Tag Archives: All Souls Day

Her Wounds of Love

Molly DailyMolly Daily, ND ’14

Intern, Washington University & Webster University Catholic Student Center Campus Ministry

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This time of year, parishes start bringing out Books of Life or Books of Remembrance – a place to write the names of loved ones who have passed away – often with a particular focus on those who have passed away in the last year, but including those we have mourned for years.

This time of year, I find myself thinking about my grandma.

My grandmother was a vibrant, fiery redheaded woman who wasn’t even five feet tall. As I get older, I see how much of me is made up of her. She loved running, popcorn, shopping, and being busy. For the first seventeen years of my life, I don’t think I ever saw her sitting down for more than two minutes. Every time I visited her she made me “warm chocolate” – never hot, because then it would burn my tongue. She fit as many decorations as she could onto her house – most of which had an American flag on them – and told me that Mickey Mouse lived her neighbor’s little decorative toy house. And every time I slept over at her house, even when I was way too old to be tucked in, she would sing “You Are My Sunshine” to put me to sleep.

It’s hard to reconcile that image of my grandmother with the woman I kissed on the cheek in July six years ago, telling her that I’d see her again soon but knowing it was very possible that she would never see me again. This woman was frail, tired, and small. She could only speak a few words at a time, and she only ate chicken wings and Cheetos – and even then, she wouldn’t eat much.

My grandma was diagnosed with ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease), a degenerative neurological disorder that affects the voluntary muscles of the body. She was one of ten percent of ALS patients who was also diagnosed with dementia. ALS took her voice, her strength, and her ability to walk. Eventually, in July of 2009, it took her life as well.

Throughout the time my grandma was sick, I never really questioned God. I didn’t blame Him for giving her ALS – I blamed genetics and bad luck. I wasn’t angry with God, but I didn’t really see how He fit into this disease. ALS is gruesome, nasty, and painful. It takes a person’s dignity and their will to fight.

When someone dies of a painful disease, people like to tell you that now they’re in Heaven, doing what they loved most. For my grandma, that meant a lot of people told me she was running across the finish line of a race – something she hadn’t been able to do for years – and God was waiting for her with an ice cold Guinness in hand. There was a part of that statement that was comforting, sure, but it also reduced my grandma’s suffering, the last few years of her life, to nothing more than a hurdle to get over and something that was simply erased. In addition to knowing that God holding a beer was pretty theologically inaccurate, this view of my grandma’s afterlife left something to be desired. But I didn’t know how to improve that view, how to reconcile the pain of ALS with anything glorified. I wondered if my grandma was up in Heaven looking her healthiest and most robust again, or if she could walk and talk again.

It wasn’t until my senior year of college, four years later, that I got a satisfactory answer to some of these questions. I was in Dr. John Cavadini’s course, The Catholic Faith, when we began talking about suffering and death. He started asking us the same questions I had asked myself – what happens when we die? If someone is shot, do they bear that wound in Heaven, living with the pain forever? When a mother sacrifices herself in front of a van for her child, do those wounds, those pains, plague her?

Dr. Cavadini explained that as Catholics, we believe that those marks of suffering on our bodies that we bore as marks of love will remain on our souls – but they will be transformed, glorified. They will become beauty, incarnating the Love which we pour forth and worship. My mind immediately went to my grandmother, of course.The pains and hardships of ALS that made her weak and listless, I believe, are long gone now. However, I do believe what Dr. Cavadini told me – that those wounds, those pains she endured out of love, out of a desire to keep fighting and to stay with us just a bit longer – are glorified now. She is happy and whole – wounds and all.

It’s surprisingly easy for me to believe this, mostly because over past four years, I have already seen the glorification of her wounds in those she left behind. After bearing her loss together, my family is stronger than ever. My extended family gathers each year on her birthday to celebrate mass and have a meal together. After her funeral, we decided to keep in contact as regularly as we had when she was sick – a promise we’ve kept to this day.

I don’t wish the pain of ALS on anyone, and I wish my grandma was here with me today – but I find solace this time of year in knowing that her love remains with us to this day and adds dignity beyond measure to her life, and has glorified her wounds in her death.

Musical Mystagogy: All Souls Day

Carolyn Pirtle

Assistant Director, Notre Dame Center for Liturgy

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Today the Church observes the Commemoration of All the Faithful Departed, better known as All Souls Day. Indeed, the entire month of November has come to be associated with the remembrance of those who have gone before us marked with the sign of faith, and the music of the Church in no small way helps us to remember and to grieve, but ultimately, to find hope in the promise of the Resurrection.

Today’s piece is one that finds a balance between acknowledging the human struggle in the face of death and upholding faith in God as the only answer to that struggle. Welsh-born composer Geraint Lewis (b.1958) began composing his All Souls Day anthem The Souls of the Righteous in December 1991, and finished the piece in 1992, in the wake of losing his close friend and colleague—fellow composer William Mathias—to cancer. The piece testifies not only to his grief, but also to his faith in God as a source of solace and comfort even in the midst of that grief.

The text for this piece is taken from chapter three of the Book of Wisdom, which is one of the optional Old Testament readings for All Souls Day (Wis 3:1–9). It is also one of the optional Old Testament readings listed in the Rite of Christian Burial. Rather than set the entirety of the passage, Lewis distills the Wisdom text down and focuses on the texts that convey its two most essential truths: “The souls of the righteous are in the hand of God, and the pain of death shall not touch them,” and “To the eyes of the foolish, they seemed to perish, but they are at peace.”

