It felt like an ordinary Sunday Mass. I knelt and prayed next to people I love. I sang hymns loudly, straight out from my heart. I bowed and received communion; chewing, sipping and swallowing all to gain union with the Body of Christ.
Then, at the end of Mass, a nice man stood up and made a few announcements. He reminded everyone that November 1st was a Holy Day of Obligation and, November 2nd, the Feast of All Souls. He pointed out the altar in the back of the church, and said we were all welcome to bring in pictures of our loved ones and to write the names of our beloved deceased in the book of remembrance. I turned my head and looked back at the altar. I admired the decorations and felt grateful for the opportunity, for the chance to remember those who have died before us, who are part of the communion of saints.
After Mass, I hugged my friends goodbye. I grinned at the many friendly faces that flooded out of the sanctuary. And then, I approached the altar for the deceased and saw the face of one of my friends who died earlier this year, Sharon Chavolla. Surprised to see her beautiful face upon the altar, I quietly moaned, overcome by a sudden wave of grief; grief I was lugging around in my heart unconsciously.
For many months, since Sharon’s passing in May, an item has steadily remained on my to-do list: send Sharon’s family a sympathy card. I don’t know why I have not yet done this, why I have procrastinated on doing something so important to me. Yes, I feel inadequate, like I am incapable of offering comfort and sympathy to a family that is an extension of my friend’s kindness. Many times I’ve started, I’ve tried to write, but found myself frozen and staring at the blank page, numbed by the sorrow.
To be honest, one of the hardest things about living, of being in relationship with others, is the way that it opens me up to suffering and grief. As I have written: I am almost tempted to believe that life would be easier if I didn’t know so many people, if I didn’t try to love so often. With each relationship, I risk an encounter with brokenness and hurt. I wonder if my habitual openness somehow has me spread too thin. I can empathize with those who decide instead to stay guarded; I want to protect myself under a cloak of separation.
Separation, though, is contrary to everything I believe in. I believe that the point of all life is relationship, of growing in union with God and others. When I am part of an aging community wherein death is a regular part of my life, though, the separation of death can be a troubling, painful experience. Since death is a reality that I come fact-to-face with on a regular basis I must confront my resistance to it over and over; I must foster my faith that with death there is not actually a separation. I struggle to believe and see, again and again, that with the communion of saints we are truly one — united — always.
That’s what this sacred day is about, the Feast of All Souls. The many people I have grown to know and love, like my friend Sharon, are not actually separate and apart; they are interacting with us through a different dimension. They remain our friends and family who have a power and influence over us, whose presence is real and powerful in our lives. Christ has conquered death, it need not sadden us; with him we all are able to live together.
Behold, I tell you a mystery. We shall not all fall asleep, but we will all be changed,in an instant, in the blink of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed. For that which is corruptible must clothe itself with incorruptibility, and that which is mortal must clothe itself with immortality. And when this which is corruptible clothes itself with incorruptibility and this which is mortal clothes itself with immortality, then the word that is written shall come about:
“Death is swallowed up in victory.
Where, O death, is your victory?
Where, O death, is your sting?”
Sure, death does sting. We miss the embraces, the jokes, the grins of our loved ones. Because our humanity creates an illusion that we are separate from the spiritual world, the gap between heaven and earth can feel enormous and painful.
On the other hand, the truth is that we are very connected to those who have died before us. We are called to pray to them and for them, to continue to share our lives with them and let their love and care influence us. We are not separate; we remain in communion with each other, amazingly.
During this sacred month of November, may we all remember those who have died who are most precious to us, let us honor their legacies. Let us engage in simple gestures that help every human life to be honored. I will finally send a sympathy card Sharon’s family, even though it will likely feel inadequate. I will reach out to others who are grieving the absence of their loved ones, too. This is a way of honoring the dead, of praying for those who may be hurting from the feeling of separation.
Through each gesture and prayer, I hope we may all awaken to the truth that we remain united with those who have died, that they are very close and connected. No matter our fears and heartache, let us honor all the souls who live on forever.