Last month my husband and I decided to take a weekend trip to a favorite hiking site which also meant we would be attending Mass at a church which is not our usual parish. Before Mass everyone was asked to greet the people sitting around them. The couple next to us gave a warm greeting, a welcome which was genuine and deeply touching, as did the couple seated behind us. After Mass the first couple continued to demonstrate hospitality, saying they hoped to see us again sometime in the future. This kind of welcome seems to be in their spiritual DNA, because every time we visit the area and subsequently attend that parish, we feel at home knowing that we do indeed belong. And that is how it should always be when one enters a church to worship. There is nothing more intimate than praying together, so the welcome should be palpable. What I took away from the experience was that I was surrounded by friends I simply had not yet met, and that in any Christian community all people should be welcomed at all times. Being surrounded by these caring people also helped me to look beyond and to realize that we are continually surrounded not only by the living, (and not only by the angels), but also by the souls of the dead.
We celebrated the ‘sister feasts’ of All Saints and All Souls on November 1st and 2nd respectively, and therefore it is important to understand that combined, these feasts are meant to remind us that we are not alone by any means. In the first, “The Solemnity of All Saints,” we are celebrating not only those who rose to their full spiritual potential in becoming holy, (the recognized Saints) but also those who are unknown to us, and are already in Heaven. This feast reminds us that the Saints do not attain heaven and then ‘wait around’ for us to accompany them someday. Rather, they accompany us now, working to help when we specifically ask for their intercession. The second, “The Commemoration of All the Faithful Departed” (All Souls Day), is a remembrance of all those who have died and who are completing their “purification preparation” in Purgatory so that they may then enter into Heaven.* We are taught that we have a responsibility to pray for them so that they may complete their purification, but we also believe that they pray for us, too. (2 Maccabees 12:44-46 as well as other references.)** This is why we should think of these two feasts as related to one another: both remind us that we are not alone in this life and that one day we will be welcomed into Heaven by the souls who have gone before us.
St. Paul wrote: “You are no longer strangers and sojourners, but you are fellow citizens with the holy ones and members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets with Christ Jesus himself as the capstone.” (Ephesians 2:19-20) We are bound together through love at our baptism, a connection offered by the Holy Spirit and attained for us by Jesus. Thus, as members of one Body there are no strangers. We are related through grace, as Paul says, in the household ('family') of God. We are surrounded not only by the friends and family we can see, but by multitudes of the unseen saints and holy souls, including our departed loved ones who are not truly lost to us, but are indeed present. We are always enfolded in Love; not only do we have the limitless love of Christ, but we have these unseen friends who are always present. We are never alone, even when we think we are. This is quite important for us to bear in mind especially because part of our human condition is that sometimes we feel disconnected, particularly in periods of crisis, illness, loss, betrayal, disappointment, or simply a ‘low time’ in our life journey. We can feel so alone that we lose sight of the reality that we are not. Those suffering poverty or homelessness, those who might be refugees who also might have a language barrier to contend with, the elderly, those who live alone, those suffering loss of a loved one, and those who might be displaced due to natural disaster, are most vulnerable to feeling isolated. Loneliness is also felt keenly when we are somehow labeled as ‘different’ or ‘judged and found wanting’ in the eyes of others and therefore are held at a distance. Those who are treated as unwelcomed for any reason feel like a sojourner in a foreign land, even in their own ‘backyard.’ When these things occur it is quite easy to feel adrift, unwelcomed, and truly uncared for, thus losing sight of the unseen reality of the presence of the saints, holy souls, and of course, our loving God.
It might help to remember that even Jesus, who was fully human as well as fully divine, was not impervious to being tempted to give into loneliness. When He went out into the desert to pray in preparation for His public ministry, (Mark 1:12-13; Matthew 4:1-11, Luke 4:1-13), He was tempted by the devil, which in part can be seen as the allure of assuaging His loneliness. First, Satan tried to get Jesus to act upon his command to ‘prove’ that He was really God; but this was also a temptation to ward off loneliness because the devil suggested that Jesus could summon the angels, and thus He would not be alone in this battle. Next, Satan offered Jesus food, perhaps to falsely appease His hunger for souls to be saved. Ironically Satan offered bread that would cease to satisfy to the very One whose Body would become the bread which never ceases to satisfy. Finally, Satan offered to give Jesus all the kingdoms of the world, seemingly a place to ‘fit in’ (a false security), if He would worship Satan, to which Jesus commanded Satan to be gone. In the end the angels did come to lovingly minister to an exhausted Jesus, who like all of us, was in fact never alone.
The dual feasts of All Saints and All Souls help us to remember that in addition to the angels, the saints and holy souls do accompany us and are always available when we need assistance; we should never fear to ask their help when we are somehow in need. Quite often we will pray to a patron (saint) or a particular saint on his or her feast day, but we forget that all year long we have an entire army of helpers who want to share the joys of the Kingdom with us. We may remember our beloved dead throughout the year, but often we forget to pray to them, not just for them. Indeed they appreciate our prayers for them, probably more than we can know in this life, but they also want to be of assistance to us. They are no longer bound by time and space, so they are able to pray unceasingly for us. In short, the holy souls and the saints are fabulous intercessors who keep the prayer going for us when we are either distracted or are called to move away from prayer and attend to the responsibilities of our lives.
