Readings for the Commemoration of All the Faithful Departed (All Souls): WIS 3:1-9; PS 23:1-6; ROM 5: 6-11; JN 6: 37-40. http://usccb.org/bible/readings/110214.cfm
Today is the feast of All Souls – or as they call it in Latin America, the “Day of the Dead.” In Mexico, the commemoration of “the faithful departed” is really a triduum that begins on Halloween, proceeds through the Feast of All Saints (Nov. 1st) and finishes today with “All Souls Day” (Nov. 2nd).
In Mexico there are parades and costumes, and skeleton manikins dressed up in silks and finery. In a mocking, light-hearted way, the day reminds everyone of the shortness of life, the impermanent nature of pleasure, prestige, profit and power, and the inevitability of our own fast-approaching demise.
Since death is inevitable and an integral part of life, the Day of the Dead invites us all – “believers” or not – to recall those who have gone before us to “rest in the sleep of peace” and to ready ourselves for The Great Transformation by looking death square in the face.
So to begin with, think about your own loved ones who have passed away. No doubt, there’s some pain in doing that. After all, we loved them. In those terms, today I’m thinking especially of a dear friend and mentor of mine, Glen Stassen. He died unexpectedly this last year. He was a great scholar, teacher, author and peace activist. He taught me so much. And then there are those public figures – like Pete Seeger, Maya Angelou and Robin Williams – whom we all recently lost.
We miss people like that. Nonetheless, death does not wound us without at the same time offering new understandings and appreciations of the ways the lives of those loved ones continue in and around us. In some sense, the ripples of their stories have influenced not only us, but the entire universe.
That’s especially true of the mother and father figures in our lives (not always our biological parents, of course).
Allow me to set the tone by recalling (and honoring) my own parents for a moment.
I am fortunate to be able to identify my original Gift-Givers as my actual mom and dad – Edith and Ray Seul. I owe so much to them and the innumerable ways their lives and deaths have made me and my three siblings what we are. They were wonderful parents – not perfect to be sure – but wonderful all the same.
I think of my mother as my spiritual teacher. She was lovely and gentle, light-hearted, but at the same time quite serious about doing the right thing. Above all her simple faith governed her life. She was a convert to Catholicism having been brought up a Swedish Lutheran – as Edith Swanson. And while she was serious about being Catholic, she somehow made it clear that Protestants were O.K. too. Along with my female grade school teachers (the faithful Sisters of St. Joseph) mom’s example started me on the path to the priesthood and to ecumenical thinking. I love her for that.
I think of my dad whom I had the privilege of attending full time during the final weeks of his life. Dad was strong, a truck driver, and fun-loving. His brothers say he was a wild street-fighter in his youth. But then (they’d joke) he met my mother and she “made a man of him.” That’s how they put it.
Like my mother, Dad took his faith quite seriously too. He was a member of the Holy Name Society and went on spiritual retreats several times, I recall. He brought us back medals and “holy cards.” Dad clearly wanted to live a good life. That was true to such an extent that when I left the priesthood and decided to marry my wife, Peggy, he chose not to come to our wedding. I’m convinced it was a matter of conscience for him. Peggy and I would be living in sin, he thought, and he could not appear to give his approval. None of that however prevented him from later accepting Peggy and loving her.
Yes, I’m grateful for my parents. I love them, and miss them. Not a morning passes without my offering prayers of thanksgiving for mom and dad. So on this Day of the Dead, my mind is filled with nostalgia (rather than sadness) over their loss.
The Day of the Dead also brings that urgency I mentioned earlier – around my own fast-approaching death and the need I feel to use these declining years to make my contribution to a world careening towards disaster as never before. It’s also a time for imagining what awaits me after I breathe my last.
