I’ll be honest with you, I have mixed feelings about All Souls’ Day.
I’m sure you just dropped your coffee and yelled to your wife — who at that moment was removing the curlers from her hair in the bathroom — “Come Quick! Andy disagrees with Tradition! This is gonna be juicy!”
Yes, praying for the dead is quite traditional and attested from the earliest of Christian sources. And yes, I don’t think its unbiblical, unnatural or even unhealthy. In fact, I do it for those exact reasons: it is traditional, biblical, natural and healthy. What always trips me up is whether it is effectual or not. Does praying for the dead make a lick of difference?
I suppose the real issue here is the concept of the afterlife. I think I share more in common with my Eastern Orthodox brethren when it comes to the afterlife than I do with the Calvinists down the street. Simply put: we will all experience the Second Coming of Christ, but those who are being redeemed will experience it as ecstasy. Those who have not turned to God will experience it as great pain. Hell is simply the experience of that one person in the hands of an all-loving, almighty God. Heaven is this, too. This pain of hell-within-the-human-heart is purgative, however, and eventually gives away to ecstasy. This is attested in the West by Julian of Norwich and C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce, among others.
Even though I think this is how it will all turn out, I can’t be sure. Of course, the Calvinists could be correct that God is eternally angry and has already chosen those he wants in heaven and those who will be eternally separated from Himself. These goats will be cast into the fire, where God will be deaf to their perpetual cries for mercy. They suffer for an eternity without hope of redemption. Maybe they are right?
One can never be sure about the hereafter, though. I think it was Bishop Seraphim who wrote once that talking about the afterlife is like a child-in-the-womb thinking about what life would be like outside of the womb. I found this very helpful. I think we use images, types, shadows and talk-in-between-words to express that inexpressible thing that is Christian hope. I don’t know what the afterlife will look like. I don’t know who is going to “heaven” or to “hell” or if those have any meaning at all. I don’t know, because its a world I’ve never been to and I’ve only had the slightest of foretaste in the Eucharist.
Well, what do I know? All I know can all be summed up so succinctly in that old Greek phrase: Kyrie Eleison. All of my knowledge — which is very little — leads back to God’s mercy. It is His mercy that sustains all life and gives it breath; all I know and experience and ever known and experienced is God’s mercy. I think, therefore, any discussion of the afterlife and what we think might happen (or even when discussing the biblical evidence) needs to start and end with Kyrie eleison. This will keep our conversations and ideas grounded in the reality of his mercy.
All this discussion of Kyrie Eleison reminds me of a scene in Charles Williams’ novel, The War in Heaven, where the Holy Grail has been discovered in early 20th Century England. In one scene, the evil guys start attacking the grail from a distance through black rituals. Those who have been put in charge of the Grail’s protection see it start to disintegrate before their very eyes. In a panic, one of the good guys turns to the main good guy (the Archdeacon) and says, “What can we pray against to stop this?” The Archdeacon simply replies, “We don’t pray against anything. We pray that God would continue to sustain the world.”
I do not celebrate All Souls’ Day or pray for the deceased because I think it is effectual. At least, I’m not sure its effectual in any typical way: that it cools the fires of Purgatory or frees souls from hell. No, I try to be like Williams’ Archdeacon, I only pray that God would continue to sustain, care and love the dead. That the Lord shall make good his loving kindness and that He would despise not then the works of His own hands. That God would sustain and love the dead, as much as for the living. For they, too, are in the palm of the most High God, whose property it is always to have mercy. I pray that they may be wrapped up in his love, that they may have rest eternal granted unto them and that light perpetual shine upon them.
This is why I celebrate All Souls’ Day: it is yet another reminder of Kyrie Eleison, that the living and dead are always in the sight of the Lord and in His loving and tender care. That their journey and ours happens only because he is our very ground of being and his mercy endures forever.
Out of the deep have I called unto thee, O Lord : Lord, hear my voice.
O let thine ears consider well : the voice of my complaint.
If thou, Lord, wilt be extreme to mark what is done amiss : O Lord, who may abide it?
For there is mercy with thee : therefore shalt thou be feared.
I look for the Lord; my soul doth wait for him : in his word is my trust.
My soul fleeth unto the Lord : before the morning watch, I say, before the morning watch.
O Israel, trust in the Lord, for with the Lord there is mercy : and with him is plenteous redemption.
And he shall redeem Israel : from all his sins.
Indeed, we and all the Souls of the Faithfully Departed flee unto you, O Lord.
(Note: This was originally posted over on Livejournal in 2009 on the Feast.)