It’s more than a providential coincidence that the Church observes both All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day as fall turns into winter in this hemisphere and signs of death in nature serve as powerful reminders of our frailty and mortality, but also of the destiny of the saints in eternal glory.
In recent years, a great deal has been written on the topic of death and dying, much of it simply perpetuating modern man’s inability to cope with suffering and death. And so, it’s good for us believers to look at death squarely and intelligently at this time.
As we think about the poor souls in Purgatory tomorrow, we should not be burdened with grief, for they are saved, and the full experience of salvation awaits them among all the saints we remember today in joyful hope.
What we need to do is pray for their continuing enlightenment and purification, and that will lead us to the second aspect of these two days of commemoration: We should begin to see how much we are like the souls in Purgatory. They are presently in the midst of a process of purification, which will ultimately make them ready to encounter their Creator and Lord in all His glory for all eternity.
Ironically enough, in death their eyes are now fixed more surely and directly on Christ as their final Goal than they were in life. Their situation stands as a silent but powerful warning to us: Prepare now or later.
Developing a sense of proportion and priorities is critical to living a good life and to undergoing a happy death. St. Monica, the mother of St. Augustine, showed her sense of balance as her relatives at her deathbed argued about where to bury her after her death. She said, very simply: “Lay this old body anywhere; just promise me this, that you will remember me at the altar of the Lord.”
The message seems to be: Make a sensible last request, and it will always be carried out. We take her advice to heart by bringing our departed relatives and friends to the altar of the Lord.
Looking at death and immortal life at this time of year presents us with some sobering thoughts, but also some consoling ones. In spite of the hurt and pain of losing a loved one, our Christian Faith bids us celebrate what we call the communion of saints: the union of the saints in Heaven and the souls in Purgatory with us still here on earth. Death and life are not separated by an impassable chasm; no, they are very much united – by a bridge of prayers.
The theology of this communion is matched by its poetry, its lyricism – which many people tend to forget. These days are, after all, about love’s purifying and conquering power. Seen in this light, our celebrations might be aided by something from the arts, which brings all our themes together.
I am thinking of that magnificent aria from Puccini’s Turandot, Nessun dorma. It begins: “Nessun dorma! Nessun dorma!” [Let no one sleep]. Calef continues to sing to his would-be Princess Turandot:
And you, too, Princess, in your cold room, look at the stars which tremble with love and hope! But my mystery is locked within me, no one shall know my name! No, no, I shall it say it as my mouth meets yours when the dawn is breaking! And my kiss will dissolve the silence which makes you mine! . . . Vanish, O night! Fade, stars! At dawn, I shall conquer! All’alba, vincerò!
Is it too far-fetched to see in these two characters involved in imperfect love (because of Turandot’s incapacity to love with her whole being) mirror images of God and a poor soul in Purgatory?
If you know the plot of this lovely opera, you will recall that Calef is actually willing to reveal his name to Turandot – even though it will cost him his life. As he does so, she is transformed by his self-sacrificing love and is able to return that love to him. In that moment, Calef conquers – not by his wit, not by his power, but by his love.
That, I would suggest, is what happens in Purgatory: Little by little, each and every poor soul is confronted by the overpowering greatness of God’s love. Indeed, when Calef discloses the mystery of his name to Turandot, she proclaims for all to hear not the name he has whispered; instead, she cries out: “His name is love!”
That is the lesson we pray each of us will learn. And until that happens, we echo Calef’s plea: “Nessun dorma! Let no one sleep!” Let no one in Heaven, let no one on earth, let no one under the earth sleep until every member of Christ’s Mystical Body learns that His name is Love, for which the vigilance of our love and prayer is needed.
When our prayerful vigilance is rewarded and that lesson has been learned, Christ and His entire Body will be victorious over the forces of the Evil One in a definitive way. From the Cross, Christ proclaimed His first “vincerò”; with firm trust, the Church now echoes that hopeful strain in union with her Lord who sang it first.
Or, as the old pagan Roman [but so incredibly Christian] Virgil put it, Omnia vincit amor [Love conquers all]!
All the saints in Heaven know this truth experientially now; the souls in Purgatory and we still need to apprehend the full truth of that maxim. Interestingly, Virgil went on: “Et nos cedamus Amori” [And let us too yield to Love].
May the holy commemoration of these days teach us not only that love conquers all, but that every human being needs to give in to Love. In this way, the God who is Love will be able to conquer both us and the holy souls, thus making us all co-conquerors with Him. Heed the appeal: “Nessun dorma!” Claim the promise: “Vincerò!”
*Image: All Saints’ Day by Emile Friant, 1888 [Musée des Beaux-Arts de Nancy, France]
You may also enjoy:
Fr. Gerald E. Murray’s Of Saints and Clowns
David Warren’s Hallowe’en & Hallowtide