In the third film of The Lord of the Rings trilogy, (The Return of the King), the filmmaker transplants some dialogue from what was actually the first book of the trilogy to a battle scene in the third book.* In the movie scene, a frightened and battle-weary hobbit, Pippin, is with Gandalf, a wizard, who consoles him by telling him what it was like to have sacrificed his life and gone to the Undying Lands, a place that is like heaven. (Earlier in the trilogy Gandalf transforms after a death-like experience.) Gandalf describes it like this: "The grey rain curtain of this world rolls back, and all turns to silver glass...and then you see it. White shores. And beyond...a far green country under a swift sunrise." He is telling Pippin not to fear death should it come during the battle that is about to take place. In the film the actor who portrayed Gandalf played the scene with such wonder and awe, one could really believe he had been in heaven and had seen the beauty of the face of God. This scene interrupts a horrendous battle taking place as if to remind the viewer that God has already won the victory and therefore we have nothing to fear.
The author of the trilogy, J.R.R. Tolkien, was devoutly Catholic so there is nothing about this image that should surprise us. And as such, he touched upon the subject of death as a gift and not a curse many times in his writings. In his creation myth, The Silmarillion, it was the evil one who perverted death into something we fear. Tolkien indicated that death is a way back to Paradise to be with God forever, a gift which heals our exile from God. In that book it was the evil one, Morgoth, who made mortals fear death so as to create distance from their Maker. Death then took on an image which was terrifying to creatures that would therefore not want to face it or even talk about it. Tolkien wanted his readers to understand that there is nothing to fear since death opens heaven to us. Even though he set the Lord of the Rings to be ‘after the fall of humanity and before Christ,’ he could not put aside the belief of his own heart, (even if it came through somewhat unintentionally), that Jesus conquered death by dying and rising for us. Therefore as St. Paul writes, "Where, O death, is your sting?" (1 Corinthians 15:55-56)
We are heading toward the end of the liturgical year at which time the themes of the readings at Mass suggest that we be prepared for the return of Christ the King when the world as we know it comes to an end and the New Heaven and Earth are fully established. This coming weekend the shift begins in an obvious way with the celebration of two major feasts which remind us that life is finite, yet there is nothing to fear. These feasts are the Solemnity of All Saints and All Souls Day, respectively. On All Saints Day we remember the holy ones, canonized or not, who are with God in heaven. And on All Souls Day and we remember all the holy souls who are not yet in the fullness of the Kingdom and who are in the process of gaining heaven, (in Purgatory.) All those who have gone before us marked with the sign of faith pray for us and we should also remember them in prayer, especially those who are in Purgatory.
As Catholics we believe in the communion of saints. That means we believe that all those who are in Heaven, or who are on the way to Heaven in Purgatory, are still very much connected to us. By merit of baptism we are one Body of Christ, forever bonded to one another in love. Death does not break that bond because Christ has conquered death by dying and rising. In fact, the dead are closer to us now than when they were on earth because they are no longer limited by space and time. When a loved one passes away we mourn them because we miss their tangible presence in our lives. We miss seeing them, interacting with them, the sound of their voices, and the touch of their hugs. But we are consoled by the joy of knowing that they are still with us, though not bodily, and that one day we will indeed see them face to face, just as we will see God face to face.
The ancient Celts had a tradition of celebrating the dead when the night and day were of near equal length, near what we now refer to as the equinox. At that time they celebrated the feast of all hallows (all the holy ones), believing it to be the ‘thinnest’ time of the year. They thought that the veil between time and eternity was at its thinnest point on this feast, which meant that this was the time of year when those who had died were closest to us. The belief should not surprise us. It is grounded in the same reality as many experience when a loved one is passing from death to new life. At this time they often see and hear things the rest of us do not. They are passing from this world to the next, and the passage allows the barrier to become quite thin, until they are ready to cross completely over to be with the Lord. They will speak of seeing long dead relatives or will actually speak to them as if they are as visible to them as we are. And indeed they are.
Therefore it is important for us to keep in mind that our faith teaches us that death is but a bodily separation. Our beloved dead are no further from us than the Lord. Just as He is present to us in an unseen way and we rely on faith to know this, our loved ones are also silently close at hand. The holy souls and the saints have a very important role in praying for the world which is in sore need of grace in many areas. It is important to ask them to intercede for us and it is important for us to pray for those in Purgatory to be fully cleansed so that they may enter into heavenly glory with the rest of the holy ones.
If we are believers in Jesus Christ and all that He taught us we have no reason to fear death. Fear is not from God. It comes from the evil one who means to shake our faith. He wants us to doubt and to be frightened of the unknown. He enjoys deceiving us into believing that God wants to punish us rather than in the truth of God’s mercy and compassion. Certainly it is important for us to use the power of the sacraments to counter this deception. It is also to remember that just as Tolkien has reminded us in his trilogy, things are never so bleak that we are to despair. The Book of Revelation is a good example of this, too. In it, every time there are scenes of war, woe, and destruction, it is followed by a scene of God victorious in Heaven surrounded by hosts of angels and the holy ones who have gone before us. All is joy and peace, especially as the book comes to an end with the glorious scene of the New Jerusalem, a place where “every tear shall be wiped away” and there is no more suffering or pain.
In the end, all those who persevere in faith will be with God in Heaven forever. Jesus has come to assure us of that which awaits us. We need to do our part, however, and be ready. We do this by doing good works, loving deeds for the poor, marginalized, outcast, the suffering, and the stranger in our midst; that is, for all our brothers and sisters. We also must remember to ask for forgiveness of our sins. The feasts we celebrate this coming weekend remind us that we are all capable of being holy. They also remind us that we have many, many holy friends who have gone before us who are working hard to help us to find our way home to God; they pray for us to remain steadfast in our own journey. Not only do we celebrate their lives, but we celebrate the reality that one day we will be in Heaven at the banquet table of the Lord with them, singing praise to God. Let us rejoice that we have such a merciful, loving God who wants nothing more than for us to be with Him forever.
May we celebrate with gratitude all the holy ones who have gone before us! May we have a sense of our companionship with our beloved dead! May we ask for the intercession of all the holy souls and saints that they may pray for us as we work to grow in holiness during our lives! May we ask the intercession of the holy ones for our world! And may we have gratitude for the compassion and mercy of our God, asking for the grace to share these gifts with those around us! Let us meet in the Heart of the Lord! Peace!
©Michele L. Catanese
*Peter Jackson omitted the entire section from his film The Fellowship of the Ring in which Frodo and his hobbit companions met Tom Bombadil. In the book, in the very first paragraph of chapter 8, Frodo had a dream while at the house of Bombadil in which the lines appeared that were attributed to Gandalf in the third film instead.
The photos are mine. The first was taken near Dingle Penisula in Ireland. The second is of the mosaic of Christ Almighty which is inside the Cathedral in Monreale, Sicily. The third photo was taken just outside of Noto, Sicily.
Next is the icon Jesus Christ Holy Forgiveness by Fr. William Hart McNichols. It can be found at http://www.fatherbill.org/all-categories/product/41-jesus-christ-holy-forgiveness. You can obtain a copy of this or any other icon by Fr. Bill at www.fatherbill.org.
The last is All Saints by Fra Angelico, painted in the 15th century.
Heart Speaks to Heart