetery in Clare. Two of my father's
four sisters are buried there, as well as numerous cousins and their families,
though many are scattered in later years. My own father is buried in the
cemetery in Santa Clara, and my brother in the cemetery in Spokane.
On the Second of November, many families, especially in small
towns, decorate the graves with flowers, have Masses or prayers said for their
deceased relatives, and in general remember them. In modern cities, I think, we
are in danger of losing contact with the dead in our families and in our
culture. Families move. Cremation changes things. There are so many of us. We
do not have to be superstitious, of course. We believe in the immortality of
the soul and the resurrection of the body. Our contact with cemeteries is
designed to recall our very mortality, but also to remind us of what we hold
about death and its place in our lives.
As we get older, we find that many
more of our immediate family are dead than alive. We find friends gone. Such is
our lot. To wish it otherwise, while not a totally unhealthy exercise, needs to
be understood clearly. It is given unto every man once to die, thence the
judgment, as it says in the Book of Maccabees. Death has become a hospital, not
a home, thing. The dead body is a source of parts, to be somehow passed on to
others. We think almost exclusively of the living, not of the dead.
We celebrate lives at funerals. We
do not worry about souls and their fates. The elderly are a problem, even a
social and political problem, not sources of wisdom. Cemeteries are often
desired for the land they take up. Laws exist about how long cemeteries are to
be kept intact. We still notice that many Latino and Asian families somehow
take care of their own elderly at home, whereas with others this care is often
passed on to various institutions and specialists. This may not be all bad, but
we should reflect on it.
Belloc's wonderful book, The
, describes a walk he took in the
English county of Sussex, from October 29 till All Souls' Day, 1902. As the
four walkers reach the end of their walk, the old man, who, like the other
three walkers, is Belloc himself, makes the following memorable farewell
There is nothing
at all that remains: not any house; nor any castle, however strong; nor any
love, however tender and sound; not any comradeship among men, however hardy.
Nothing remains but the things of which I will not speak, because we have
spoken enough of them already during these four days. But I who am old will
give you advice, which is this: to consider chiefly from now onward those
permanent things which are, as it were, the shores of this age and the harbours
of our glittering and pleasant but dangerous and wholly changeful sea. When he
had said this (by which he meant Death), the other two, looking sadly at me,
stood silent also for about the time in which a man can say good-bye with
I have always been moved by this
haunting passage--nothing at all remains, the glittering and pleasant but
dangerous and wholly changeful sea, the time in which a man can say good-bye
In the Breviary, for the Feast of
All Souls, the Church includes a very powerful passage from St. Ambrose about
the death of his brother, Satyrus. This is a particularly significant
reflection on death. Ambrose tells us that Christ did not need to die if he did
not want to. This position does not mean that Christ was a sort of suicide. It
means that, as God, nothing could happen to Him without His own will, which
acted in free obedience to the Father. Thus the obvious question arises about
why the Father might require this obedience?
To this question Ambrose adds that
Christ could have found no better means to save us than by dying. We can and do
try to imagine a better way. We come up with alternatives. Much of ancient and
modern thought is an attempt to find a suitable alternative to explain why the
human condition is as it is. This same thought is quite disconcerted with the
notion that the Christian explication might, after all, be true. The connection
is between Christ's death and the saving of mankind. The former was necessary
if the latter were to be accomplished, while protecting both divine and human
liberty in the events leading to a proper salvation.
But why does mankind need saving?
Why cannot it save itself? Ambrose continues, "death was not part of nature; it
became part of nature." This sentence must be examined. Clearly, it states that
a finite being like man, the mortal, is naturally slated to die. This view,
that death is not part of nature, goes against all our thinking about what
finite creature like ourselves are. But such a mere mortal, born to die, never
existed in fact.
From the beginning of God's
intention in creation, the man who did exist was destined to a supernatural
end, to participation in the inner life of God. This was something beyond what
it is to be a human being as such. This possibility was due to something over
and above what was naturally due to man. What we know as "original sin", that
necessary but perplexing doctrine, is the reason why the initial relation of
man to his end did not come about. This fall, as we call it, meant that death
subsequently became part of nature, in Ambrose's words.
We are all thus so interconnected
that the actions of one person can affect all the others. If this connection
with others would not be possible, men would be naturally isolated from one
another, not social animals. No one could stand such a solitary life. Ambrose
continues, "God did not decree death from the beginning." In the beginning, to
use the first words of Genesis, God decreed no death for the particular man He
created and for his descendants. How did God prescribe death then? Ambrose says
that He prescribed it in the actual context in which He found it, that is, in
the context of Adam and Eve's choice, as a remedy.
What a remarkable insight! But a
remedy? Death is a remedy? What can this mean? How could precisely death remedy
anything? Is this merely irony? It seems, in this context, that only life could
be a remedy. But remember death is proposed as a remedy for what has happened
as a result of the fall, as a result of sin--all sin. Thus, something connected
with the essence and nature of sin and its consequence justifies God in
proposing the odd notion that death is a remedy for what has gone wrong in the
human condition by man's own choosing.
