Musings on All Souls

Yes. I’m procrastinating. I should be writing Very Intelligent Things on knowing and unknowing in the Cloud of Unknowing for a book chapter I stupidly got roped into doing. I’ve just printed out a good set of Aquinas extracts and the Epistle of Discretion for marking up alongside the Cloud and am celebrating that hard-won progress by doing random blogging…

I love All Souls. It’s the last bit of the goth Triduum (Halloween, All Saints, and All Souls) and the only set day of the Sanctorale where the appointed color is black. And the vestments today at church were to die for… (Literally, of course–it’s the set they use for Requiem masses.) But as I was telling Dave on the phone, I think that the current protestant attempt to recover the saints in general and All Saints in particular has really wrecked the church’s sense of All Souls. As you probably now, the standard early 21st century protestant take is that everybody gets to be a saint. Yeah, I know there’s *some* theological basis for that…but where does it leave All Souls? If we’ve already celebrated all the baptized yesterday, who were we celebrating today? All the non-Christian dead? I mean–in one sense, yes, since we are celebrating literally all souls but… The way to recover it, as far as I can see, is to draw the line and say–look, yes, we’re all saints in one sense but in another sense some people really did do an exemplary job of showing forth the love of Christ in their lives. These people really should be held up as exemplars and as intercessors. Perhaps the problem is that we’ve lost the third section of the Church… Traditionally we spoke of the Church Militant (all of us living folks here on earth still slogging away), the Church Expectant (those who have died and are generally hanging around waiting for the resurrection), and the Church Triumphant (those souls who are already participating in the fullness of God and who are–even as you read this–interceding before the throne of God on behalf of us poor slobs).

Ok. Must do work. Oh, one more thing–for those of you who are interested, I posted something over at the other blog on singing the psalms. Enjoy…

16 thoughts on “Musings on All Souls

  1. Caelius

    I think the problem was that the Church Expectant always was a little too mixed up with Purgatory. I can’t remember the exact citation from Bede’s Ecclesiastical History, but there’s a report there of an ecstatic vision in which a guy sees people being tortured and then sees a place where people are happy and well-kept. He assumes that he is seeing Heaven and Hell. But his angelic guide tells him that Heaven was a much nicer place than the nice place lying somewhere beyond to which the souls in the places he saw would be admitted at the Last Judgment. In other words, there was Purgatory and then there was this Waiting Place. And of course, the guy never saw Hell just its entryway, which always reminded me of the Angry Rectum of the Cosmos.

    I think you would have a hard slog arguing for a distinction between the Expectant and the Triumphant without some idea of Purgatory. And thus I think that’s why the Church Expectant has disappeared in Protestantism.

  2. Derek the Ænglican

    Actually, no. That’s what these protestant types *want* you to believe. ;-)

    Reread the Lazarus story from John. Reread Revelation. The anthropology there works like this: when you die, you’re dead. And you’re dead until Christ comes back and raises us all up again in the general resurrection. Then folk get all sorted out into their various categories (incense or brimstone…). The monkey-wrench that Revelation throws into the mix is a a crowd of humanity in heaven *before* the general resurrection. These were understood to be the folk who got to go right into the presence of God. The other people had to wait until the general resurrection. Traditionally too the ticket in was blood–martyrdom is what got you sent directly to heaven rather than taking the round-about way.

    In all honesty, the general cultural notion of “good people die and go to heaven” is very much against the biblical text…

  3. *Christopher


    First, caelius beat me to the punch.

    Second, I think you’re right for us to celebrate those exceptional folks, those who in this life showed forth as icons more than most of us, some names, others unknown. My great grandmother was one of those persons, and though she’s on no calendar, she was the mother of her parish church; a modern amma. Amazing Grace indeed.

    Third, of course, we may need to get beyond thinking of Purgatory as a place rather than a moment (of course thinking outside of time) of purification, more in keeping with the Greeks.

    And even Hell is held in G-d, rather we keep ourselves in our inward turning from turning to G-d, at least I think C.S. Lewis got that right: “Hell is a state of mind”, and as we know many of us experience Hell even in this life from time to time. But Christ goes down with us and raises us even there if we do trust him.

  4. *Christopher

    Oh, just read your comments. See that’s the way I’ve argued before–it’s about Resurrection, but many traditionalists don’t like that–eternal soul and all, which I find problematic.