Musically, Lewis conveys these two truths by constructing the entire piece around two central motifs. The first of these motifs unfolds in the extended organ introduction; the second is sung by the choir at its first entrance. The first motif consists of two brief phrases followed by an extended phrase—each phrase feeds into the next, and the effect here is evocative perhaps of the shortened inhalations and exhalations of a person in the final hours of life, culminating in the breathing forth of one’s spirit in the soaring extended phrase.

The second motif, in contrast, is constructed of long, even, sustained notes as the choir sings the text, “The souls of the righteous are in the hands of God, and the pain of death shall not touch them.” The simple yet noble choral melody seems to suspend the text in mid-air as an object held up for our contemplation. Here is the consolation offered by a loving God—the truth that never wavers, that sustains both those who face their final trial and those who mourn them after they have passed from this life into the next.

The organ and the choir engage in a dialogue, each repeating and developing its own motif as though the music is trying to help the listener come to terms with these truths which are ultimately beautiful and hope-filled, yet still challenging in the midst of grief. This dialogue continues until the piece reaches a turning point and, after an extended organ interlude, everything fades away save one low sustained note. It is in this moment, suspended between time and eternity, that the choir takes over the first motif with the text, “To the eyes of the foolish, they seemed to perish, but they are at peace.” This is what the organ has been trying to tell us all along. The souls of those whom we love and mourn are at peace, and we, we are the foolish, the slow to understand, the ones who struggle against their passing in our limited human ability to perceive the truth—that the souls of the righteous are in the hand of God, and the pain of death shall not touch them.

Aladár Körösfói-Kriesch, All Souls Day
Aladár Körösfói-Kriesch, All Souls Day

Even though we might assent to this profound truth intellectually and spiritually, the process of grieving is still a profound human and emotional struggle, because the experience of death remains shrouded in mystery. To gloss over this struggle or seek refuge in worn-out, shallow platitudes is to reduce the gravity of death. Yet, every moment of heart-rending grief can become a moment in which we who mourn can make an act of faith by acknowledging our devastation and, from the depths of our grief, placing our trust in God and the souls of our loved ones in his hands.

Lewis reflects this continuous struggle to seek and find consolation in God through his gentle use of dissonance in the organ accompaniment. Every so often, a chord grates against our ears as a reminder that there will always be moments in which we rail against the harsh realities of death; nevertheless, by turning to God in faith, even these moments of struggle will become moments in which we are drawn ever closer to the One who holds our beloved dead in his care.

The final phrase captures this mysterious juxtaposition beautifully: the choir sings “but they are at peace” one last time in a return to the sustained notes of their original motif, and the final chord of the organ lingers in its dissonance as a musical symbol of the fact that we who are left behind will continue to struggle with the mystery of death, a struggle that can only be ultimately resolved for us when we ourselves pass from this life, for it is only when our own souls are in the hands of God that we will truly be at peace. Nevertheless, in the meantime, we are comforted and sustained by the truths that invite us to put our faith and place our trust in God, even—and especially—when we are confronted by the mysteries of death.

Follow Carolyn on twitter: @carolyn_pirtle

Christian Hope and the Holy Souls

Laura TaylorLaura Taylor 

House of Brigid

Wexford, Ireland

“Ego sum lux mundi,” read the ancient words of Christ engraved in the weathered, grey stone above the high altar of St. Colman’s church in the quiet country parish of Ballindaggin, County Wexford, Ireland. “I am the light of the world.”

St. Colman's Church, BallindagginI was there to pay my respects for a deceased relative of a nun with whom I had become quite close over the last year. Following traditional Irish funeral observances, it seemed like the inhabitants of the entire village had packed the church for the customary removal service. These traditional Catholic prayers recited at the church in the evenings before funerals are about as ingrained in the Irish consciousness as their love for piping hot tea, spuds, the GAA (Gaelic Athletic Association), and commiserating about the weather. We were there to pray fervently for the commendation of this dearly departed soul to heaven, that she would in turn pray unceasingly for us from there with the eternal communion of saints, in the company of Christ and our Blessed Mother.Removal Pic 2

No instructions were given at any point in the ceremony about when to sit, kneel, or stand; the people around me just knew.

The parish priest sprinkled holy water over the casket, and the moment the prayers were finished, everyone leapt from their seats in a rush to shake the hands of the grieving family members, while the many conversations among the mourners elevated the noise level in the church to a dull roar. Our religious duties accomplished, we spilled out of the mid-19th century church–the men headed straight to the village pub, the women congregated outside for the latest gossip, and I strolled pensively around the small cemetery nestled against the church walls, waiting for my companions to emerge so we could make the hour’s journey home.

