I’m not sure November would have selected this theme for itself, but in the Christian tradition November is often noted as the month of the dead. While not dominated by death, it begins with All Saints’ Day on Nov. 1 and All Souls’ Day on Nov. 2. Think of it as setting the stage for the month. [Halloween is “All Hallow’s Eve” and originated as people dressing up as saints.]
All Saints Day is easy enough to understand — on that day we honor the saints who model for us how to live our life. All Souls’ Day is a bit tougher for many of us to think about. While it is the day we remember those who have died, more importantly it is the day we pray for their souls.
Why do we pray for the dead? In the Catholic Church, it is to pray for souls in purgatory (since we can only be sure the saints are in Heaven). The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that those “who die in God’s grace and friendship” but are “still imperfectly purified…after death they undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven.”
I converted to the Catholic faith when I was 18 and purgatory is one of those teachings that always made sense to me. As Saint Catherine of Genoa says: “if a soul were brought to see God when it had still a trifle of which to purge itself, a great injury would be done it.” She sees the true awesomeness of God as so great that to be exposed to it immediately would be too much. And the great Saint Augustine said that the”prayers of the Church relieve the Holy Souls” in purgatory.
The concept becomes a bit more difficult when thinking about my six-year-old son, Oliver. Does he need to be purified before seeing God? I think he left life on earth in a pretty pure state, but that is different than being ready to be exposed to the glory of God. My bets are that he was ready for the glory pretty quickly and is now hanging out with the angels. Probably cracking them up with bad knock-knock jokes. Naturally, I’m biased.
This is life’s purpose: to enable God’s light to pass through; it is the purpose of our life too.”Pope Francis
But I still say my prayers for Oliver everyday and with special emphasis on All Souls Day. And I like being part of a church that sees the dead as part of the community. We do not fear the dead and remember them in many ways (most Masses are said in remembrance of someone who has died). The saints serve as models for life and actively pray for us.
Pope Francis has a beautiful way of describing of what we learn from the saints. “We compare the saints to the Church windows which allow light to enter in different shades of color. The saints are our brothers and sisters who have welcomed the light of God in their heart and have passed it on to the world, each according to his or her own hue…This is life’s purpose: to enable God’s light to pass through; it is the purpose of our life too.”
Oliver may have only been six, but he enabled God’s light to pass through to many people in his own unique hue. He lived a short life and did more to share God’s light than I’ll likely do in my entire life. I’m okay with that.
Special credit to the November 2019 issue of Magnificat for much of this content.
Special note: I’m growing back my beard in November to raise money to fight pediatric cancer. If you are so inclined, I would appreciate your support!