On Tuesday, we begin the month of November, a time traditionally set aside by Catholics to remember both the Saints and those who have died. "All Saints Day" (Nov. 1) and "All Souls Day" (Nov. 2) set the tone for the month. The pain of death and loss touches all people and religious people turn to their faith traditions for some answers and consolation in the loss of loved ones.
The Saints are our ancestors and friends -- that "cloud of witnesses" who accepted the godly realism of their lives, shared it with others on Earth, and continue to do so now before the throne of God in heaven. We believe that they "intercede" for us here below, and in a special way, they are linked with us in what we call "the communion of Saints."
All Souls Day and the commemoration of the dead throughout the month of November is a source of consolation and hope for each of us. It is dedicated to the memory, not just of the Saints but also to all the faithful departed. For Christians and Catholics, the holy souls in purgatory (not a place but a state of waiting and longing) see ever more clearly what we intuit from afar. They are already within reach of eternal life, the loving arms of Jesus; but they are not yet closely within his embrace. The sting of death has been removed, but they are still sensing the pain of love which only complete union with Jesus can heal. There is truth in the expression: "distance makes the heart grow fonder!"
In his very moving, personal reflection on his imminent death in 1996, "The Gift of Peace," the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago wrote:
"Many people have asked me to tell them about heaven and the afterlife. I sometimes smile at the request because I do not know any more than they do. Yet, when one young man asked if I looked forward to being united with God and all those who have gone before me, I made a connection to something I said earlier in this book. The first time I travelled with my mother and sister to my parents' homeland of Tonadico di Primiero, in northern Italy, I felt as if I had been there before. After years of looking through my mother's photo albums, I knew the mountains, the land, the houses, the people. As soon as we entered the valley, I said, "My God, I know this place. I am home." Somehow, I think crossing from this life into eternal life will be similar. I will be home."
How often have we visited a place for the first time and recognized the buildings, scenery, and even the people, because we have been filling our mind with those images in photos, books, films, etc. We have prepared ourselves for the reality before we even get there!
No matter what your religious convictions are, it might be good during this month to remember someone close to you who has died. Bring this person's image into your mind. As you remember this life, imagine God escorting that person into heaven at the time of death. Finally, imagine this loved one waiting for you. Such visioning and imagining can have very healing and consoling effects on our lives.
If we spend our earthly pilgrimage filling our minds with thoughts of heaven, when we finally cross over into eternal life, the images we see may not be foreign, startling or strange. We, too might be able to echo those words: "My God, I know this place. I am home."