As we remember the souls of the faithful departed in this month of November, I find myself increasingly struck by the visceral manner in which the Irish honor, mourn, and think about the dead. Carlingford ChurchFamilies and local communities band together immediately following the death of a loved one: they fill normally-empty church pews to the brim in order to somberly commemorate “anniversary Masses,” and to pray en masse for the deceased at removal services, wakes, and funerals. Conversations about death in Ireland are quite open–almost bruisingly candid–and happen over a cup of tea, in the street, or out at the pub. The famed Irish wakes still happen–albeit less often now, due to the rising popularity of funeral homes–and are completely unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. The open casket lies in state in the family’s living room, mourners sit in chairs around the body and take turns swapping humorous or emotional stories about the deceased, and a seemingly endless supply of scalding hot tea and coffee, and freshly-baked cakes and scones in the adjoining rooms provides much-needed spiritual and bodily nourishment, and still more cathartic conversation.irish_wake_paintingThere is a freshness in the Irish perspective towards death and dying, however unsettling it may be to a young American in her mid-twenties, who, before moving to Ireland, had attended only a couple funerals–all with closed caskets, all conducted as swiftly and discreetly as possible, the reality of death too uncomfortable for the American psyche. In Ireland, though, I see the true embodiment of Christian hope lived out each day; even in the throes of sorrow and grief, death here is no frightening spectre, but an almost-friend–a constant, quiet companion on life’s journey.

Here, mourning is a public act, and the healing process truly is communal. Churches see their numbers swell dramatically in the month of November in Ireland, as the annual remembrance of the dead draws people from all walks of life–the old, the young, the rich and poor, Travellers and settled, the faithful, and, surprisingly, those who have drifted away from the Church. They are all connected in their grief, and their desire to remember the ones they have lost. The liturgies of this month in particular somehow seem to tap into the deepest recesses of the heart, compelling all of us to congregate, remember, and pray for our loved ones, that they might, through the mercy of God, rest in peace.vigil at maynoothPope Francis’ namesake, St. Francis of Assisi, tenderly refers to death as a sister: “Praised be You, my Lord, through our Sister Bodily Death, from whose embrace no one living can escape.” There is an inexplicable comfort in this Month of the Holy Souls here in Ireland, for alongside the heartache of loss accompanies a lingering sense of peace, and hope.  

Stronger than Death: The Hope of All Souls Day

Leonard DeLorenzo

Director, Notre Dame Vision

Doctoral Student, Systematic Theology, University of Notre Dame

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I once had a very dissatisfying experience at a funeral.  While I do not consider myself the sort of person who typically seeks satisfaction at funerals, what was lacking in this one made me intuitively aware of what I desired by contrast.

I had just seen my grandfather a few weeks prior to his death.  He was in the hospital and, in accordance with the directives of his living will, the feeding tubes had been removed.  He was unable to speak and mostly unable to move, but it was clear that he knew when my brother and I walked into the room.  I was the last one to leave his hospital room that night, staying behind to say goodbye and to whisper a prayer over him, tracing the Sign of the Cross on his forehead.  It was the first time I had ever prayed with (or over) Louis DeLorenzo.

Upon his death on April 20, my wife and I made arrangements to fly out to New Jersey two days later for the funeral that weekend.  With the rest of my family already in town, I was the last to arrive and, by that time, all the arrangements were in place.  There was nothing for me to do but show up at the funeral parlor and walk into a predictably hideously wallpapered room filled with Italian-Americans from such diverse places as northern New Jersey and southern New York.

When it was time for the service to begin, a very pleasant older gentleman stood up in the front with a Bible in hand.  When my aunt had called the Catholic parish in town to inquire about a funeral for my grandfather, she apparently met some resistance because he had not been an active parishioner.  Rather than push in any way, she hung up the phone and called the people at the funeral home, who offered to find another minister to lead the service there.

He began with a reading from Psalm 23:

The Lord is my shepherd, there is nothing I lack. In green pastures he makes me lie down; to still waters he leads me; he restores my soul…

At the end of the Psalm, he closed his Bible and shared a little bit about Lou DeLorenzo.  Having never met him personally, he recited the facts: he had been a Nutley firefighter for 37 years while also working as a carpenter.  He married Dorothy in 1946 and they raised their two children—Nora and Leonard—in Nutley before moving to Chadwick Beach and retiring in Palm Harbor, Florida.  They had four grandchildren.  Lou liked to fish and loved to golf.  This final bit of biographical information provided the launching point for the short sermon:

“And now Lou is in those green pastures we heard about in our reading.  His green pastures are beautiful fairways and perfect greens, where every putt goes in.”

The genial minister went on for a minute longer, saying much of the same—that Lou was now looking down on us between holes, smiling the whole time.  He closed with a brief prayer, and that was that.

Recalling this event now, it seems somewhat peaceful, even quaint.  I still, however, feel much of the same sensation now as I did then: at one and the same time I want to both scream and plead.  Have we really acknowledged the fact that this man—my granddaddy—has died?  What hope do we have for him?  Is it really just fairways and greens that he has to look forward to?  Is that what we want for him?  Is that who he was?

This minister meant no harm.  Furthermore, I am not sure how many of the people in that room accepted this as a fitting end to Louis DeLorenzo’s life, or how many felt like I did that there was a significant deficiency in what we had just experienced.  To my ears, my grandfather was represented as a thin caricature of himself, sent forth as a glossed-over figure for whom we were not beckoned to pray and on behalf of whom we were not trusted to hope.  He seemed to have just breezily slipped away to another place, as if this life had been but a dream.

