Readings for the Commemoration of All the Faithful Departed (All Souls): WIS 3:1-9; PS 23:1-6; ROM 5: 6-11; JN 6: 37-40.
Today is the feast of All Souls -- or as they call it in Latin America, the "Day of the Dead." In Mexico, the commemoration of "the faithful departed" is really a triduum that begins on Halloween, proceeds through the Feast of All Saints (Nov. 1st) and finishes today with "All Souls Day" (Nov. 2nd).
In Mexico there are parades and costumes, and skeleton manikins dressed up in silks and finery. In a mocking, light-hearted way, the day reminds everyone of the shortness of life, the impermanent nature of pleasure, prestige, profit and power, and the inevitability of our own fast-approaching demise.
Since death is inevitable and an integral part of life, the Day of the Dead invites us all -- "believers" or not -- to recall those who have gone before us to "rest in the sleep of peace" and to ready ourselves for The Great Transformation by looking death square in the face.
So to begin with, think about your own loved ones who have passed away. No doubt, there's some pain in doing that. After all, we loved them. In those terms, today I'm thinking especially of a dear friend and mentor of mine, Glen Stassen. He died unexpectedly this last year. He was a great scholar, teacher, author and peace activist. He taught me so much. And then there are those public figures -- like Pete Seeger, Maya Angelou and Robin Williams -- whom we all recently lost.
We miss people like that. Nonetheless, death does not wound us without at the same time offering new understandings and appreciations of the ways the lives of those loved ones continue in and around us. In some sense, the ripples of their stories have influenced not only us, but the entire universe.
The Day of the Dead also brings that urgency I mentioned earlier -- around my own fast-approaching death and the need I feel to use these declining years to make my contribution to a world careening towards disaster as never before. It's also a time for imagining what awaits me after I breathe my last.
For the past few years the great fifth century mystic, Augustine of Hippo, has helped me think about death, its process and what comes after. He wrote a very long sentence I've found so helpful in thinking about death that I've committed it to memory and often use for meditation. Here's what Augustine said. See if his words help you:
Imagine if all the tumult of the body were to quiet down, along with all our busy thoughts about earth and sea and air; if the very world should stop, and the mind stop thinking about itself, go beyond itself, and be quite still;
if all the fantasies that appear in dreams and imagination should cease, and there be no speech, no sign:
Imagine if all things perishable grew still -- for if we listen they are saying, "We did not make ourselves; he made us who abides forever" -- imagine then, that they should say this and fall silent, listening to the very voice of the one who made them and not to that of God's creation;
So that we should hear not his word through the tongues of men, nor the voice of angels, nor the clouds' thunder, nor any symbol, but the very Self which in these things we love, and go beyond ourselves to attain a flash of that eternal wisdom which abides above all things:
And imagine if that moment were to go on and on, leaving behind all other sights and sounds but that one vision which ravishes, absorbs, and fixes the beholder in joy; so that the rest of eternal life were like that moment of illumination that leaves us breathless:
Would this not be what is bidden in scripture, "Enter thou into the joy of thy Lord?
So that's what happens in death, is it? The end of the world -- bodily sensations, thought, and fantasies; great stillness within and without; no sound from human voice or nature itself; but eternal immersion in wisdom, light and breathless joy. That's what awaits us. At least Augustine thought so.
How different (and so much more consoling) is that vision from what I once anticipated in terms of "the last things" as so wonderfully, but (for literalists) misleadingly expressed in Dante's immortal Divina Comedia: death, judgment, heaven, hell. I can no longer believe that as literally as I once did. In fact, I'm persuaded to make my own the prayer of a medieval mystic. (This is another passage I use for my meditations):