In her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Gilead Marilynne Robinson tells the story about a terminally ill Minister—Reverend John Ames. The story is set in a small town in the mid-1950s. In the novel—a letter to his son John—the elderly Minister reflects on his calling and on the legacy of his forebears as well as on the legacy of those to whom he has ministered. Like all ministers he feels deeply blessed by those he has met. One such person was the delightful Miss Lacey Thrush. He had been called to her deathbed and beautifully describes this encounter…
She was a maiden lady. She died promptly and decorously, out of consideration for me, I suspect, since she was concerned about my health. She was conscious half an hour, unconscious half an hour and gone. We said the Lord’s Prayer and the Twenty-Third Psalm, then she wanted to hear, ‘When I Survey the Wondrous Cross’ one last time, so I sang and she hummed a little, and then she started nodding off. I am full of admiration for her. She’d given me a lot to live up to, so to speak. At any rate, she didn’t keep me awake past my bedtime, and the peacefulness of her sleep contributed mightily to the peacefulness of mine. These old saints bless us every chance they get…
The Catholic Church’s tradition of praying for the Holy Souls dates back to the second century.
It reflects the belief in Our Lord’s time that there was a resurrection of the dead. For example, the Second Book of Maccabees 12:38-46, one of the last books of the Old Testament, speaks of prayer for the dead.
The people believed that ‘those who had fallen asleep with godliness had great grace laid up for them’. To pray for the dead in order that they ‘are loosed from their sins’ was considered to be a ‘holy and wholesome thought’.
In the Gospel of John 11:1-45, Martha also reflects such a belief when she says to Jesus that she knows her brother Lazarus will rise from the dead, ‘I know he will rise, in the resurrection on the last day’.
When we pray that the Holy Souls, who are already in the presence of God, may enjoy this presence fully and completely, we are, therefore, reflecting some fundamental and ancient beliefs from our Catholic faith—beliefs that are reflected in our Creed and in the Eucharistic Prayer at Mass.
In these prayers we acknowledge our belief in the forgiveness of sin, the resurrection of the dead, life everlasting and the communion of saints. That is why we also speak of the liturgy and the celebration of the Eucharist as a ‘foretaste and promise’ of heaven, and a ‘sharing in the heavenly banquet’.
In our prayer and in our belief we are also acknowledging that the dead are part of our lives still because they belong to the communion of saints.
Our lives are shaped and reshaped by those who have loved us—by those who have blessed us with their lives of faith, hope and charity. In reflecting on the lives of our beloved dead, during this month of November, we do so in a spirit of gratitude and blessing. May they rest in peace.