Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about death. Strange, I know, but I have had a lot of inspiration. My partner’s father passed away last week. Someone shot up a synagogue that same day. Today is All Saints’ Day. During a recent retreat, I prayed for six nights with chanting monks that I would have a “peaceful night and a perfect end.” And it’s fall. As the darkness descends earlier and the trees trustfully release their leaves, we are invited to ponder the mystery of mortality.
Like most people–especially Westerners and especially young folks–I avoid thinking about death most of the time. I’m more concerned with how to live my life and make a living. But death is profoundly democratic, touching and threatening all of us, and it promises to confront us whether we like it or not. My monastic siblings in the faith long ago learned to accept this fact and bring the experience into prayer. The evening prayers of Compline (from Latin meaning “completion”) provided the natural time to reflect on death and request divine assistance. After all, going to sleep at night is practice for the final rest. Each night we surrender our bodies and souls to divine care, trusting that God will raise us again for a new day. We practice the radical trust of Jesus, who offered up his death to God and the world: “Into your hands I commend my spirit.” In so doing, we realize that death can be transformed from enemy to friend, from destroyer to teacher. We befriend death by letting it remind us that our days are numbered so we ought to consider the great question of poet Mary Oliver: “what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” Perhaps this is one reason that the monastic fore-bearers invite us to the counter-cultural practice of memento mori— “remember your death” or “remember that you will die.”
Of course, death doesn’t always come as a peaceful passageway to life after life. It also comes by violence and evil, as recent shootings remind us. And Christian faith teaches that death does not have the final word; instead, transformation, judgment, and restoration continue after death and across history. God is ever luring us and working among us toward a future wholeness, apokatastasis–“the restoration of all things”–in which, as Julian of Norwich said, “all manner of things shall be well.” In the meantime, the God of all comfort is present in the process of grief and loss, never offering escape from death but always offering intimate accompaniment and always seeking to bring resurrection and renewal from death and dying.
The Apostles’ Creed unites most Christians in the affirmation of “the resurrection of the body and life everlasting.” But it also reminds us that we are part of a great community called the “communion of saints.” We remain connected in this communion across the ages and across the veil. We are partners in the project of world repair and united in a love that is stronger than death. Recently, someone told me that their deceased loved one couldn’t care less about their family and the events of earth because they were with the angels and God in heaven. I disagree. Yes, they have begun a new journey and are entering a new dimension. But I don’t believe they have forgotten those they love and the places of their earthly pilgrimage any more than Jesus did. Jesus left his friends and disciples behind, returning to God, but Christian faith insists that the Christ remains intimately involved in the life of all living beings on this broken and beautiful planet. I believe it is not only natural but holy to pray for those who have died (and ask for their prayers and guidance). We pray that they will find the healing and transformation they need and can find the rest and peace for which we all long. Perhaps it makes a difference for them. Or maybe it’s just a way for us to re-member them, to keep them alive as members of our lives. Because our relationship with the deceased has changed but has not ended. For better or worse, it continues.
Several years ago, I learned about a Latin American practice from a fellow seminary student who was sharing about her heritage. While we feasted on some delicious homemade tamales, she told us about how churches, during the Eucharist, would read the names of the dead and the priests, nuns, and activists who had “disappeared” (especially in El Salvador). After each name was read, the congregation would respond “presente!” This was to remind themselves that death and violence didn’t have the last word. Their friends and family and the saints and martyrs were still present, comrades in the struggle and companions on the journey.
I have found that rural folks tend to have a special awareness of how their lives are connected to the lives of their ancestors. In small, rural towns a family name still carries a lot of weight. This is an asset if you carry a respected name and a liability if your name has gathered stigma and baggage from previous generations. When I returned to my hometown, I was reminded of how important a family name is to folks in my community. Thankfully, “Henry” still has positive associations and carries with it a reputable heritage. But it’s fascinating (and kinda funny) to watch people come into the library where I work who have a name that is unfamiliar. My old-timer coworkers try to place them: “Are you related to _________?” “Do you know __________?” They don’t know what to do when they can’t compute the correct tribe and corresponding assumptions. If a person is new, this can make it challenging to find new friends and discover opportunities. If they have relatives who had public failures, this leaves them vulnerable to distrust and judgment. It’s silly, and sometimes harmful. And yet, it also provides a necessary reminder that we are not pure individuals. No one is an island. No one is completely self-sufficient or self-made. We are all part of a longer, larger story. For better or worse, our ancestors remain in us, genetically, socially, spiritually. We can accept their gifts and pass them on to a new generation. Unfortunately, we can do the same with the wounds and sins we inherited from them. As Richard Rohr wisely reminds us, what we do not transform, we transmit.
This connection with ancestors among rural folks is not so much an existential, mystical communion as one that is felt and embodied in the ordinary ventures of life. A farmer feels the presence of his ancestors as he farms the land that his grandfather farmed for fifty years. A young mother feels the presence of her mother as she holds her baby in her arms for the first time, wishing her mom was still around to spoil him. A parishioner feels connected to his great-grandparents while worshiping in a local congregation, feeling that the space is still filled with their prayers and songs. Wendell Berry reminds us that it is often in the sharing of place, work, and love that we experience our membership with one another and our communion with those who came before us. This practice of membership and communion offers a prophetic critique of our fragmented society and polarized nation. Re-membering the dead and honoring their memory with our lives is a testimony of wholeness and unity when so many cultural forces are breaking common bonds, dividing us up into convenient categories, and tearing apart what God has joined together.
On this All Saints’ Day, may you experience communion with your neighbors across the street and the saints across the ages. May your memory and practice nurture a new world built on ancient foundations. May Christ and the great cloud of witness reveal a Life that transforms death and lures us toward the repair of our world.