From my vantage point now—some seven years later—I am can better discern what exactly was so dissatisfying about that late April funeral service:

  • First, the well-intentioned minister disregarded the most obvious, unavoidable fact of the whole engagement: Louis DeLorenzo had just died.  He died.  He was dead, not golfing. |
  • Second, we were left without a challenge to hope.  I cannot speak for the other people in that room, but I know that I still feel this oversight even now.  It might have been precisely because we were collectively ignoring the fact that he was really dead that the real necessity of hope was not revealed.
  • Third, the picture we were invited to take up—albeit based off of Psalm 23—did not lead us to cling to the Body of Christ.  The brief sermon felt like one of those times when you are told that what you have lost, or the job you did not get, or the relationship that just ended was not all that terrible of a thing to lose anyway.  It is tempting to try to believe that, but the fact of the matter is that the loss is real, it does hurt, and it actually was important.  In this case, my grandfather was important and his loss was real.  What I was most deeply looking for that day—along with others that gathered in that room—was something real to cling to, not pious wishes.

I have been to other funerals and memorial services since my grandfather’s, and some of these have resembled his in one way or another.  Even so, my grandfather’s still strikes me raw to this day because the dissatisfaction was so keen, while the desire for hope and prayer was so great.

I think this desire requires some examination.  What was I looking for?  What was missing?  As I ponder my desire, the three missing dimensions enumerated above—lacks that gave me such deep dissatisfaction—need to be explored in further detail: the seriousness of death, the significance of hope, and the silence of Christ.  It is all too appropriate to make this attempt now, as the Church once again turns in prayer to God for the souls of all the faithful departed.

The Seriousness of Death
I looked at death with my grandfather once before his own death, five years earlier.  It was the first and only time I saw him cry.  Our family gathered at another funeral parlor, this time in Florida, to view my grandmother’s body for the last time before cremation.  My youngest cousin and I at first refused to go in to the room to see her body lying in the cardboard coffin (she was frugal to the end!).  I didn’t want to see her because I thought it wasn’t her.  But it was.  She was dead.  She both was and was not her body.  Whatever and whoever she was, she died.  There lay the body of the woman we knew and loved, the woman who knew and loved us.  Her body was the remnant of the life she had lived with and among us, but that life was now silent.

When I walked outside of the mortuary on a characteristically warm and rainy afternoon, I found my grandfather standing there by himself.  He had just kissed the forehead of the woman who had been his wife for more than 50 years.  He was sobbing.  The proudest, most stubborn, most old-school man I have ever known was crying like a child in the rain.  He had just confronted the utter end of life in the person he loved most.  I put my arm around my uncharacteristically vulnerable grandfather and I felt his loss.  Even at the end of a long and loving life, that loss was a tragedy.

My grandfather lived five years after his wife’s death, but his life was never the same.  A good part of him died when his lips touched her lifeless forehead that last time.  My father told me that he sometimes heard him crying softly in his bed at night.  There was a hole in his life that neither pious thoughts nor shimmering wishes could fill.  I am not sure that hole was meant to be filled.

As far as I know, my grandfather never attempted to explain where his beloved went after death.  It would have certainly been comforting to imagine her having slipped out of the confines of this life into a better, happier place.  The thought of her immediate bliss may have been a consolation to his grieving heart.  There was a certain discipline and authenticity to the way he thought about her after death.  Instead of trying to make her right for his own sake, he allowed himself to be wounded for love of her.  He had been tied to her so deeply for so long that he couldn’t replace her with a thought or a wish about where or how she was now.  Her life had been too important for that—she had been too important to him.  It is not that he somehow failed to accept her death, but rather that he refused to allow her death to be any less serious than it really was.  She was gone and that made a difference to him.

The Significance of Hope
It is hard, if not impossible, to give an account of exactly how someone has affected you.  Not only am I unable to explain what my grandmother meant to my grandfather, but it is also difficult for me to explain what she meant to me.  If I sat still long enough, I could conjure up countless memories of her: some that would cause me to chuckle, others that would frustrate me, others still that would perhaps leave me with tinges of regret, and many that would fill me with gratitude.  Of all those memories, though, I find it curious which memory usually comes to mind first.

What I remember first about my grandmother—in a vivid snapshot memory—is her sitting at the kitchen table in the slowly intensifying light of the early morning.  The house is silent.  Her elbow is resting on the table, one hand pinching the skin above her brow, the other fingering a rosary dangling near her knees.  Her eyes are closed tight and she has the look of intense, almost painful concentration on her face while her lips mutter prayers into the stillness of the morning.  I can’t remember if I only saw this scene once or if it occurred multiple times for my viewing, but nevertheless, this is the first thing I usually remember about her.  Something of what she meant to me is wrapped up in that memory, though I cannot wrap my mind around that meaning.

I do not have that memory of faith for my grandfather.  I tend to remember his childlike laugh when he teased my little brother, whom he loved with a special kind of devotion.  I remember his voice rising above its normal volume to correct or to command.  I remember the picture of him clad in an orange hunting suit, smiling next to the carcass of the deer he strung up at the end of the day.  He never came to Mass with us when I visited my grandparents for weeks and weeks every summer when I was younger. I cannot recall a time when I saw him pray.  He was relentlessly disciplined and principled, though he certainly was not what one would recognize as a person of faith.

I loved both of my grandparents, and because of that love I feel their loss even today.  I do not feel that loss as greatly or regularly as I should, but I do feel it.  My love for them also springs forward in hope.  Even though they are no longer here with me, I still strangely want what is good for them.  I want them to live in some way even though they have died and I feel their death.

