Thursday, November 1, 2007

Our Beloved Dead


Our Beloved Dead

This time of year, beginning with Halloween and extending through the month of November, is one that has roots which if called ancient would be an understatement. Virtually every culture in the world has had some history of making special remembrance of the dead during this time of year. For example, Guamán Poma de Ayala, a missionary in Peru in 1615 wrote this, "November is the Month of the Dead. The deceased were removed from their graves, redressed with rich garments and feathers. They gave the dead food and drink. The people danced and sang with the dead, parading them around the streets." While that may seem a bit extreme to us today, it does underlie the same basic reality that we know today - that the dead are not forgotten; they are not gone forever; the dividing line between Heaven and earth is not has concrete as we might think.

On Thursday and Friday we celebrated All Saints' Day and All Souls' Day respectively. Both of these days remind us to pray with and to all of our beloved deceased who have made it to the glory of Heaven (All Saints' Day); and to pray for all of our beloved dead who are perhaps on their way, but not quite there yet (All Souls' Day). But, the Church goes farther than that making November a month dedicated to praying for the dead.

Now, on the surface this can sound dismal. But, it would be a great pity to think of commemorating the dead as morbid. Rather, remembering and praying for our beloved dead is an act that is profoundly full of hope and joy. What we celebrate as we remember our faithful departed - that they have attained the joy of Heaven - is what God has promised for each of us - that we will join them one day in that same glory. If we feel any sadness it is the sadness of separation; we do not see them right now. But, it is a temporary sadness.

The traditional teach of the Church speaks of the Church in three ways: the Church Militant referring to all of us Christians living today; the Church Triumphant, all the saints in glory; and the Church Suffering or Expectant meaning those souls in Purgatory awaiting the glory of Heaven. In a way, November is a month that brings these three aspects of the Church purposefully together in prayer. The Church Militant remembers and seeks the intercession of the Church Triumphant for the needs of the Church Expectant.

We believe that these aspects of the Church communicate with each other through the bond of prayer. We ask the help of the saints, we believe that they remember us before God in Heaven, and we also pray for those who are being made fit for heaven. Although God can act without these prayers, we believe that he regards them dearly, as a precious sign of the communion of believers.

There are many ways of remembering the dead: the two days we just celebrated (Saints and Souls), praying for the deceased at our cemetery; we also keep a Book of the Dead and remember them in prayer throughout the month; praying the rosary for them, and so on.

It is profoundly good for us to not shun, but to embrace these beautiful holy traditions in the month of November (and always). We will probably never imitate the Mexicans who keep their Dia de los muertos or Day of the Dead with sugar-candy skulls and crossbones, heaps of marigolds (the flower of the dead - some cultures use chrysanthemums) and tequila parties in cemeteries where the dead are invisibly in places of honor for the feast. But it would be unfortunate if our memorial of the dead was swept away, regarded as something morbid in our current culture that fears death.

We Catholics have always had a tradition of being on easy terms with death and the dead and why not? For the dead are not dead; they are well and truly alive with God. A good idea would be to spend half an hour making a list of all the dead known to us whom we wish to honor, and then to read out their names quietly to ourselves each day - our own little Memorial.

May God bless our beloved dead this month and always. May we pray for the Holy Souls in Purgatory. And may our beloved dead rest in peace. Amen.

Fr. Tom

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