Friends with death
When I first joined the Oratory, one of the first places I was taken to by Fr Robert was Wolvercote Cemetery, just up the road — most famous for being the burial place of J R R Tolkien. But the purpose of that trip was not to say a prayer over the grave of that great Catholic author — although of course we did. Rather, we went to a little fairly empty section of the graveyard, in the far corner, under a tree. There, I was told, one day I would be buried. Rather a startling thing for a young man to be told, I think! And every All Souls’ day, when visiting Wolvercote Cemetery to bless the graves of those we have known, that little plot of ground is always given an extra large splash of Holy Water just in case it should be required in the coming year. Last year it was required, and now Fr Jerome’s body lies there in peace, awaiting the resurrection of the dead among so many deceased friends and parishioners.
Our annual visit to Wolvercote Cemetery is always sobering but salutary. In a world where we very pointedly hold death at bay — ignore it, sanitise it, euphemise it — visits to where the Fathers will be buried helps put death into something of its proper perspective, and that is a good thing. La Rochefoucald once wrote that “death and the sun are not to be looked at steadily.” Perhaps, but not to look at death at all cannot be right.
With good reason each year the Church gives us this month of November, of the Holy Souls, to encourage us to look at death and reflect on it — to get better in touch with the mystery of our own mortality as well as the mystery of our immortality, and the immortality of countless ranks of brothers and sisters who have gone before us — some, maybe as recently as last week; others, maybe last year, or many long years ago.
But getting ‘in touch’ with these things is not enough. Touching is too tentative. The Church invites us to come face-to-face with mortality: to make friends with it, strange as that may seem. The Church invites us to do as St. Francis of Assisi did, to come to the point where we think of death as “Sister Death” — where we look upon the hour of its arrival, an hour known only to God, as a gift which God will give in his own good time, a most surprising and paradoxical gift because, while it looks like the end, it is really only the beginning — the very path to life in its fullness. It was for our Lord, and it will be for us.
We wear black vestments at Requiem Masses because our reflection on death is tinged with sorrow — a sadness because we miss those we have loved who have died, because we mourn their passing, and want to express that loss in a tangible way; and a sorrow because we know, as well as we know our own selves, that those who have died were not perfect, they could have been better, they could have loved more. And that is a great sadness — all that human fault and failing, all that debris of our struggle with sin and selfishness, all, as the hymn puts it, “those chances we have missed, the graces we resist”.
Our hearts are divided, we seek after things which can only give us temporary happiness, we become attached to all sorts of rubbish, we have to live with the consequences of our actions. Nothing which is imperfect can enter heaven, so if through prayer and penance in this life, we have not yet been purified of all that sin and selfishness, then we still need to go through some purifying process before entering the eternal presence of God. What that process is like it is not for us to speculate, but we call it purgatory.
But the Black does not imply that that sadness is a defeat, nor that purgatory is a final destination. It is not defeat that we look at this day or any day. It is victory. The victory of Christ: the triumph of light over darkness, of hope over fear, of life over death. Every Mass we celebrate brings us into the closest possible contact with the central mystery of the Christian faith: the mystery of the death and resurrection of Jesus, the mystery of life that always has the last word no matter how convincing or seemingly final the word spoken by death.
And so we pray this month for those who have gone before us, for our friends and family, for the parishioners we have lost, for those who went off to fight for King and Country and never came home again, for those who died tragically in accidents or from sickness and disease, and for those who went home to the Father after a long and happy life, having done their own little bit towards the building of God’s kingdom in this world.
We pray for those whose love has shaped and formed us — family and friends who have been separated from us by death but with whom we are still very much united in the Communion of Saints. And we pray also for ourselves too, we who are still on this great journey of life. We pray with confidence, quiet confidence, the confidence voiced by the beleaguered and all-but-defeated Job who stubbornly clung to the belief that his Redeemer lived, and that he himself would one day see God in his own flesh, with his own eyes. We pray with the kind of confidence voiced by St. Paul when he dared to look death in the face with defiance and ask: "O death, where is thy victory? O death, where is thy sting?"
This ancient practice of the Church — praying for the dead — is grounded in the doctrine of the Communion of Saints. We believe that God’s holy people is made up of those who have passed from this life and those who are still living; and we believe that among those who have died are the saints in glory and those still being shaped and formed for glory. The Communion of Saints says that there is a communion between the living and the dead — that death cannot separate us from the love of God, nor from each other. It is a communion best expressed by prayer — ours for them, theirs for us — and the highest prayer we can make is to offer the Sacrifice of the Mass with Christ our Lord.
May the beauty and wonder of our faith give voice to the deepest longings of our hearts. May it help us come to terms with death — even to make friends with death. May it bring us close in prayer and in love to all those who have gone before us in the sleep of death.
At the end of our Cardinal’s poem The Dream of Gerontius, the prayer of a dying man, the angel carries the soul of Gerontius towards heaven. The angel describes how he carries the soul softly and gently through the cleansing waters of purgatory and then brings the soul to the throne of heaven:
Softly and gently, dearly-ransomed soul,
In my most loving arms I now enfold thee,
And o’er the penal waters, as they roll,
I poise thee, and I lower thee, and hold thee.
And carefully I dip thee in the lake,
And thou, without a sob or a resistance,
Dost through the flood thy rapid passage take,
Sinking deep, deeper, into the dim distance.
Angels to whom the willing task is given,
Shall tend, and nurse, and lull thee, as liest;
And Masses on the earth, and prayers in heaven,
Shall aid thee at the Throne of the Most Highest.
Farewell, but not for ever! brother dear,
Be brave and patient on thy bed of sorrow;
Swiftly shall pass thy night of trial here,
And I will come and wake thee on the morrow.