The difference between them for me, though, is that I don’t have the same kind of memory of my grandfather that I have of my grandmother: a memory that can anchor my hope.  When I return to my faith and seek to entrust my grandmother to the love of God, I can move from what I myself have seen toward what I imagine God sees when he looks at her, even now.  I can hope that God’s first memory of grandma is something like my own—or that mine is something like God’s, as it were.  I hope that He sees her sitting at the table in the early morning, moving beads between her fingers, praying alone before the tasks of the day.  Maybe that is who she truly was, beneath all the other memories.

For my grandfather, I just don’t know what I hope that God sees.  Does He see the delight of that childlike laugh?  Does He hear that voice ascending over the humdrum of home-life?  Does He rejoice at a successful hunt?  What I do know is that it is against the darkness and unknowing of death that I search for hope in place of hope that my grandfather lives anew in the God in whom I seek to entrust my own life.  The man whom I last saw fading into death when the feeding tubes had been removed in that lightly lit, modestly comfortable hospital room more than seven years ago is the same man whom I know entered into the abyss of death and was no more.  Into that abyss, I cast my hope—inchoate as my hope may be.  Perhaps this is the deepest essence of hope: to believe without assurance, without any fully explicable reason, that life may be called out of loss.

The Silence of Christ    
It can certainly feel as if hope of this sort goes out into nothing but empty space.  I have yet to receive a vision like St. Perpetua’s of my loved one’s thirst finally slaked.  There seems to be no response to my hope, and yet still I hope.  To whom does this hope go?  Who receives it in the silence?

There is no answer, only faith.  By faith, I place my trust beyond any and all explanation into the hands of the one whom I believe—at the core of my being—came down from heaven and by the Holy Spirit was incarnate of the Virgin Mary, and became man.  I have based my life on the belief that He who suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried is the same Only Begotten Son of God, born of the Father before all ages.  I am gripped by the belief that this One—the Son of God, the love of the Father come down to us—came down so far that He descended into hell.  In that shadowy place of death, in the stillness following the Cross, in that tomb sealed and guarded, with all the isolated souls of those who live no more, the Lord Jesus receives the hope that leads me to pray for my grandfather.  My hope does go out into the silence, but by faith I believe that the Word of Life assumes the silence and makes it His own.  In Him, I hope.

My hope for my grandfather is not just a hope for him, but a hope for all of us.  I hope that no matter how unworthy he or I or any of us may be, no matter how negligible our faith may become, the descending Love of God will reach us and lead us out of the grave.  I hope that the Lord, the giver of life will seal our one baptism for the forgiveness of sins forming us into one communion of saints unto the resurrection of the body and life everlasting.   My hope is that, in the end, my life doesn’t stop with me, that my grandfather’s life didn’t stop with him.  Somehow, mysteriously, our lives were joined together when I was born into his family, and especially when I passed through the waters into which he had previously been baptized.  I hope that even now, when I remain and he has gone, that the life that we shared can be made stronger than that which seems to separate us: the chasm of death.

The Body of Christ         
Part of the reason I was so dissatisfied at my grandfather’s funeral is because in a non-egotistical way, that funeral was about me, too.  It was about what I hope makes me who I am: the efficacy of my baptism, the nourishment of the Eucharist, the seal of my confirmation, the healing of each confession, the bond of my marriage.  It is the hope that I am mystically living in the Body of Christ.  That is, ultimately, what I hope for my grandfather, too.  It is also what I hope my grandmother was expressing in the early morning at the kitchen table.  It is what I hope my father accepted when he went to 6:30am Mass every weekday morning as he was raising two young boys by himself.  It is what I hope my dearest friends have professed in their vows before the altar, and what I hope we have all plunged our children into at our parishes’ baptismal founts.  This is my hope—it is the hope of all the Church—that all the faithful departed live in his Body forever.  It is the hope of All Souls Day, a hope that is stronger than death.

More and more, the memory that recurs when I think of my grandfather is of our last moment together in that hospital room.  Part of me is still surprised that I had the audacity to trace the Sign of the Cross on his forehead and pray over him.  Perhaps the meaning of who he was to me is mysteriously wrapped up in that memory, even though I can’t quite grasp what that meaning is.  It is hidden with Christ in God (Colossians 3:3).

Note: This author has another reflection entitled “What Saints Sound Likeposted earlier this week on the Notre Dame Vision blog, Full of Grace.

“Let Perpetual Light Shine on Them”: The Beauty of a Happy Death

Katharine Mahon

Doctoral Student, Liturgical Studies

University of Notre Dame

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Last year Timothy O’Malley wrote about All Souls’ Day and celebrating the hope-filled doctrine of purgatory.  It cannot be denied that our celebration of All Souls’ Day is forever connected to our belief in purgatory and the beauty and comfort of God’s endless mercy promised in that doctrine.  In my discussion of All Souls’ Day this year, however, I would like instead to turn our attention to the idea of celebrating death—even consider the possibility of celebrating a happy death—and reflect upon the hope to be found in a Christian approach to death if we are willing to look for it.  I will share the story of my grandfather passing away and how his dying has forever affected my spirituality.

