November is a fitting month for the Church to remember the dead. The illumination of October has given way to naked trees, scattered dead leaves, and rather gray skies. The Church truly grasps the contemplative nature of human beings as they live the seasons. It is in this time when darkness falls earlier and earlier in the evening, and temperatures begin to drop, paving the way for winter. It is here the Church meets our grief.
There are few who live unscathed by loss. The Church understands why a mother grieving three lost babies from miscarriages, would sit outside in the darkness on the Feast of All Souls. Drizzle falling, while three candles illuminate the darkness under the only memorial she has: three rose bushes, one for each baby. The Church empathizes with our grief. She devotes an entire month each year in which we embrace and pray through that pain.
In his own heart-wrenching and bare account, C.S. Lewis talks about grief in A Grief Observed:
And grief still feels like fear. Perhaps, more strictly, like suspense. Or like a waiting; just hanging about waiting for something to happen. It gives life a permanently provisional feeling. It doesn’t seem worth starting anything. I can’t settle down. I yawn, I fidget, I smoke too much. Up till this I always had too little time. Now there is nothing but time. Almost pure time, empty successiveness.
This time of year is a time of waiting. The Church waits for Advent and for the coming of the Incarnate Son. In that waiting her members must grapple with the pain, grief, and loss they live with in their lives. It may not be purely conscious grief, as it was in the beginning, or as Lewis’ was in this account. It may just be an oppressive feeling that comes on suddenly and then vanishes quickly. No matter how we live with our grief, we are not to walk alone in that suffering. The Church directs us in our grief. She tells us to pray. To pray for the dead, no matter how tiny they were when they died. She tells us to remember the souls in Purgatory, for our prayers lighten their load. She reminds us of our eschatological end in the celebration of the Communion of Saints, the Church Triumphant, at the beginning of the month. She reminds us that our death will come much sooner than we think.
Remember thou art dust and to dust thou shalt return.
Ash Wednesday Liturgy
The Church has a great and long tradition of praying for the dead. This tradition is summed up in Lumen Gentium:
Fully conscious of this communion of the whole Mystical Body of Jesus Christ, the pilgrim Church from the very first ages of the Christian religion has cultivated with great piety the memory of the dead, and “because it is a holy and wholesome thought to pray for the dead that they may be loosed from their sins”, also offers suffrages for them. The Church has always believed that the apostles and Christ’s martyrs who had given the supreme witness of faith and charity by the shedding of their blood, are closely joined with us in Christ, and she has always venerated them with special devotion, together with the Blessed Virgin Mary and the holy angels. The Church has piously implored the aid of their intercession. To these were soon added also those who had more closely imitated Christ’s virginity and poverty, and finally others whom the outstanding practice of the Christian virtues and the divine charisms recommended to the pious devotion and imitation of the faithful.
The Month of Praying for the Dead is something we must embrace as the Mystical Body. We live in a culture that runs from death. There is an illusion of busyness that masks the deep fear our culture feels towards the inevitability of death. The Church reminds us of this reality for our own good, so that we can confront the pain of our own losses and our own mortality. The Church is our mother. She guides us on this path and that includes in moments of grief and sorrow. Even though we suffer, she tells us to fix our eyes on Christ:
Just as the maternal function of Mary is to give the God-Man to the world, so the maternal function of the Church, which culminates, as we have seen, in the celebration of the Eucharist, is to give us Christ, the Head, Sacrifice and Food of his mystical body.
Henri de Lubac, The Splendor of the Church, 329
In fact, it is in our sense of grief and suffering for the loved ones we have lost, that the joy of the Resurrection is most profound. We are able to live our lives with joy and sorrow in our hearts, but in knowing that this grief is a temporal experience. We can sit in misty graveyards, sobbing tears of agony, and then rest in the knowledge and joy that Christ has conquered sin and death. The Christian journey is this mingling of joy and sorrow. Suffering, pain, and loss are a part of the journey. In her intuitive manner, the Church seeks to reach our grief in the dying of November.
In my beginning is my end…
What is the late November doing
With the disturbance of the spring
And creatures of the summer heat,
And snowdrops writhing under feet
And hollyhocks that aim too high
Red into grey and tumble down
Late roses filled with early snow?
Thunder rolled by the rolling stars
T. S. Eliot, East Coker, II
We are called to give our grief and suffering over to Christ, but that does not mean that we do not live through the pain. Death was not in the original design God had for us. Christ himself knew the agony death causes for loved ones and for all human beings who must die. That is why He came for us; to free us from sin and death. He came to restore our relationship with God that we may be united with Him. He came that we may stand before the Beatific Vision; that there would be an end to our grief. He knows we must first walk our own Calvary. He wept at Lazarus’ tomb to show us how grief is a part of this side of eternity. Our tears are a visible sign of our love for another.
November is not about dwelling in the past. It is about looking to our ultimate end. It is to acknowledge that we must suffer now, but the journey ends with God. We must suffer now. It isn’t something we can opt out of. Christ told us to pick up our Cross and follow Him. So we must cry tears of pain and feel the agony of loss in the death of a loved one, and even in the knowledge of our own death. We must cry because this was not how God created us to be, but there is always hope. Our agony is not out of despair. It is because we love. Our pain is the result of this Fallen world, but we are comforted in the arms of Christ. We can embrace the pain of death and remember the dead every November because we know the ultimate victory is in Christ. This is how we must live in the face of death. This is what Holy Mother Church teaches us every year. This month teaches us to pray for the dead, to grieve, and to look to the hope of Christ in all things.
Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them. May the souls of the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace. Amen.