Monday 2 November - All Souls' Day
The Meteora is a magnificent geological formation of many great rock pillars and plateaus, on top of which are built a number of Orthodox monasteries. I have always been interested in ancient monasteries and their story, and discovered that the Great Monastery of the Transfiguration. The monastery, built on an imposing rock, is the oldest, the biggest and the most important among the monasteries of Meteora which are preserved today. It was founded little before the mid-14th century (around 1340) by a scholar monk of Mount Athos, Saint Athanasios Meteorites. What fascinates me is that they have one of the most extraordinary ‘ossuary’ I have ever seen: a room housing the bones of all the deceased monks from the community.
In rocky environments like the Meteora where space is scarce, bodies are usually buried until they have decomposed into skeletons, then disinterred and placed within the more compact space of the ossuary. Whole bodies are not even kept together but are divided up into collections of skulls, ribs, femurs, and so on. Quite apart from saving space, it reveals an attitude of acceptance and even familiarity towards death that is quite different from the sanitised view that we typically have in much of the West. The fascination and fear of death is central to the human condition – in fact, it could easily be argued that it is the origin of religious conviction itself. Tombs and places of worship all over the world demonstrate how much the questions of life and death have preoccupied the human mind. The ossuary of the Great Monastery on the Meteora reveals the sense of proximity that these Eastern Orthodox monks have to the journey beyond the grave, a sense of proximity that has held a great sway over Christianity throughout the ages.
All Souls’ is a time for remembering all the faithful departed. During this 2020 we have lost good friends, family and dearly members of our Congregation. One way or the other death touched us, our Local community, our city and our country. The restrictions imposed by the lockdown made the loss of our beloved ones even more painful.
Today we are here to remember them, to pray for them. And what does that mean to us? It essentially meant to bring our memory to the present.
You see our modern culture is dangerously schizophrenic. While for ‘primitives’, past and future are in the present, for us ‘moderns’ the present is either in the future or in the past. We seem to have no present, but to live a permanently self-repeating state of confusion. If the only things we remember are facts and past events, we are at risk of being victims of amnesia, because having a true memory means to ‘remember’ the here and now, to make our memory alive to the present. This is so true for All Souls’ Day. When we remember our faithful departed we bring our memory alive to the present. And this is so powerful when it is done during the Eucharist, which is the here and now celebration par excellence.
All Souls’ Day is also a very important reminder of our spiritual journey. We live in a ‘Holy Saturday’ experience: a time in-between time, after the crucifixion but before the resurrection. Our experience tells us that we have faith, but we also have doubts. After all, death remains a mysterious and fearsome thing for us, whatever our understanding of it is. To pretend otherwise is not to do justice to the human condition.
On All Souls’ Day, we give liturgical expression to our doubts, hopes and fears about our life here and about the life hereafter. It brings together both our faith and our weakness, enabling us to continue the journey of life in the hope that there is some form of sense and meaning to it all – even if we do not always know what it may be.
All Souls’ Day deeply resonates with our spiritual quest for peace. How beautiful is Jesus’ call to us. Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I’ll give you rest. Get away with me and I’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you.
All Souls’ Day then reminds us that we are powerfully attracted by God, because he is the source of life and fountainhead of our inner peace. He draws us to the authentic experience of inner peace according to the Augustinian understanding of peace:
“You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.”
St. Augustine’s Confessions
(Lib 1,1-2,2.5,5: CSEL 33, 1-5).