Death is, without question, a difficult topic to discuss.  Virtually all of us have dealt with the death of a loved one and experienced the feelings of loss, fear, and hopelessness that often result; these are not pleasant topics of discussion.  Even more uncomfortable to reflect upon is the fact that we are each of us, at this very moment, in the process of dying; each heartbeat and each breath bring us closer to that moment when our lungs will no longer function and our hearts will cease to beat.  I do not mean to meditate on these facts for the sake of morbid obsession, but to make my starting point for this reflection abundantly clear: death is an absolute certainty for each and every one of us.  This is a truth that no amount of denial, success, science, love, or faith can prevent.  Our only choice in the matter is how we will approach death: with abject terror or with a peaceful heart, with all anxiety or with all hope?  Death is a natural and necessary part of life—it is in fact the culmination of all life—and the Christian tradition does not avoid the reality of death.  Countless Masses have been said for the dead, countless prayers prayed for the repose of souls, and for some time death was a major part of Christian liturgical life.  It was not all sorrow and memorial, however, as one of the most popular genres of spiritual writing and personal devotion in the Middle Ages was the preparation for or guide to Christian death; a common blessing, in fact, was wishing someone a happy death.  We might see this as a morbid thought today, but having experienced a happy death within my own family, I can think of no kinder blessing to wish for someone.

My maternal grandfather was one of the most thoughtful, warm-hearted, pragmatic, and faith-filled people I have ever known.  He was a farmer and a Korean War veteran, a father of six, a loving husband, and would become a grandfather of over a dozen grandchildren, most of whom he would never meet.  A two-time cancer survivor, my grandfather was struck by his final bout of cancer when I, his oldest grandchild, was nine; through the invaluable work of the hospice program he was given the gift of spending his final days at home.  He died surrounded by his children and my grandmother, having said his goodbyes to us grandchildren a few weeks earlier.  My grandfather’s faith was integrated throughout all that he did—from his farming to his parenting—and his death was no different.  Just as the cycle of plowing, planting, harvesting, and winter snows defined his livelihood, so the cycle of birth, growth, waning, and death defines our lives: each stage inescapable, each stage necessarily complimenting the others.  Our beloved parish priest, Father Paul, worked with him and all of us as a family, guiding us through the process of approaching his coming death.  He received the sacraments, he was not in pain, he was surrounded by loving family, and he was at home; neither we nor he could have asked for more.

And yet there was more.  As the weeks and then the years passed, my mother, aunts and uncles, and my grandmother began to relate the story of my grandfather’s final days to me.  About a week before he died, as he lay in his hospice bed in the living room, my grandfather noticed the strangest thing.  Fully conscious, in very little pain, not filled with pain medicine and not in the final moments of his life, he calmly explained to those gathered in the room that there, across the room, he could see circles of light and one brighter light.  Did they not also see them?  No, his children and wife replied, but they encouraged him to describe what he saw.  The lights appeared from time to time over the next few days, he’d tell them, and it was as if he saw a closed gate just beyond them.  Soon the circles became peoples’ silhouettes, too far away to be discernable, but still present.  The gateway, too, became clearer: his face lit up as he described it as the edge of heaven, a place of incredible beauty, warmth, and welcome.  “They’ll be okay. Let me go,” he said some time later, and the gate opened before him.  The next night those lights that had lingered for days made themselves known—love and joy radiated from him as he greeted his beloved and long-passed sister, his parents, and his lifelong friend as though they were standing beside him.  Some time later, there on his farm, surrounded by the living and the dead who loved him, with the light of heaven shining on him and peace filling his heart, my grandfather passed away.

My grandfather is profoundly missed; he was incredibly sorry to leave us and to not have more time with all of us.  He was not scared, however, having reunited with those who he had himself missed for so long, and he wanted to make clear to us that we will have nothing to fear, either, when our time comes, and that he will be there when it does.  One thing that I cannot ever deny, which I know down to my very core, I know because of the incredible experience and witness of my grandfather’s happy and holy death, and all of my prayers and each instance of worship for me is simply trying to remember this truth.  This truth is that we are loved.  We are loved beyond imagining.  We were each of us loved into existence by our Creator, we are loved by family and friends here on earth, they continue to love us even after they pass away, and we ourselves will continue to love others even after we pass.  We are loved, we are tenderly cared for, we are watched over, and the core hope of the Christian faith is to one day return in love to the God who so loved us that he became human like us, died like us, and was resurrected so that we might always live in his love.  Each celebration of the Eucharist here on earth, through which we sacramentally join in loving communion with God and one another, is but a foretaste of the communion of love awaiting us.

The story of my grandfather’s death still brings such joy, wonder, and hope to me even today, nearly two decades later, that it has become a central truth of my spirituality and even my very being.  When I celebrate All Souls’ Day this year, remembering with love all of my friends and family members who have passed, I will remember them in light of my grandfather’s death, and comforted by the fact that they, too, were welcomed into God’s loving presence by their departed loved ones and with the hope they will one day welcome me into the light of God’s face.


All Souls Day and the Hope-Filled Doctrine of Purgatory

Timothy P. O’Malley, Ph.D.

Notre Dame Center for Liturgy

Editor, Oblation:  Liturgy and Evangelization

Contact Author

 What is it that we fear in our own deaths?  For some, it’s the pain of dying itself.  For others, it’s the trepidation that there is nothing beyond this moment here.  

