Today is the feast of All Souls, the day on which we remember all those who have died, and pray that they be helped through the purifying process of Purgatory towards a blessed life with God in Heaven. For this reason it is also known as the Commemoration of All the Faithful Departed, as we hope and pray for those who have died with faith, hope and love within them, yet require assistance from their brothers and sisters in the Mystical Body to be cleansed of any remaining attachment to this world in general, and their sins in particular. Intimately bound to one another in Christ as we are, the prayers we here on earth offer for the dead can be just as real a help to them as those we offer to people we see around us – the supernatural bond of Love is greater than the merely natural power of death.
Prayer for the dead is a long-standing practice that goes right back through the early years of the Church into the Jewish world that Christianity sprung from (c.f.; 2 Maccabees 12:39-46), and the implications of its connection with the belief that souls could be in some way purified post-mortem were something that was gradually teased out over time (as is the case with much of Christian doctrine). The idea of such a purificatory ‘fire’ can be seen in 1 Corinthians 3:10-15, but it found particularly clear expression with Saint Ambrose (340 – 397), and was made more explicit later on by Pope Saint Gregory the Great (540 – 604), who made the distinction as to the kind of sins (venial) that souls could be cleansed of.
Praying for one’s beloved dead, and expressing care for them by tending to graves or leaving offerings on their behalf, is something that is common to many cultures, and the Church has absorbed many traditions within her folds over the years (the Mexican Day of the Dead being a notable example). It was only in the 11th Century that a date was fixed for commemoration of all souls – the date of November 2nd was chosen by Saint Odilo of Cluny – but the tradition of setting aside a particular day for this also goes back a long way, with the earliest records of people doing so being in 7th Century Spain (here they followed a common, already established, practice of praying for all souls at a date shortly after Pentecost).
The following poem – All Souls’ Day in a German Town – reflects a great deal of this history, recounting as it does the movement of groups of relatives as they visit the graves of their loved ones, winding their way slowly through an old German town whilst the cold autumn wind winds its way about their persons. The mood of the poem is a sad one, but it is deftly mixed with the tenderness from which the sorrow of the mourners springs, and there is also a strange sense of warmth imparted by the images of people huddled together, moving slowly past the doors and windows of a sleepy town, towards those who have fallen into a deeper rest. The sense of community is intensified through the shared mourning of the people, but also the shared commitment to show their love for the dead, in prayer and in attention to their earthly markers.
Margaret Fairless Barber (who wrote under the pseudonym Michael Fairless), the author of this poem, also imbues its ending with a strong sense of hope, and not just a vague feeling that everything will be okay regardless, but a hope that is grounded in what we believe about God (His steadfastness and faithfulness, His fervent desire to give us true happiness by bringing us into eternal life with Him) and the assurance we have that, via our sacramental connection to one another and to the Light that weaves those sacramental bonds, we can express our love for the dead not just in a decorative sense but by actively contributing to their being brought into blessedness. The poem builds towards a hope of Heaven for the faithful departed, yet reminds us at the end that none of us who make it there is saved alone:
The leaves fall softly: a wind of sighs
Whispers the world’s infirmities,
Whispers the tale of the waning years,
While slow mists gather in shrouding tears
On All Souls’ Day; and the bells are slow
In steeple and tower. Sad folk go
Away from the township, past the mill,
And mount the slope of a grassy hill
Carved into terraces broad and steep,
To the inn where wearied travellers sleep,
Where the sleepers lie in ordered rows,
And no man stirs in his long repose.
They wend their way past the haunts of life,
Father and daughter, grandmother, wife,
To deck with candle and deathless cross,
The house which holds their dearest loss.
I, who stand on the crest of the hill,
Watch how beneath me, busied still,
The sad folk wreathe each grave with flowers.
Awhile the veil of the twilight hours
Falls softly, softly, over the hill,
Shadows the cross:- creeps on until
Swiftly upon us is flung the dark.
Then, as if lit by a sudden spark,
Each grave is vivid with points of light,
Earth is as Heaven’s mirror to-night;
The air is still as a spirit’s breath,
The lights burn bright in the realm of Death.
Then silent the mourners mourning go,
Wending their way to the church below;
While the bells toll out to bid them speed,
With eager Pater and prayerful bead,
The souls of the dead, whose bodies still
Lie in the churchyard under the hill;
While they wait and wonder in Paradise,
And gaze on the dawning mysteries,
Praying for us in our hours of need;
For us, who with Pater and prayerful bead
Have bidden those waiting spirits speed.