  5. Caelius

    It’s funny. All during the writing of my comment I was thinking, well everyone says it works like X, “But that’s not the way it works in the Bible…” Well, it does with the other Lazarus in Luke…

    Maybe Aristotle is right, without bodies and without Christ, we are merely potential…

  6. LutherPunk

    Derek – I do find the issue that “everyone is a saint” a realy issue. This idea is running rampant through the ELCA, and I persoanlly think it is an attempt to make everyone feel good. Even the simul iustus statement seems to imply that we sin post-justification, not that we are saints in a way like the exemplars and martyrs.

    Plus, most people no longer think of us as waiting for the resurrection post-death. There is this notion of immediate heaven. I think I blame bad funeral homilies for that…

  7. Derek the Ænglican

    Well, this is one of those cases where the popular notion, the official texts and the received doctrine don’t hold together very well. Nobody really likes the idea of dying and being dead in the ground. And too this is a potential case study for when bad pastoral care becomes full-fledged bad theology…

    Caelius, don’t quote me on this but I think one of the ways that the Lazarus issue was resolved by the early church was to note that the bosom of Abraham was never specifically identified as heaven. Prior to the Harrowing of Hell everybody–including Abraham–was in hell. The gulf refers to hell’s own divisions keeping the bad from the worse and from the not-so-bad-but-not-confessing-Jesus section.

  8. Derek the Ænglican

    Yeah–it’s a wierd thing. I made the mistake of proofreading an abstract for submission. A couple of psychologists are writing it and they know next to nothing about religion.In my proofreading I made some changes and suggestions and they added me onto it as a co-author. That’s the thing about science people; if you look at an article funny you get to be a co-author. I mean–they go looking for names they can add on so they’ve got a nice long string. Apparently it’s bad form to only have one or two authors. You have to have your own little gang or it’s not worth publishing it. As you can see, publications in their field are *so* not like publications in ours…

  9. Lutheran Zephyr

    When I did a chaplaincy years ago I never said the “H” word (heaven). I’ve had a troubled conscience about assuring instant, non-stop tickets to heaven for a long time. Rather, to remain pastoral and true to the Biblical perspective, I simply quote Paul who wrote in Romans 8:38-39 that nothing – not even death – can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. I’m less concerned about afterlife geography than I am about the comforting knowledge that nothing can get in the way of Jesus’ love.

  10. LutherPunk

    Funny…I thought about this post yesterday during divine worship. The sermon (not by me) was about how we are all really saints. Further, we have this tradition of reading the names of folks who have passed during the last year as part of the prayers of church. All I could think about was how badly that needed to be done during All Souls rather than All Saints. Sorry, but we do need to differentiate between the two. I know Christianity has shifted into this notion that we are all on a level playing field and no one person is closer to sainthood than another, but it is simply not true. YEt another example of therapeutic Christianity…

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  12. John-Julian, OJN

    Well, I’ll chance it on this long piece. Maybe it won’t print because it’s so long – we’ll see.


    “If anyone speaks against the Holy Spirit,” says Jesus, “for him there will be no forgiveness, either in this age or in the age to come.” (Matt. 12:32b) This statement in which Jesus makes a damning exception of those who speak against the Spirit is often taken as New Testament evidence that there must, in fact, be another process which DOES provide “forgiveness” in “the age to come” for those who have NOT spoken against the Spirit.

    Also, in the Second Book of Máccabees there is an account of Judas Maccabáeus sending an offering to Jerusalem on behalf of the fallen in battle, “He offered the atoning sacrifice, to free the dead from their sin.” (2 Macc. 12:45b).

    Thus there are two biblical suggestions that (a) there is apparently some kind of “intermediate state” (a term popularized by the Tractarians) after death in which expiation and forgiveness for sin is available, and (b) it is possible for those who are still alive to participate in that process by their prayers and oblations on behalf of those who have died.

    Without dealing with the web of intricate theological details, we know that the general practice of offering prayers and celebrating the Holy Eucharist for the departed is attested to by numerous extremely early inscriptions and by Church Fathers such as St. Clement of Alexandria, Origen, St. Cyril of Jerusalem, St. John Chrysostom, St. Ambrose, and St. Augustine. Especially in the Eastern Orthodox traditions, prayers for the dead have been a constant feature of the liturgy from the very earliest times.

