by Father John P. Cush
Emily Dickinson, in her poem numbered 479, more commonly known by the first line of the work, “Because I could not stop for death,” writes:
Because I could not stop for Death,
He kindly stopped for me;
The Carriage held but just Ourselves
We slowly drove, He knew no haste
And I had put away
My labor and my leisure too,
For His Civility.
We passed the School, where
At Recess, in the Ring,
We passed the Fields of Gazing Grain,
We passed the Setting Sun,
Or rather, He passed Us.
The Dews drew quivering and Chill
For only Gossamer, my Gown,
My Tippet, only Tulle,
We paused before a House that seemed
A Swelling of the Ground.
The Roof was scarcely visible,
The Cornice, in the Ground,
Since then, ‘tis Centuries, and yet
Feels shorter than the Day
I first surmised the Horses’ Heads
Were toward Eternity.
The poet is correct. The truth is that with each day, I am passing away and so is everyone else, just like everyone before us did. In today’s Gospel from Luke, we hear the story of the Final Judgment. All of us, no matter who we are, will face the end. But the even greater truth is that death is not the end. It is not, as Shakespeare calls it in Act 3 of “Hamlet,” the “unknown country,” but something we know by faith, something that we grasp, as the Apostle Paul tells us, “hoping against hope.”
This month of November is the month of the Holy Souls. It is a beautiful month, one that makes us stop to take account of where we are and where we are going.
Through faith and through our incorporation into the Body of Christ by baptism, we have the assurance that all those whom we have loved and lost, all those whom we love and cherish here on earth, will, please God, be united around the heavenly throne one day.
This month of the Holy Souls teaches us two lessons: First, we need to understand and to embrace our own mortality, and second, we as Christians have an obligation to pray for the dead.
First, there is the very real need for “memento mori” — to remember that we are all passing away. The Franciscan Capuchin Crypt near Piazza Barberini in Rome teaches us that lesson, as does the Capela dos Ossas in Portugal, whose inscription over the chapel’s door reads: “We bones that here are, for yours await.”
I have seen the grave in which one day I will rest in Brooklyn’s Greenwood Cemetery. Every day, we come a little bit closer to it.
Second, we shouldn’t neglect those who have gone before us; we need to pray for them, the poor souls in purgatory, for where they are, we will be, hoping for the eternal light to be shown to us. It is a spiritual work of mercy. A simple prayer we can say for the dead this month and indeed every day is, “Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them. May the souls of the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace. Amen.”
One resolution, then, in light of this fact of our faith is to live each day as if it were our last, cherishing in and relishing in the gift of our lives in this plane of reality.
Also, remember that the people in our lives are far too precious to neglect. And, finally remember what really matters in the end are three things — faith, hope and love. That’s what lasts.
Readings for the 33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time
Psalm 98: 5-6, 7-8, 9
2 Thessalonians 3: 7-12
Luke 21: 5-19
Father Cush, a priest of the Diocese of Brooklyn, serves as Academic Dean of the Pontifical North American College, Rome.