In his fascinating and incredibly insightful book entitled, Being Mortal: Medicine and what Matters in the End, Dr. Atul Gawande speaks of the challenges that physicians struggle with when confronted with the inevitable human reality of death. Trained to bring comfort and healing to the sick, often, the dying process in their patients and death itself are viewed as failure. However, there is a growing consciousness today among physicians and care givers of the invaluable role that doctors and nurses can play in companioning their patients, providing comfort and dignity in this final chapter in life’s journey. This companioning can be especially and movingly realized in those involved with hospice, a type of care and philosophy focused on helping the dying pass through this chapter in their lives with dignity, autonomy and with as little pain as possible.
My brothers and sisters, as we mark and celebrate this All Soul’s Day, the church calls us on this day of remembrance to continue to companion our loved ones who have died with our own grateful memories and prayers. For all who have experienced the death of a family member, loved one or dear friend or acquaintance this past year, know that we continue to surround you with our prayers as you mourn the loss of a husband or wife, father or mother, a dear son or daughter, beloved grandparent or a dear and cherished friend.
Sooner or later most of us have the experience of watching a loved one move through his or her final days and then pass from this earth. It can be a tremendously sad process for those who are about to be left behind and who know in advance the loneliness that will be theirs. But in most cases, there’s a marvelous and touching grace-filled aspect of this process as well, and that is watching our dying friend progressively letting go of all sorts of things that don’t count, old baggage in the form of grievances, fears, doubts, and so much more. It’s a grace for the bystanders to watch that happen, and it presses us to let go of our own baggage sooner rather than later.
Yet, even the best of us, even the saints, leave this life with at least a little bit of unfinished business and a bit of left over baggage. And that’s why we Catholics pray for the dead. Our prayers are not aimed at changing God’s mind about our departed friends. God’s mind doesn’t need any changing. His love for us is unchanging, and he’s always ready and waiting to welcome home even the worst of us.
No, our prayers are for the deceased themselves, that they will relax in the Lord and let the Lord help them let go of what remains of their old baggage, and help them finish what is unfinished in them. For those whose hearts are loving and trusting of the Lord, it will come naturally to open their hearts and let the Lord in. For those of us whose hearts are more ambivalent and in the habit of withholding trust, the work will be more difficult.
So, my friends, on this All Souls Day, hold in prayer all the deceased whom you love, and look to your own heart, that it may be open and welcoming to each of God’s people now. This day and every day are dress rehearsals for that final day when you and I will give back our heart to the One who gave it to us.
May our heart be true and open and ready this day and always.