The huge wooden lintel that stretches across the back of the nave in my parish proclaims, ALL SOULS ARE MINE SAITH THE LORD. Our Feast of Title. All Souls’ Day. Just after All Saints’ Day. Just after All Hallows’ Eve, more popularly Halloween. Even more popularly Samhain (pronounced Sow-en), in the Celtic tradition, one of the two days a year (May 1 the other) when the veil between the worlds grows thin, and Things (has to be said in a shaky voice) come out. Now we pay them off with candy. But we once recognized these Things. (from a traditional Scottish prayer)
From ghoulies and ghosties
And long-leggedy beasties
And things that go bump in the night,
Good Lord, deliver us!
But sunrise comes, and the cobwebs of supernatural creatures are swept away. All Saints’ Day. And my favorite hymn ever. “I sing a song of the saints of God,” (Hymnal 283), with its saint “slain by a fierce wild beast,” and the hope to meet one at tea. And the refrain asking why I shouldn’t be one, too. A simpler time, perhaps, but it opens the question, why a day for Saints and a day for Souls? We are all loved. The resurrection is for all, isn’t it? Are some souls more equal than others?
The canticle Te Deum (We praise thee, O God) picks out the apostles, prophets, and the white robed army of martyrs who with ranks of angels sing the Gloria endlessly in praise of God. The Church throughout all the world merely acknowledges God.
What is a martyr, or for that matter what is a saint? Martyrs are people who die for Christ. An early pair of martyrs, Perpetua and Felicity, hold a special place among the saints in the Roman Catholic litany of saints (and the account of their martyrdom is well worth looking up and reading). St. Thomas Becket and St. Thomas Moore died for opposing their kings for a greater King. Nowadays, saints are people who, according to Catholic canon, are dead people whose intercession has led to miracles. I like the old notion. A saint is a person recognized for their holiness and closeness to God. Augustine of Hippo, the Cappadociam fathers, Thomas Aquinas, Francis of Assisi, Teresa of Avila, recognized for everything from theology to piety. Women and men who showed a way to closeness with God, and the furthering of the mission of the Church. That is why in the Episcopal calendar so many obscure people have been added (Holy Women, Holy Men, and now A Great Cloud of Witnesses). But why shouldn’t I be one too? The children’s hymn keeps asking us. And why is your sainted grandmother only an All Soul and not an All Saint?
Let us pray together for a moment. Go deep into your prayer. Would you die for Christ? Perhaps not in a concentration camp, or fighting for the rights of the oppressed, or on a cross. If called, maybe. But also in our lives. Perhaps the way we are called by Jesus in the Gospels and by Paul and others in Acts and in the Epistles, dying to self, taking on the Mind of Christ every day, in all our actions. Die to sin. Die to separateness from God by our ego, fear, pride, desire. That is being both a Saint and Martyr. But only God knows our hearts. Only God is the judge of that. Is the Church Triumphant a two tier place of Glory, or only one? Are we sorted, or welcomed?
All Souls’ Day is a good Feast of Title. It is for all of us, yes, even the big “S” saints. But mostly for us little ones, our dead, the place where we will all go. For there is no escape from death. But there is also no escape from Resurrection, and Reconciliation with God in all the little things we missed along the way. No exclusion from sharing in the ultimate joy in praising God, face to face, in Glory. Sometimes in prayer nothing seems adequate. I ache for the day when not through a glass mirror darkly. To love more. And more. And more. Perhaps the Kingdom of God on Earth is the day when the Church Militant and Church Triumphant can truly praise God in Glory together. Until then, we have our feast days where we can practice until that day.
Where that place of Glory is we don’t know. Shakespeare’s Hamlet’s “The undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveler returns” speaks to the fear of the unknown. I would like to go to the Heaven of Revelation, the Glory of the Lamb of God, my Good Shepherd.
For the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd,
and he will guide them to springs of the water of life,
and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes. (Rev 7:17)
Or a more pastoral one from the last chapter in C.S. Lewis’ Last Battle. I don’t know where our beloved dead go. But I believe, however much my belief may need shoring up by faith, prayer, and Scripture. We are loved. Our dead are with us, as they are with God. Until we know we must cling to the words on our lintel.
ALL SOULS ARE MINE SAITH THE LORD.
Dr. Dana Kramer-Rolls is a parishioner at All Souls Parish, Episcopal, Berkeley, California and earned her master’s degree and PhD from the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, California.