William Davage considers the month of remembrance
Since my days of morbid adolescent introspection November has been my favourite month. There is the something about its wistful melancholia, its romantic charm that is, deeply satisfying. In those far off days it may have been no more than a Byronic conceit, some response to the consumptive romanticism of Keats, clearly reinforced by reading the poetry of the First World War with its haunting imagery of death and futility which seemed to be encapsulated in the month of remembrance and eerily focused on the eleventh hour of the eleventh month.
As I grew older I did not lose that sense of morbid introspection but it became something rather different. The Church keeps November as the month of the Holy Souls when we are bidden especially to pray for the dead, for the faithful departed and, as an obedient son of the Church, I came to realise that my adolescent musings had to do profoundly with our mortality. In this the dying fall of the year as the leaves turn from their vivid emerald to burnt orange, or blood red, or golden brown and fall from the trees to form a bronze carpet, sometimes crisp and sometimes damp underfoot, it is not fanciful to see them as a reminder of our dying and of our decay shrouded by premature dark. Nature herself seems to be dying, slipping inexorably into the dead of winter.
In this month the Church calls upon us to remember those who have died and to pray for them. As the dying fall of the year and the dead of winter are succeeded by the crisp, sharp freshness of spring and new life, so for the Christian “death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?”
Death and Resurrection, defeat and victory are the hallmarks of the Church’s liturgical life. This month sees All Souls’ Day and Remembrance Sunday but also All Saints and Christ the King. All Saints commemorates all those who have entered the glory of heaven but whose names have faded from the collective memory of the community but are known in the heart of God. The Feast of Christ the King acknowledges the rule of Jesus Christ as he reigns from his kingdom in heaven, from his throne of glory. The Christian religion has no monopoly on ideas of heaven and eternal life: it is a common theme of all major religions. The Christian perspective should not be perceived as narrow sectarianism but an all-embracing, all-encompassing, universal application of the principle of love. This is not to deny that we are under judgement. That is an inescapable aspect of love. “All nations will be assembled before him and he will separate men one from another as the shepherd separates sheep from goats.” We do not need to believe in a medieval cosmology, nor accept a mediaeval iconography of souls in bliss, and tortured souls in torment as a literal representation of the truth to know that God’s judgement is a real one. It is not arbitrary but is one that by our actions we make inescapable. We know that we can be separated from God and cut off from his love unless we choose freely to love him. Eternal separation from God is the necessary and wilful turning away from him. “And they will go away to eternal punishment.” God predestines no one to Hell. Such a fate requires that wilful and deliberate turning away from God and persistence in that rejection of him and of his love until the end.
That we do not want to be separated from the love of God, to suffer the irredeemable loss of that love and eternal friendship prompts us naturally to want the same for those whom we love, and our charity compels us to want the same for those whom we do not know but to whom we are connected by our common humanity and our common frailty. There is nothing surprising, nor unusual, about this. Praying for the dead should come as naturally as praying for the living. We are one communion and fellowship. If it is argued that Christ’s atoning work makes praying for the dead superfluous, it would make equally superfluous our praying for the living. We would be trapped and constrained within an inflexible determinism that would render absurd God’s grace and continued activity and renewal, and our response freely given.
Talk of heaven and praying for the dead may seem to remove us from the real world to the world of metaphysical speculation. Contemplation of life and eternity is not easy. Can we imagine what it is like no longer to inhabit our bodies? We may struggle to understand the concept of time, can we hope to grasp the concept of timelessness? This, however, is to raise a false distinction. It is at the heart of Christian belief that God became man, that the Word was made flesh, that Jesus Christ is true God and true man. This is neither metaphysical nor paradoxical, rather it is part of the mystery of God. And part of that mystery is a central assertion for the Christian. Christ’s conquest of death on the Cross marks Christianity’s most important claim, “Christ is risen from the dead and become the first fruits of them that slept.”
The lives of those killed in war who are remembered this month, lives which ended brutally and abruptly: the lives of those of our families and friends and benefactors who have passed from this life are, like our own lives, the promise and first stage of lives which are eternal. This is the focus of the Christian faith from which the waste and tragic loss endemic to human living can be seen in perspective. If Christ’s tomb were not empty, our hope of eternal life would be empty. But “our citizenship is in heaven.” There is a place reserved, for which the accidents and providences of this present life are preparation. There is not least a place for the soldier wounded in his hands and feet and thrust through with a bayonet, cut down in the full flowering of his youth and vigour. This is the consummation of the final mystery of our union and our communion with God in heaven, when all shall have gone home, when our citizenship shall have become wholly real in heaven. It is then that we will know the completeness of God’s kingdom in the fullness of eternal life. “Where we shall rest and see, we shall see and love, we shall love and praise. Behold what will be at the end without end. For what other end do we have, if not to reach the kingdom which has no end.”
Fr William Davage SSC lives in Hampstead
and is currently writing parish histories.