    Clear traces of a belief in an intermediate state after death appear in the very early account of the martyrdom of St. Perpétua in 203 AD. During her imprisonment before her martyrdom, Perpétua is granted visions. In one she sees her departed brother Dinócrates. She wrote: “I saw [him] coming from a dark place…his face was dirty, his complexion pale, with the ulcer on his face of which he died at seven years of age…Near him stood a vessel full of water, whose brim was higher than the stature of the child: he attempted to drink, but though he had water, he could not reach it. This mightily grieved me and I awoke…but I trusted I could by prayer relieve him: so I be-gan to pray for him.” Some days later she has a further vision: “I saw the place which I had beheld as dark before, now luminous; and [my brother] with his body very clean and well-clad, refreshing himself, and instead of his wound, a scar only. I awaked, and I knew he was relieved…”
    Over the centuries, the Church’s wisdom in sanctioning prayer for the departed sprang from four sources:
    (1) The understanding of the immeasurable mercy of God, in which a loving God seemingly would not withhold the gift of eternal happiness from a well-meaning soul even though that soul may not have completely opened itself to God’s saving grace while on earth.
    (2) The solidarity and unity of the whole Church which recognizes no mystical barrier between Christians who have died and those who are still alive on earth, bound as they are within the one Mystical Body of Christ, and, therefore, accessible to each others’ prayers.
    (3) As St. James reminds us in his letter “It is by deeds, and not only believing, that someone is justified.” (James 2:24 NJB) Consequently, the general Protestant idea that a Christian’s sinful deeds are simply automatically forgiven at death discredits the very nature of us as moral creatures, ultimately accountable for our choices and our deeds.
    (4) The development of the doctrine of Purgatory (based, curiously, on the extremely ancient practice of praying for the dead – which then needed a clear theological underpinning: a clear example of the law of prayer forming the law of belief). The wider introduction of Masses for the dead came under Pope Gregory the Great who in the late 6th century was a great popularizer of the doctrine of purgatory.

    A specific day set apart for commemoration of the faithful departed began originally to commemorate all the dead of a particular monastic order, but in 998 the Benedictine Abbot Odílo of Cluny decided to extend it to include, as he put it, “all the dead who have existed from the beginning of the world… until the end of time” and he commanded All Souls’ Day to be kept on the day after All Saints’ Day in all monastic houses of his congregation — a practice which soon found popular support across the whole Church. Evidence for the English commemoration includes the eleventh century Monastic Constitution of Archbishop Lanfranc, and at least four ancient dedications, the most famous being All Soul’s Col-lege, Oxford.

    There was never a time when the Eastern Orthodox tradition did not include prayers for the departed, but almost intentionally there seems to have been an avoidance of explicit teaching concerning an “intermediate state”. The only such attempt at clear teaching was in the writings of Dositheus in the 17th century, which Dositheus himself later repudiated.

    Corrupt medieval Roman teachings and practices regarding the departed included a degenerate concept of the “intermediate state” as a Purgatory, a place of pain and horrendous misery where one “paid for one’s sins”, and also the sale of papal indulgences which purportedly allowed one to “buy a way” out of that Purgatory for oneself or one’s de-parted loved ones. (There was even a considerable period of time when purgatory was considered to be an actual physical place under the earth.)

    In the face of such de-basement, the Protestant reformers tended to be very hard on the venerable and very ancient belief in an “intermediate state” and the idea of prayer for the departed was strongly deprecated. (As was not atypical, the reform tendency was to throw the theological baby out with the corrupt bath water.)

    Especially due to the Oxford Movement in the nineteenth century, the pious practice of prayers for the departed has been widely restored in the Anglican Communion, and propers for All Souls’ Day and prayers for the dead in the burial services are now provided in the official liturgy of the Episcopal Church.

  13. Derek the Ænglican

    Thanks for this, Fr. John-Julian. I had no idea about the Eastern stuff.

    The way I normally get into the topic with my protestant students is to discuss the wide variety of ways that the Scripture talks about the afterlife. By locating the issue in Scripture, it then helps them to see how the Church Expectant and Triumphant arose as ways of being faithful to the text as opposed to being “medieval corruptions”–which is what most of them have been taught…

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