We are in danger of losing contact with the dead in our families and in our culture
A seminary in Ireland, now closed, was dedicated to the training of priests for foreign missions, for strange places such as California. It was called “All Hallows”, that is, All Saints, November 1. Oxford University in England has a college called “All Souls,” November 2. Taken together, all saints and all souls are designed to cover all of the final combinations of the human race except all the still living, who are waiting to join one or the other of the previous categories. Come to think of it, all “all saints” all have souls. What are left are all lost souls who, presumably, have already also made their final choices about how they are permanently to be.
Most of my relatives are buried in the Catholic Cemetery just at the edge of Pocahontas, a small county seat in rural northwest Iowa. My mother’s grandparents, my grandparents on both sides of my family, my mother herself, and, I believe, all but one of her thirteen brothers and sisters are buried in this neat cemetery. Two of my father’s brothers are also there; his other brother is a few miles east in the cemetery in Clare. Two of my father’s four sisters are buried there, as well as numerous cousins and their families, though many are scattered in later years. My own father is buried in the cemetery in Santa Clara, and my brother in the cemetery in Spokane.
On the Second of November, many families, especially in small towns, decorate the graves with flowers, have Masses or prayers said for their deceased relatives, and in general remember them. In modern cities, I think, we are in danger of losing contact with the dead in our families and in our culture. Families move. Cremation changes things. There are so many of us. We do not have to be superstitious, of course. We believe in the immortality of the soul and the resurrection of the body. Our contact with cemeteries is designed to recall our very mortality, but also to remind us of what we hold about death and its place in our lives.
As we get older, we find that many more of our immediate family are dead than alive. We find friends gone. Such is our lot. To wish it otherwise, while not a totally unhealthy exercise, needs to be understood clearly. It is given unto every man once to die, thence the judgment, as it says in the Book of Maccabees. Death has become a hospital, not a home, thing. The dead body is a source of parts, to be somehow passed on to others. We think almost exclusively of the living, not of the dead.
We celebrate lives at funerals. We do not worry about souls and their fates. The elderly are a problem, even a social and political problem, not sources of wisdom. Cemeteries are often desired for the land they take up. Laws exist about how long cemeteries are to be kept intact. We still notice that many Latino and Asian families somehow take care of their own elderly at home, whereas with others this care is often passed on to various institutions and specialists. This may not be all bad, but we should reflect on it.
Belloc’s wonderful book, The Four Men, describes a walk he took in the English county of Sussex, from October 29 till All Souls’ Day, 1902. As the four walkers reach the end of their walk, the old man, who, like the other three walkers, is Belloc himself, makes the following memorable farewell reflection:
There is nothing at all that remains: not any house; nor any castle, however strong; nor any love, however tender and sound; not any comradeship among men, however hardy. Nothing remains but the things of which I will not speak, because we have spoken enough of them already during these four days. But I who am old will give you advice, which is this: to consider chiefly from now onward those permanent things which are, as it were, the shores of this age and the harbours of our glittering and pleasant but dangerous and wholly changeful sea. When he had said this (by which he meant Death), the other two, looking sadly at me, stood silent also for about the time in which a man can say good-bye with reverence
I have always been moved by this haunting passage–nothing at all remains, the glittering and pleasant but dangerous and wholly changeful sea, the time in which a man can say good-bye with reverence.
In the Breviary, for the Feast of All Souls, the Church includes a very powerful passage from St. Ambrose about the death of his brother, Satyrus. This is a particularly significant reflection on death. Ambrose tells us that Christ did not need to die if he did not want to. This position does not mean that Christ was a sort of suicide. It means that, as God, nothing could happen to Him without His own will, which acted in free obedience to the Father. Thus the obvious question arises about why the Father might require this obedience?
To this question Ambrose adds that Christ could have found no better means to save us than by dying. We can and do try to imagine a better way. We come up with alternatives. Much of ancient and modern thought is an attempt to find a suitable alternative to explain why the human condition is as it is. This same thought is quite disconcerted with the notion that the Christian explication might, after all, be true. The connection is between Christ’s death and the saving of mankind. The former was necessary if the latter were to be accomplished, while protecting both divine and human liberty in the events leading to a proper salvation.
But why does mankind need saving? Why cannot it save itself? Ambrose continues, “death was not part of nature; it became part of nature.” This sentence must be examined. Clearly, it states that a finite being like man, the mortal, is naturally slated to die. This view, that death is not part of nature, goes against all our thinking about what finite creature like ourselves are. But such a mere mortal, born to die, never existed in fact.
From the beginning of God’s intention in creation, the man who did exist was destined to a supernatural end, to participation in the inner life of God. This was something beyond what it is to be a human being as such. This possibility was due to something over and above what was naturally due to man. What we know as “original sin”, that necessary but perplexing doctrine, is the reason why the initial relation of man to his end did not come about. This fall, as we call it, meant that death subsequently became part of nature, in Ambrose’s words.
We are all thus so interconnected that the actions of one person can affect all the others. If this connection with others would not be possible, men would be naturally isolated from one another, not social animals. No one could stand such a solitary life. Ambrose continues, “God did not decree death from the beginning.” In the beginning, to use the first words of Genesis, God decreed no death for the particular man He created and for his descendants. How did God prescribe death then? Ambrose says that He prescribed it in the actual context in which He found it, that is, in the context of Adam and Eve’s choice, as a remedy.
