All Souls Day

imgghostGiant skeleton puppets, ghosts on stilts, happy dada-ist atmosphere in Greenwich Village, the watchful loving solicitude of my youngest son protecting / guiding / steadying me in the pressing crowd

We celebrated All Saints Day with the city sisters and one of our bishop visitors, the Very Remarkable Mark Andrus. Our visit included playing Irish Dance music (Irish flute, drums, Mark on the fiddle) both at the farm and for the sisters in the city. We sang all the “old chestnut” hymns for the day, and played a little jazz at communion, and enjoyed a most remarkable sermon on the communion of saints from Mark, that for me in some holy and abstract way made me feel I belong in the church after all. (I go through a post-Christian alienation every few years. It’s normal for me.) We assume the saints pray for us, we ask them to in litanies, but, he challenged, do you pray for the saints? And the sermon only got better from there. Citing Charles Williams and John Donne and deftly staying firm in the faith Mark edged into esoterica enough to acknowledge what a deep prayer life knows but doesn’t tell.

Back at the farm, we observed All Souls on Sunday, chanting a plainsong Requiem mass, singing the Swahili Corpus Domini, the Russian Kontakion (Give Rest …), John Rutter’s In Paradisum, and weaving wonder throughout. Liturgy can just take over itself and let you ride along. Good planning helps, but sometimes a sheer magic envelops the room. We’d made a multi-leveled “altar of the dead” with pictures of our deceased friends and relatives, colored fabric and vases of flowers, a human skull, votive candles, and home-made self-portrait marzipan “sugar skulls”. And the Paschal Candle as a light to the lights, a symbol of initiation into the secrets of life and death and life again.

Altar of the Dead

Altar of the Dead

I forgot that it was my turn to preach. The following is something like what occurred to me during Lauds as we chanted Psalm 30 just before mass.

“Keep death always before you,” says St. Benedict in the Rule. Another translation reads, “Day by day remind yourself that you are going to die.” This is not new to Benedict.

At Pentecost the Holy Spirit fills and transforms the disciples, sending them out to “the ends of the earth” where they will be tortured and martyred proclaiming the good news. The church was “built on the bones of the martyrs.” To be initiated into “the way” was to know that faith is a matter of life and death. Waves of persecution of Christians in those first centuries only strengthened Christianity, for it is passion that hones the apprehension of truth and makes life worthwhile.

When Constantine made Christianity legal, worshipers emerged from catacombs and people dressed up to go to church. If you wanted a great job or network you became a Christian. But what happened to the life-or-death passion upon which practice of the faith thrived?

Because Christians no longer faced martyrdom, the passionate found a way toward a “living martyrdom” – in the desert. Thomas Merton characterizes the populating of the deserts of Egypt, Syria, Palestine, and Sinai in this period as a “frenzy.” The spirit of the martyrs lived on in these early monastics.

And the spirit of martyrdom continued in ascetical practices and the sacrificial living of monastics and reformers. When Benedict said, “day by day remind yourself that you are going to die,” he acknowledged the passion necessary to see truth, to sharpen our spiritual senses in the face of death. Monks slept in their coffins, or sewed on their shrouds. Anchorites and hermits took a shovelful from their graves every day. These practices witness to the apathetic Christian that faith and the resultant transformation in grace IS a matter of life and death.

When I read Psalm 30 at Lauds this morning, I suddenly heard the meaning differently – I’d always thought the composer was bargaining with God. “What profit is there in my blood, if I go down to the Pit? Will the dust praise you or declare your faithfulness?” Suddenly this morning I remembered the affirmation, the clarity of light you see in facing death. (This has been true for me the few times I’ve almost died.) The poet says, sickness and facing death taught me that life is about praise! About joy! “You have turned my wailing into dancing; you have put off my sack-cloth and clothed me with joy.”

I know I’ll forget this ten minutes after we leave the chapel today, but the practice keeping death always before me will remind me of my purpose in life: giving thanks! Love, truth, dancing, joy, union with God and serving others in this love and joy and union. Keeping death before me teaches me how to live … with passion.

“Therefore my heart sings to you without ceasing; O Lord my God, I will give you thanks for ever,” concludes the Psalmist. My heart sings without ceasing, and forever. That is, my purpose is not contingent upon either life or death. As the Burial service quotes Saint Paul, “For if we have life, we are alive in the Lord, and if we die, we die in the Lord. So, then, whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s possession. ”

Amen, Alleluia.

One Response to “All Souls Day”

  1. Andrea Says:

    but the practice keeping death always before me will remind me of my purpose in life: giving thanks! Love, truth, dancing, joy, union with God and serving others in this love and joy and union. Keeping death before me teaches me how to live … with passion…

    What a lovely post, Suzanne. It’s extremely timely for me as well, as I’ve been dealing with this very issue, trying to live with PASSION!

    Thank you so much.

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