These feasts also help us move outward in action. The holy souls and the saints assist us, but they are not meant to do all the work. Jesus taught that every man and woman is our neighbor, and therefore we are called to work together to heal that which is broken and build up that which is sagging. In other words, these feasts should provide inspiration to imitate the holy souls and the saints by offering a welcome to the stranger and our friendship to the lonely or alienated. Jesus came into the world to bring healing to the sick and to bring home all those who were disconnected from God. In the last discourse in Matthew 25 Jesus taught that we have a responsibility to help those in need: we are to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit those who are ill or in prison, and welcome the stranger. Just as our unseen friends, the saints and holy souls, work in the background to assist us, we are to reach out to our wounded neighbors to show mercy and love, too. We might remain equally unseen in doing this work, a greater sacrifice since we receive no recognition, but part of being a Christian is to make these actions so much a part of our lives that we do not even think of them as something different or heroic. It is simply what we do because it is who we are. Therefore we need to imitate the holy ones who have gone before us, welcoming the friends we have not yet met, that we might be instruments of healing and wholeness.
May the Saints and Holy Souls inspire us to work toward fulfilling our potential to holiness! May we trust in our prayer to the Saints and Holy Souls knowing they are always attentive to us! May we learn to gratefully welcome the assistance of the Saints and Holy Souls and to be welcoming to all those who offer aid when we are in need! May we learn to be as the unseen Saints and Holy Souls, offering assistance to neighbors who might need our help! And may we live the gospel message of Jesus in grateful response to His love, as instruments of the same mercy He offers us! Let us continue to meet in the Heart of Jesus! Peace!
©Michele L. Catanese
Note: Next post will be November 20.
* This is a reference to an explanation of All Souls Day found in the November issue of Magnificat on page 34.
** I referenced the following article http://www.catholic.org/saints/allsouls/. The author generally points out other biblical references found in Zechariah, Sirach, and the Gospel of Matthew. However, be forewarned that the references in 2 Maccabees are misstated in the body of this article. The author cited 2 Macc 12:26 and 32, but that is totally incorrect. It should read 2 Macc 12:44-46.
More resources are: All Saints: http://www.catholic.org/saints/allsaints/
All Souls: https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-all-souls-day-542460
1. I took this photo on the hiking trip mentioned at Garner State Park in Concan, Texas. It was an overcast day and we were hiking near the river on an ill-defined trail, which was so because the park had suffered from flash flooding a year ago and the trail had not been fully "rehabilitated." I chose to use this here not only because it was part of the hiking trip but because of the clarity of the water. Being able to see the bottom of the river and everything in it at that point reminded me of the unseen becoming visible to us through prayer.
2. This is a painting by Duccio di Buoninsegna, one of my favorite religious artists. It is The Descent to Hell (1308-11). It depicts the descent of Jesus into Sheol after He died on the cross, referred to in the Apostles' Creed: "He descended into hell and on the third day He rose again from the dead...." There is also a reference in Matthew 27:52-53 to the souls of the just seen in Jerusalem after Jesus died. I chose to use it here because it shows the holy souls being released to rise into Heaven as new saints.
3. This is an image painted by Fr. William Hart McNichols called The Souls of the Just Are in the Hands of God. I chose to use it here because it references Wisdom 3:1-9 which contains the lovely passage often used at funerals that describes the loving care God gives to the souls who pass from this life through death to new life. There is a gentleness in the way the rising holy souls are seen. If you are interested in purchasing this image in one of many formats you can find it at https://fineartamerica.com/featured/the-souls-of-the-just-are-in-the-hands-of-god-172-william-hart-mcnichols.html.
4. This image is incredibly moving and it was the inspiration for this entire post: it is a magnificent painting by James Tissot called And the Angels Ministered to Him. (1898) It shows Jesus right after the temptations by the devil have ended and the angels surround Him with their love and care. When I reflect upon this image it helps me to realize that the holy ones and the angels are surrounding each of us whenever we are in danger or in need even though they remain unseen. No matter what happens they are there to assist us. They do not alter the outcome of a situation, but they remain with us throughout to comfort and pray.
5. This is one of my photos taken at Lost Maples State Natural Area in Vanderpool, TX. I chose to use it here because the moss on the dead branch seemed to be enveloping it with a vibrancy that spoke to me of the life which surrounds us when we are feeling a bit lifeless due to loneliness or suffering.
6. This is The Good Samaritan by Vincent van Gogh. I chose to use it here because the Samaritan is carrying out the corporal works of mercy by helping the wounded Jew. There is a welcome in this action because the Samaritan is helping one who would be an enemy; at that time these two cultures were enemies of one another, therefore his heroic act is transcending the culture and doing what we all should do, which is to love our neighbor no matter who he or she might be.
7. Finally, this is another of my photos taken on our hike at Lost Maples. I chose this because the water droplets on the fern are very tiny and could have gone unnoticed. The water was clinging to the fern's leaves when I snapped the photo and later when we made the return trip it was still there just as it had been previously. This made me think of the gentle presence of our beloved dead, the holy souls and the saints, who are ever present almost tenaciously. That is a very comforting thought.
Heart Speaks to Heart