That all of life is simply a lead-up to a disappointing darkness, an eternal nothingness.  Sure, we’ll never know this, because death itself would be that last moment of cognition, of affection, of experience that defines a human life. But, if death is a march into nothingness, does what we do in the present matter?  Or, do we join Macbeth in that most poignant expression of nihilism in the English language:

To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing (Macbeth, Act 5, scene 5, 19-28).

Such nihilism erases not only divinity but our very humanity.  What we do in the present with our memories, our imagination, our will is a tale told by an idiot, signifying nothing.

The feast of All Souls Day is the liturgical memorial that serves as a salve against such a confession of meaninglessness.  Christians pray for the dead.  Why is it that we offer such prayers?  Are we begging God to let our relatives enter into the divine presence?  Are we seeking to soothe ourselves that beyond the present signs of creation, there is a better world, a better plan, a better something than what we have here?

For Catholics in particular, that we pray for the dead is a kind of liturgical “proof” of the doctrine of purgatory.  And this doctrine really is worthy of celebration.  For purgatory might be the most hope-filled doctrine in Christianity.  It is a doctrine that proclaims that what we do in the present life really does matter.  That when we respond in total self-giving love, we open within our hearts a space for God to dwell.  Our humanity, as we noted yesterday, is really being transfigured through that school of sanctity called the Church.

But, do we always respond according to that logic of self-giving love revealed to us in Christ Jesus?  Think of the human person as a kind of musical instrument.  When we respond in self-giving love, our bodies, our souls, our minds, our whole being sings forth the harmony of divine love for all the world to hear.  Yet, when we don’t, we produce discord.  And this has an effect upon us (and of course, others).  We become out of tune.  We may seek to serve the neighbor–but perhaps, we do so imperfectly, desiring the fame and prestige and power it bestows to us.  And soon our service of the neighbor, of the Church herself become simply an advancement of our careers.  We may want our whole lives to become an expression of divine worship, but instead, we look out of the corner of our eyes to see if anyone is watching, admiring our holiness.  We may love our children but find that the constant attention that they demand becomes  a mirror to our selfishness, to how far we have to go to offer our whole lives as a perfect act of love.

As creatures still in via, still on the way, the mystery of sin has warped us.  And our lives are a gradual recovery, a slow attunement to the music of God’s own love.  The beauty of the doctrine of purgatory is that this pedagogy of divine love, our formation in the school of the Church, does not cease with our death.  Rather, the divine attunement of our souls continues beyond the present vale.  This is because God’s love is not limited by our sinfulness, by our failures to give of ourselves unto death.  As Hans urs von Balthasar writes regarding this eternal divine pedagogy:

“Can God really suffer the loss of even the least of the sheep in his fold?  One of his own creation, one for whom the Lord has shed his blood and endured the agony of being abandoned by the Father?  The German mystic Mechtilde of Magdeburg heard God speak to her thus:  My soul cannot bear the agony/To chase the sinner away from me.  So I spare him naught/Until he is caught; I save for him such a tiny space/That no human thought can enter this place” (Dare We Hope “That All Men Be Saved”?, 252).

So, when we pray for the dead on the feast of All Souls Day, we pray that the divine pedagogy of love may continue to transfigure the humanity of the faithful departed.  That our relatives and friends may grow in their deep love of God, in their capacity to join the harmonious symphony of heaven.  And that we too may be formed for such love.  But, our prayer is even deeper than this.  That the foolishness of God’s love may even attune the souls of the departed tyrants, oppressors, terrorists, and murderers that make up so much of human history to the harmony of divine love.  For God’s love can woo even the darkest, the most hardened of hearts.

This is the hope of the doctrine of purgatory.  That all acts of love that we perform in the present life may become an attunement to the heavenly symphony of love.  Even our prayer for the dead, our hope that all the departed might join the heavenly symphony, is a formation into perfect love.  And the dead that we pray for continue to have their spiritual senses formed toward a more perfect contemplation of God’s own eternal symphony.  May the hopefulness of All Souls Day incline our ears to this symphony in progress as it plays out in the present valley of tears and in the life of the world to come.  And one day, when God’s attunement of all human love is complete, may we come to see that transformation of creation itself envisioned by the author of Revelation:

“See, the home of God is among mortals.  He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes.  Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away…See, I am making all things new” (Revelation 21:3-5).





Commemoration of the Faithful Departed

Dr. Bernard Onyebuchi Ukwuegbu

Priest, Catholic Diocese of Orlu, Nigeria

Pontifical Biblical Institute, Rome


Editors note:  Fr. Ukwuegbu will be offering two reflections in the month of November, one on the feast of All Souls Day and the other on the feast of Christ the King.  His full bio may be found at the conclusion of his essay below.  

Today, and all through the month of November, the Christian community takes time to remember.  We pause to honour the dead and pray for the souls of those who have gone before us. The feast of All Souls invites us to look both inward and backward – not to simply dwell on the past or yearn for a better time; not to surround ourselves with pain or mourn for days gone by – but so that we can remember who we are and who we are called to be in Christ.  In this way, the commemoration of All the Faithful Departed is, I think, one of the most consoling days of the Church’s year.  And this theme of consolation is also the main emphasis of the day’s Gospel.