For the past few years the great fifth century mystic, Augustine of Hippo, has helped me think about death, its process and what comes after. He wrote a very long sentence I’ve found so helpful in thinking about death that I’ve committed it to memory and often use for meditation. Here’s what Augustine said. See if his words help you:
Imagine if all the tumult of the body were to quiet down, along with all our busy thoughts about earth and sea and air; if the very world should stop, and the mind stop thinking about itself, go beyond itself, and be quite still;
if all the fantasies that appear in dreams and imagination should cease, and there be no speech, no sign:
Imagine if all things perishable grew still – for if we listen they are saying, “We did not make ourselves; he made us who abides forever” – imagine then, that they should say this and fall silent, listening to the very voice of the one who made them and not to that of God’s creation;
So that we should hear not his word through the tongues of men, nor the voice of angels, nor the clouds’ thunder, nor any symbol, but the very Self which in these things we love, and go beyond ourselves to attain a flash of that eternal wisdom which abides above all things:
And imagine if that moment were to go on and on, leaving behind all other sights and sounds but that one vision which ravishes, absorbs, and fixes the beholder in joy; so that the rest of eternal life were like that moment of illumination that leaves us breathless:
Would this not be what is bidden in scripture, “Enter thou into the joy of thy Lord?
So that’s what happens in death, is it? The end of the world – bodily sensations, thought, and fantasies; great stillness within and without; no sound from human voice or nature itself; but immersion in wisdom, light and breathless joy. That’s what awaits us. At least Augustine thought so.
How different (and so much more consoling) is that vision from what I once anticipated in terms of “the last things” as so wonderfully, but (for the naïve) misleadingly expressed in Dante’s immortal Divina Comedia: death, judgment, heaven, hell. I can no longer believe that as literally as I once did. In fact, I’m persuaded to make my own the prayer of a medieval mystic. (This is another passage I use for my meditations):
Lord, if I love you because I desire the joys of heaven, close its gates to me. And if I love you because I fear the pains of hell, bury me in its depths. But if I love you for the sake of loving you, hide not your face from me.
The mystic’s prayer is a rejection of the childish, hedonistic, and self-interested beliefs about the after-life that I was brought up on. It’s an embrace of the mystical vision that recognizes harmony with God (or Ultimate Reality, the Ground of Being, or Nature with a capital “N”) as the purpose of life. All those other goals (pleasure, profit, power, prestige), I’ve found, are empty and quite misleading.
That learning was reinforced in India last year during our four months in Mysore. The idea of reincarnation, I learned, is not far-fetched and is in some way supported by the theory of evolution. And so on this Day of the Dead, I make my own the prayer that my meditation teacher, Eknath Easwaran recited on his own death bed – once again using the personal term “Lord” to address the mysterious Origin of the things that matter: Life and Love:
Lord, fill my heart with love and devotion for you. And burn out the seeds of selfish desire and sense craving from my mind. Grant that I might be carried by you from this life to the next without suffering, and that I might be born into a holy family with my hear overflowing with love and devotion to you from my earliest childhood onward.
I want that to be my prayer on my death bed.
There’s a final thought I’d like to share with you on this day of the dead – this one from the great American poet, Stanley Kunitz. “The Long Boat” is a poem that reminds me strongly of my father in law, Bob duRivage, who was a sailor and (in my opinion) a sage, and a saint. He loved life and left this world reluctantly. Because of its sailing theme and the poem’s last line, I committed it to memory in Bob’s honor. Because the poem is about death, I hope (on this Day of the Dead) that it may also you think deep thoughts about your own approaching demise and make decisions accordingly:
When his boat snapped loose
from its mooring, under
the screaking of the gulls,
he tried at first to wave
to his dear ones on shore,
but in the rolling fog
they had already lost their faces.
Too tired even to choose
between jumping and calling,
somehow he felt absolved and free
of his burdens, those mottoes
stamped on his name-tag:
conscience, ambition, and all
He was content to lie down
with the family ghosts
in the slop of his cradle,
buffeted by the storm,
To be rocked by the Infinite!
As if it didn’t matter
which way was home;
as if he didn’t know
he loved the earth so much
he wanted to stay forever.