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Remembering loved ones ... by Bishop Paul

By Bishop Paul V. Marshall
November 2009

[This is Bishop Paul Marshall's November 2009 column for secular newspapers throughout our 14 counties. It is published by The Morning Call, Allentown, on the first Saturday of every month. It usually appears also in ten additional papers. The combined circulation of papers that publish the column regularly is more than 400,000. Some 140 columns have been published over the past 13 years. If your paper does not publish the column and you would consider bringing it to the attention of the editor, please email Bill Lewellis, blewellis@diobeth.org]

At the beginning of November, most Christians of the world, celebrate All Saints Day (November 1) and All Souls Day (November 2), two sides of one very thin coin.

From the dazzling white of the All Saints liturgy and its boisterous celebration of all that God has done through the faithful who have gone before us, a celebration of the great heroes of the faith, we move to the Commemoration of the Faithful Departed, to the black of the requiem, where we remember that they have indeed gone from us and joined the great procession of lives returning to their source.

Two days are hardly enough –– we need most of November, before Thanksgiving, Advent and Christmas –– to dwell deeply in the one basic Christian truth: in Christ we are tied to God and each other in a way that the circumstances of time and space cannot defeat. We need more than two days, for that great truth has to be broken down into its component mysteries.

One is the necessary and reciprocal relationship between love and loss. There is a price to being loved, a price to rejoicing in deep connection. The price is feeling wounded when that connection is broken. We come to God aware of the many broken connections that each of us endures precisely to the extent that we have received the gifts that relationship to another gives us. Blessed are those who mourn, for they have had something to lose. Blessed are those who dare to risk loss — only they can possibly know love.

When we pray for “those whom we love but see no more,” we are entering another mystery: the ability to love what is not physically present. That ability is the essence of spirituality. Each of us had to learn early on to endure the absence of our mothers by learning to hold a mental image of mother in our minds until we were with her again, and by learning to believe that she loved us even we couldn’t see her. As adults gathered in a very interior kind of prayer, the image we hold in our corporate awareness is the image of those who have gone before us. On the simplest level, they are gone but they remain because knowing them shaped our very personalities. More profoundly, they are gone but they remain in unbroken relationship to us through the eternal love of God, a realization that is a balm to our sense of loss.

At the great Thanksgiving of the Requiem Eucharist, we say, “For to thy faithful people, Lord, life is changed, not ended.” We remember thankfully that it is of the transformation rather than the termination of life that we have to deal with. The image of those we have loved comes warmly into our awareness as we give thanks for how they were God’s gift to us. Over time our sense of loss is often or at least occasionally overcome by the image of their being cared for by the loving God into whose hands we entrust them, the loving God in whom we all will someday be together, because we already are together.

The final mystery is a bit of a challenge. It is the mystery of our own death. We ourselves are part of the great procession back to the source of our life. In fact, if each of us did not die, our species could not progress. The psalmist prayed, “Lord, teach me to number my days and to know that my life has a destination.” Each of us is on the train. One day we will be the ones remembered at an All Souls Day liturgy. We will be the ones being held in the minds and hearts of those slightly behind us in the grand procession toward the heart of God. Because the communion of saints cuts across time and space we realize that we already are being held by those still to be born.

During November, recalling All Saints and All Souls, we gently heal our past and calmly embrace our future.

[The Rt. Rev. Paul V. Marshall is bishop of the Diocese of Bethlehem, 14 counties of eastern and northeastern Pennsylvania. His recently published book, Messages in the Mall: Looking at Life in 600 Words or Less (Seabury), is a collection of ten years of his monthly columns for newspapers. Additional columns and sermons by Bishop Marshall are available at www.diobeth.org.]


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