A priest gave the following account of his encounter with Jim, a twelve-year old boy dying of cancer: “I talked to him for a good hour,” and he said, “Why?” I said, “I don’t know. I wish I had answer for you but I don’t. I don’t know why you, I don’t know why not you. But you it is and let’s go from there.” He was angry, and I said: “Fine! Be angry. You want to tell God off, tell Him off. Tell Him it isn’t fair. Tell Him whatever you like. I don’t think it is fair either, but my vote doesn’t count.” I just let him get it off his chest. When he has finished, I said, “Jim, I don’t know. I don’t have an answer but I believe there is an answer.  I believe that we just have to accept what’s given to us and do the best we can with it.” He got settled down and I left. I couldn’t tell him that in a week I was going to be gone; and that I wasn’t going to see him again because he was going to be gone too.”

The encounter between this priest and the boy, the questions the boy asked and the answers or no-answers the priest supplied, readily comes to my mind as I reflect on the gospel scene of the encounter between Jesus and Martha. It is a scene that is not foreign to those of us accustomed to attending to people in distressing situations. It is the normal human reaction to situations that are beyond human comprehension: the prevalent “why me?” question that we always ask when faced with unmerited hardship or pain.

The story begins with a sense of urgency. It is easy today to talk about it with some sense of calm, but I am quite convinced that there was no calm for Martha and Mary. Lazarus, their brother, was slipping fast. And the person that immediately came to their mind was Jesus. They sent an urgent message to him: “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” Martha and Mary were sure of one thing: Jesus’ love for his friend would compel him to come. But Jesus did not come immediately. Rather he stayed where he was for two further days. By the time he arrived, Lazarus was already dead and buried for four days.

It is from this perspective that we could identify with Martha in his mild reproach of Jesus:  “Lord had you been here, my brother would not have died.” In other words, Martha was asking Jesus the same question that Jim asked the priest. The question assumes an extraordinary significance in the mouth of Martha because it comes more as a reproach than a question. Lazarus, if not a good man, was at least to everybody’s knowledge his friend. Moreover, the two of them have been doing their best to provide for Jesus from their meagre resources. Why did he delay his arrival? Why could he not come early enough to save his own friend? Who among us has not found himself or herself in Martha’s position, especially when we are forced to stare at the grave of those that we love, those with whom we have shared life’s triumphs and trials? Who among us has not had the cause to ask the all-powerful why me question? Why must this or that happen to me? Why must our dear ones be taken away from us? Why under this condition, why so early?

Unfortunately, no one can provide us with a satisfactory answer to questions of this nature. Maybe because there is no answer to the question; maybe because such are realities that we must learn to live with. Not even Jesus himself could attempt a definite answer to the why question. He refrained from giving Mary and Martha any justification why their brother must die. His discourse on himself as the life and the resurrection is only a summon to a personal commitment to faith. I am quite convinced that Martha did not fully understand the details of Jesus’ high resurrection theology. The profession of faith she made was not to the specifics of Jesus’ doctrinal discourse, but to him as “the Christ, the Son of God who is coming into the world.” But although the question of why remains unanswered even by Jesus, for him however, one thing is certain: If we merely remain at the level of asking why, if we are not able to transcend from the level of asking why to making the leap of faith in the God who does not leave us alone even in death, then we are likely to be all the more devastated by such incomprehensible event as the death of a beloved one. Should we however believe in him, he will give us the strength and the encouragement we need to be able to deal with trials and tribulations; including even the loss of those beloved ones whose demise we pause to remember today. Such a profession of faith that death does not have the final word is the only possible answer that can be found for the why question. Only such a faith can give us the assurance that we need, that our life on earth makes sense, despite all the factors that point to the contrary. Only such a faith can also serve as a source of our Christian hope that the lives of the countless faithful that we remember today as well as our own lives have not and will not be in vain.

The commemoration of the Holy Souls is therefore designed to confirm in us our sure and certain hope in the resurrection. Yes! Death has not the final say in the lives of the Holy Souls. And death will not have the final stay in our lives as well. This is the good news of the today’s gospel; this is the lesson of today’s celebration. To all of us is addressed today the same question that Jesus addressed to Martha at the end of his affirmation that He is “the resurrection and the life;” and that the one who believes in Him, though s/he die, yet shall s/he live, and whoever lives and believes in Him shall never die, namely: “Do you believe this?” May the good Lord assist us to answer as Martha did: “Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, the one who is coming into the world!

Dr. Bernard Onyebuchi Ukwuegbu is a priest of the Catholic Diocese of Orlu in Nigeria. Until June 2011 he was the Vice Rector and the Chair of Biblical Studies at the Seat of Wisdom Seminary, Owerri and a Guest Lecturer at the Scripture Department of the Catholic Institute of West Africa (CIWA), Port Harcourt, both in Nigeria. Currently he is on a one-year Study Leave (Sabbatical) at the Pontifical Biblical Institute, Rome.

Rev. Ukwuegbu is the Associate Editor of the Nigerian Journal of Theology (NJT) as well as a regular contributor to international journals of theology and the social sciences. Among his monographs include: The Emergence of Christian Identity in Paul’s Letter to the Galatians (Bonn, 2003); Confrontational Evangelization: Foundations, Features & Prospects (Onitsha, 1995) and An Open Letter to Dives and Lazarus (Enugu, 1993).