What a remarkable insight! But a remedy? Death is a remedy? What can this mean? How could precisely death remedy anything? Is this merely irony? It seems, in this context, that only life could be a remedy. But remember death is proposed as a remedy for what has happened as a result of the fall, as a result of sin–all sin. Thus, something connected with the essence and nature of sin and its consequence justifies God in proposing the odd notion that death is a remedy for what has gone wrong in the human condition by man’s own choosing.
Ambrose gives the following explanation of our fallen situation. He takes it to be based on something we all recognize. Human life was condemned because of sin to unremitting labor and unbearable sorrow and so began to experience the burden of wretchedness. These are almost the same words used in Genesis about what would happen to Adam and Eve if they ate of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, that is, if they chose to make up their own laws.
The origin of this wretchedness among us, about which wretchedness all the subsequent history of mankind attests, is not God. We are created good. We were offered a life with no death, but such a life had to be chosen. Otherwise, it would have been imposed on us. Hence, it would not really be ours. Without some remedy that we could not concoct for ourselves, this wretchedness would go on and on, even midst our dying. Remember, the original purpose of God in creating us–that we be offered the inner life of God as our final destiny–never changed from the beginning.
The question now became, how would this remedy work? There had to be a limit to its (wretchedness’) evils. God is not defeated by evil, but He cannot act as if it did not happen. John Paul II, in one of his last books, maintained that what limits evil is “the divine mercy.” That is, God would only allow evil to occur insofar as He could, in spite of it, lead things back to His original purpose.
Ambrose then explains the terms of what must be done. Death had to restore what life had forfeited. Again this is a thoroughly remarkable statement. What had life forfeited? Well, it forfeited the not dying that was originally offered as a gift over and beyond what human nature was in itself. It also forfeited thereby the original way that mankind was offered to participate in the inner life of the Godhead, which is, in itself, a life of infinite love that we describe as Trinity. No reason existed in God why He had to create anything in the first place. He had no deficiency or loneliness. Creation was in freedom, not necessity.
What then does death do? That is, supposing no redemption, what will happen among our kind as a result of their own sinning and its consequences on others? Without the assistance of grace, immortality is more of a burden than a blessing. What does Ambrose say here? First, he implies that we cannot redeem ourselves. We need a redeemer who is not just human, but still human. We need someone like unto us in all things “except sin,” to recall Paul’s words.
The soul, as the Greeks taught, is, however, itself naturally immortal. But that is an eerie kind of life from which also we need to be redeemed. But why exactly would immortality–which means, whatever its moral condition, the continuation forever of the soul without the body–be a burden
First, we are not just souls and are not intended to be. Aristotle had already hinted at something of this issue in his tractate on friendship, when he wondered if we would want our friend to be a god, that is, a pure spiritual being or soul? No, he thought, we want to be what we are, beings complete with bodies and souls. Thus, it would be wretched both to continue in a disordered life, even as a soul, and as an incomplete life without a body.
The immortality of the soul is a Greek teaching, though Christians also hold it to be true. The Christian use of the immortality of the soul is to explain how we are the same person who dies and who rises again. Without this connection provided by immortality, it is senseless to talk of personal continuity and even less of resurrection. What Ambrose says is that we need grace to accomplish this reunion. What we also need is someone who actually dies with the power to raise us up. And someone actually needs to atone for our sins. This is why Christ is central in any discussion of souls on All Souls Day.
Our souls, or our minds as the active powers of our souls in knowing the order of things, do know permanent things. They know what is. And they know that they know. Socrates, at the end of his trial, figured that since his soul was immortal, he would continue to do what he always did, to speak and converse about the highest things with his friends. We do not disagree with this possibility. But we add that we also converse with God, become friends with God, not by our own power, but by grace through the death of Christ which destroyed the death that was the punishment for sin.
Thus, All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day give us much to think about. On both days, we recognize that salvation includes keeping human beings to be what they are even in redemption, or especially in redemption. On All Souls’ Day we recall the dead, we realize that death is also given to us as a remedy. It is a remedy for our sins, for our lives in the midst of sins’ consequences, the wretchedness of lives and existence that merely goes on and on. The remedy is also a return to what is the initial purpose in creation. That is, we are still enabled, even in the midst of sin and death, freely to choose what we shall be. Not even God can make this latter choice for us. On this choice, and its implications, the real drama of the universe consists.
As Ambrose said, Christ could have found no better way to save us than by dying. How long does it take to say good-bye with reverence? The real answer to this question is that we are not ultimately intended to say “good-bye.” This is why we were originally created without death. And this is why, when we are redeemed on the Cross, we are redeemed by One who says, succinctly, that “I no longer call you servants, but friends.” The friendship of man with God now includes death. But this death is now a remedy for not the cause of, our wretchedness. Perhaps these are some of the things we can think about as we visit our cemeteries in early November, on All Hallows’ Day and on All Souls’ Day. When we walk in our cemeteries we are reminded that, among the ultimately permanent things, we ourselves are included. Such is the meaning of these November days.
[Editor’s note: This essay originally appeared on Ignatius Insight on October 31, 2006.]
About James V. Schall, S.J. 177 ArticlesJames V. Schall, S.J. taught political philosophy at Georgetown University for many years until retiring in 2012. He was the author of numerous books and countless essays on philosophy, theology, education, morality, and other topics. One of his last books was On Islam: A Chronological Record, 2002-2018 (Ignatius Press, 2018). He died at the age of 91 on April 17, 2019. Visit his site, “Another Sort of Learning”, for more about his writings and work.