Wednesday 3 November 2021

All Soul’s Night

There is a play by the Irish playwright Joseph Tomelty, All Soul’s Night, which tells a remarkable and haunting story. Set in 1949, in the fictitious village of Assagh on the shores of a County Down lough, it tells the story of a family trying to get by, beset by strife and tragedy, who on All Soul’s night are visited by the holy souls of their relatives asking for prayers, but coming too with an awful warning. The soul of a young fisherman killed tragically at sea visits the home of his mother and chastises her for neglecting to pray for him while he was at sea and even since he has died. The quote from the play that adorns the playwright’s tomb stone conjures up the grim sentiment of the play all too well, “Pray for the dead that they may be loosed from their sins; pray for the living that they may be loosed from their greed.” What Tomelty conjures up is that feeling that artists and poets have always tried to at this time of year, that somehow the veil is thinner. It reminds us of our own mortality and that we had better pray.

But, of course, the veil is always exactly this thin. Each year on St Philip’s day we sing the hymn that recounts his death. Cardinal Baronius asks our Holy Father, “Will you leave without giving us your blessing?” and as the saint raised his hand in blessing, he breathed his last. Fr Faber’s hymn has it like this:

One half from earth, one half from heaven,
Was that mysterious blessing given;
Just as his life had been
One half in heaven, one half on earth
Of earthly toil and heavenly mirth,
A wondrous woven scene!

But perhaps this should be the case that for each of us, for every Christian, that our life must be marked by the character of heaven, must be shaped by the priorities of that greater city than of this one. At the heart of all this is an overriding theme, that of the spiritual closeness to the departed, of the economy of spiritual goods between the children of God. We trade freely in the goods of that place where we hope to spend our eternity; in charity we pray for those who have died, and for those still alive that we may yet enjoy the vision of God together in heaven.

The veil is always very thin, and our loved ones who have gone before us to another shore are still very close to us. We pray for the dead that they might be loosed from their sins, and we must pray for one another that we might lose those sometimes greedy attachments to the things that cannot get us to heaven. With God’s help, may our lives continue ever more to be a “wondrous woven scene”, shot through with the gilded light of heaven, threads which will, at the last, lead us home.

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