Honoring all the souls

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.

Altar of remembrance. Photo by Julia Walsh FSPA

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?”

~ 1 Corinthians 15:51-55

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.

Joseph’s dreams and the meaning of life

When the magi had departed, behold,
the angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said,
“Rise, take the child and his mother, flee to Egypt,
and stay there until I tell you.
Herod is going to search for the child to destroy him.”
Joseph rose and took the child and his mother by night
and departed for Egypt.
He stayed there until the death of Herod,
that what the Lord had said through the prophet might be fulfilled,
Out of Egypt I called my son.

When Herod had died, behold,
the angel of the Lord appeared in a dream
to Joseph in Egypt and said,
“Rise, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel,
for those who sought the child’s life are dead.”
He rose, took the child and his mother,
and went to the land of Israel.
But when he heard that Archelaus was ruling over Judea
in place of his father Herod,
he was afraid to go back there.
And because he had been warned in a dream,
he departed for the region of Galilee.
He went and dwelt in a town called Nazareth,
so that what had been spoken through the prophets
might be fulfilled,
He shall be called a Nazorean. -Mt 2:13-15, 19-23

A few years ago one of my seeking friends called me a lot to have discussions about the meaning of life.  “I just don’t get it Julia,” she would say.  “Why are we born, if our death is inevitable?”  Her insightful question is certainly valid, and undoubtedly common.  Because my friend is normal, I was embarrassed to admit that I had never really thought about the question before.

I don’t think that I have ever worried about the meaning of life because I made a choice when I was a child.  Early on I decided what life’s meaning is for me.  Now I know how to say it: the point of all this living is relationship.  It’s so true for me and it guides all my actions.  When I am lazy or selfish, a mantra bubbles up from inside, like a signpost directing me where to turn:  the point of life is relationship. It’s all about relationship.

Then, guided by the Truth and challenge of relationship, I turn away from my ego and my desire to hide.  I choose to relate.  I shut up and unplug and listen to God within and around and tell God my deepest secrets. We get closer and I am reminded that good relationships always take a lot of work and time.

My friendship with God then turns me out again; I orient toward the other in community, friendship, family, city, creation, neighbor.  I sit with my elder sister and laugh and love. I talk to my siblings on the phone. I listen to the stranger, even when I feel like I should rush.  I pray with my friends and cry with the suffering.  I ask my students questions. I gaze at the moon because I know she is my sister and I pray for the earth because she is certainly my mother, in a way.   Over and over, I struggle to let go of my agendas and notice how the moments of  my days beg me to pay attention to other beautiful elements in God’s kingdom.

Because I relate to all sorts of people I am forced to stretch and grow.  My perspectives change and I am required to leave the ordinary behind.  I let God give me new encounters and accept the fact that I never get to be the same.  I now understand that considering relationship the meaning of life is not only Christian and Trinitarian, but Franciscan.  And, as scientists are now discovering and teaching, it is human.  So, it’s a good thing I am one.

Joseph got this, it seems.  Because he was friends with God and was familiar with His voice, it was very clear to him when his dreams were from God.  Because he understood the language, he could follow the directions and then so lovingly care for the Blessed Mother Mary and the Holy Child Jesus.  He chose to obey, because the relationships with his wife and his Son mattered most.

Like Joseph teaches, when we let dreams direct us we aren’t picking what’s comfortable, or even about what makes sense. Even though it may seem impractical, when we let our relationship with God and others guide us, we’ll quickly realize that we are dancing with the holy and becoming a blessing to others.

There’s a great beauty in the blessing.  When we let relationships be our meaning we are free to be a holy family.  Thanks be to God!

Photo from Flickr sharing http://www.flickr.com/photos/davidking/2117259520/in/photostream/