Ambrose gives the following
explanation of our fallen situation. He takes it to be based on something we
all recognize. Human life was condemned because of sin to unremitting labor and
unbearable sorrow and so began to experience the burden of wretchedness. These
are almost the same words used in Genesis about what would happen to Adam and
Eve if they ate of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, that is, if they
chose to make up their own laws.
The origin of this wretchedness
among us, about which wretchedness all the subsequent history of mankind
attests, is not God. We are created good. We were offered a life with no death,
but such a life had to be chosen. Otherwise, it would have been imposed on us.
Hence, it would not really be ours. Without some remedy that we could not
concoct for ourselves, this wretchedness would go on and on, even midst our
dying. Remember, the original purpose of God in creating us--that we be offered
the inner life of God as our final destiny--never changed from the beginning.
The question now became, how would
this remedy work? There had to be a limit to its (wretchedness') evils. God is
not defeated by evil, but He cannot act as if it did not happen. John Paul II,
in one of his last books, maintained that what limits evil is "the divine
mercy." That is, God would only allow evil to occur insofar as He could, in
spite of it, lead things back to His original purpose.
Ambrose then explains the terms of
what must be done. Death had to restore what life had forfeited. Again this is
a thoroughly remarkable statement. What had life forfeited? Well, it forfeited
the not dying that was originally offered as a gift over and beyond what human
nature was in itself. It also forfeited thereby the original way that mankind
was offered to participate in the inner life of the Godhead, which is, in
itself, a life of infinite love that we describe as Trinity. No reason existed
in God why He had to create anything in the first place. He had no deficiency
or loneliness. Creation was in freedom, not necessity.
What then does death do? That is,
supposing no redemption, what will happen among our kind as a result of their
own sinning and its consequences on others? Without the assistance of grace,
immortality is more of a burden than a blessing. What does Ambrose say here?
First, he implies that we cannot redeem ourselves. We need a redeemer who is
not just human, but still human. We need someone like unto us in all things
"except sin," to recall Paul's words.
The soul, as the Greeks taught, is,
however, itself naturally immortal. But that is an eerie kind of life from
which also we need to be redeemed. But why exactly would immortality--which
means, whatever its moral condition, the continuation forever of the soul
without the body--be a burden
First, we are not just souls and
are not intended to be. Aristotle had already hinted at something of this issue
in his tractate on friendship, when he wondered if we would want our friend to
be a god, that is, a pure spiritual being or soul? No, he thought, we want to
be what we are, beings complete with bodies and souls. Thus, it would be
wretched both to continue in a disordered life, even as a soul, and as an
incomplete life without a body.
The immortality of the soul is a
Greek teaching, though Christians also hold it to be true. The Christian use of
the immortality of the soul is to explain how we are the same person who dies
and who rises again. Without this connection provided by immortality, it is
senseless to talk of personal continuity and even less of resurrection. What
Ambrose says is that we need grace to accomplish this reunion. What we also
need is someone who actually dies with the power to raise us up. And someone
actually needs to atone for our sins. This is why Christ is central in any
discussion of souls on All Souls Day.
Our souls, or our minds as the
active powers of our souls in knowing the order of things, do know permanent
things. They know what is
. And they know
that they know. Socrates, at the end of his trial, figured that since his soul
was immortal, he would continue to do what he always did, to speak and converse
about the highest things with his friends. We do not disagree with this possibility.
But we add that we also converse with God, become friends with God, not by our
own power, but by grace through the death of Christ which destroyed the death
that was the punishment for sin.
Thus, All Saints' Day and All
Souls' Day give us much to think about. On both days, we recognize that
salvation includes keeping human beings to be what they are even in redemption,
or especially in redemption. On All Souls' Day we recall the dead, we realize
that death is also given to us as a remedy. It is a remedy for our sins, for
our lives in the midst of sins' consequences, the wretchedness of lives and
existence that merely goes on and on. The remedy is also a return to what is
the initial purpose in creation. That is, we are still enabled, even in the midst
of sin and death, freely to choose what we shall be. Not even God can make this
latter choice for us. On this choice, and its implications, the real drama of
the universe consists.
As Ambrose said, Christ could have
found no better way to save us than by dying. How long does it take to say
good-bye with reverence? The real answer to this question is that we are not
ultimately intended to say "good-bye." This is why we were originally created
without death. And this is why, when we are redeemed on the Cross, we are
redeemed by One who says, succinctly, that "I no longer call you servants, but
friends." The friendship of man with God now includes death. But this death is
now a remedy for not the cause of, our wretchedness. Perhaps these are some of
the things we can think about as we visit our cemeteries in early November, on
All Hallows' Day and on All Souls' Day. When we walk in our cemeteries we are
reminded that, among the ultimately permanent things, we ourselves are
included. Such is the meaning of these November days.
[Editor's note: This essay originally appeared on Ignatius Insight
on October 31, 2006.]