I wrote this a while ago for use on the Cafe, and—given both my current train of thought and the time of year—thought it was worth re-sharing.
One of the approaches that I was specifically trying here was an alternate form of persuasion. That is, there are all sorts of readers at the Cafe, some of a churchmanship not amenable to the notion of saints. My goal here was to make more of an affective or poetic appeal for the concept rather than logical argumentation.
A cold wind flaps my coat-tails and whirls a cloud of dead leaves about my feet as I walk my elder daughter to the bus stop. They rasp voicelessly on the concrete and my thoughts finds them a flock with words, warnings, pleas, spoken—but not understood. A passage of Homer flickers to mind: Odysseus, sword drawn, keeping the rustling flock of shades at bay from the invigorating blood of the black sheep that gives back voice to a fallen comrade, to an ancient prophet, to the hero’s mother—strangers joined only in death. For the dead have been on my mind.
It’s only natural, I suppose—in the most literal kind of way. As the sun rounds another corner, the hours of night overtake the day; the vibrant star’s light dims to watery wintry shadow and, harvest passing, the fields fall fallow—corn stubble awaiting a blanket of snow. The signs of the earth turn to sleep or death. With signals like these it’s only natural my pagan precursors identified the passage from day’s supremacy to night’s to be a passage between worlds, a time when the dead souls return to be blown about our lands toothlessly muttering words, warnings, pleas to the living. With the coming of Christ to the British Isles, the soul cakes were offered to wandering strangers rather than the family dead; flickering faces lit visitors rather than turning away spiteful spirits. For All Hallows’ Eve and All Hallows and All Souls replaced and displaced the former pagan feast.
All Hallows—or All Saints as we know it now (the Latinate “saints” replacing the Saxon with the same sense)—is something of a confusion in these latter days. Who we remember, what we remember, and why has been blurred: sometimes on accident, sometimes on purpose. All Saints, All Souls, and the difference between them lie at the intersection of the Church’s musings on Scripture, on the Church Expectant, the Church Triumphant, and the overarching principle of the baptized dead knit into the living Christ.
All Hallows is for the Church Triumphant, those spirits and souls of the righteous who already rejoice in the ineffable splendor of the appearance of the glory of God. For these are those who already harmonize in the great chorus and who unceasingly lay down their petitions before the Throne, praying for we who yet linger here.
All Souls is for the Church Expectant who rest from their labors, who sleep in the earth awaiting the last trumpet when the earth shall flee away, the sky roll like a scroll, and our great company shall throng to the judgment seat.
Images fill my mind, of the Great Judgment, the Last Day, snatches of songs, paintings half- remembered from medieval books on penitence and prayer. Pre-modern in aspect, pre-modern in assumptions, a pervading truth permeates the scenes. It shall not be as they envisioned, it shall not be as I envision and yet…
My mind turns to the font and the flood for this is the center of this belief that yea, though they die, yet shall they live, knit to the marrow, the sinew, the bone, knit in the body of the Living Christ. Held in the mind of God, held in the heart of God, whatever our state of wake or rest we are hid with Christ in God.
Today we walked amongst the dead.
As sunlight filtered through fallen lives, my girls and I sat with gravestones.
Walnuts lay thick their husks and shells, and we sat and filled bags—much to the squirrels’ chagrin. Down on my knees, I dug out the walnuts, cleared them away with the rest of the parish volunteers. My flirtatious five-year old finding a friend, laughed and skipped as she gathered the shells, laughter pealing like little bells over mossy stones and markers. The other, tired, threw herself upon a marble slab and stared at the sunlit sky. At first I tried to hush and shush them, to remind them of the reverence due this place, and then I thought of the music of voices and of how they rang in this silent space and remembered that we walked among friends. And a trumpet sounded its clarion call, the sound drifting over the waiting stones, but it came from the organ inside of the church that lay at the center of the stones—tuning for the day’s second service. St. Paul’s words then came to my mind: “Sleeper awake! Rise from the dead, and Christ shall give you light.”
No Homeric scene this with the blood of goats and shades that mutter and warn. There is blood, it gives life—but not as the old poet sang. For the cup that we share and the loaf that we break is a sharing in the life of our God. And here in the church-yard we gather as one—those on high, those in sleep, those awake—and we gather at the table that is an altar and a tomb and we share in the mysteries of God. For the communion we share links the living and dead, finds all those knit together in Christ, and invites us to share in the promise of that place, a life hid together in God.
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