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What good lies in November?

Fr. Lou DelFra | Thursday, November 8, 2012

Our weaknesses and limitations are generally realities we seek to minimize, if not completely ignore. Perhaps that is what makes November such a spiritually uncomfortable month.

In November, the Catholic Church spends a significant amount of energy inviting us to recognize and meditate upon the one bedrock human limitation that underlies all others and threatens us at every turn, and yet which we spend most our lives trying not to think about. Death. At some point, our lives just . . . end.

In the Catholic Church, November is the Month of the Dead. Beginning with the celebration of All Saints Day on November 1 and followed by All Souls Day on November 2, the Church hardly enables our proclivity to turn a blind eye to this most discomforting reality of the finitude of our earthly life.

Have you ever noticed that the Church has always loved bones?  Saints’ relics – finger bones, shoulder blades and skulls – are some of the most conspicuous and sacred markers in Catholic churches. You likely celebrate Mass under the watchful eyes of a dead person – rendered, at least in the States, a bit less bloody and grotesque by the sculptor or stained glass artist. If you have ever carried a rosary, you have carried a dead man in your pocket. If this seems rather odd, or even slightly disturbing, then you are getting the point. It’s a point our culture is not always so willing consciously to acknowledge.

Yet the Church has rather defiantly reserved the month of November to meditate openly on the reality of death, beginning with All Saints and All Souls Days. At the doors of most chapels these weeks, you will note a book in which we can write down the names of the dead. (Of course, Halloween owes its origin and deathly overtones to being the eve of the Month of the Dead.)

As these days of chilling weather, baring trees and shortened periods of sunlight remind us, November comes bearing death in its winter winds. And the Church, perhaps somewhat surprisingly, has uninhibitedly embraced and celebrated its arrival.

Part of the reason for this is that there is actually something life-giving in the recognition of the deep realities, even the chilling ones, that surround us. Certainly, death is all around us and its seed is planted inextricably within us. If prayer is bringing our whole selves before God as honestly as we can, it doesn’t seem to make much sense to leave our helplessness before death out of the mix.  

Unhealthy?  Depressing?

Death, handled clumsily, fearfully or unconsciously, might lead us down a dismal road of fatalism and depression. This, however, is precisely why the Church invites us each November to meditate on death more deliberately, with the full complement of our faith and the hope of the Communion of Saints at our disposal.
Around All Souls Day each year – it happened this Monday this year – I join my religious community in remembering the dead, through a very November-like ritual of walking the gravesites of our predecessors in Holy Cross. The deceased priests and brothers of Holy Cross are buried in a cemetery on the outer edge of campus, by the road to St. Mary’s. For a while, this stroll among the dead and still-bright autumn leaves that are strewn across their gravestones is rather pleasant, even invigorating. I feel proud to stroll among the headstones, reading the names of the priests and brothers who built so much of Notre Dame. I recall then how much of my own life stands upon their earlier toil and sweat.  

But, then I reach the last gravestone and, what is worse, the expanse of undisturbed green grass – future plots –  that lie beside it. It is the space where the rest of us in Holy Cross, including I, will one day lie. I move across it quickly. Though perhaps one of these years, I ought to find the courage to pause there for a moment.

Instead, I hasten to the rest of our community, huddled around the Pieta, a statue of Mary holding her dead son recently crucified. I listen as we proclaim into the graying autumn sky the words of St. John Damascene:

“Where is the ephemeral dream? All is dust, all ashes, all shadow. What glory does not fade? In a moment all is struck down. Now I know wisdom: I am dust and ashes. I search among the graves, see the bones laid bare. What mystery befell us? We wail and grieve at our beauty marred in the tomb. We stand over the graves of our lost, our bodies entwined by a mysterious wind – Christ murmuring: “trust, trust.”
November, for many reasons, is a month to hurry through. But, slowly, our faith beckons, for it is also a month to pause and trust.

Fr. Lou DelFra, CSC, is a campus minister and the Director of Pastoral Life for the ACE Program. He can be reached at [email protected]

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.