It was the darkest hour of the night when my mother called to say my father had passed. I slid to the floor and sobbed, taking in breaths by gulps. I was drunk with grief, barely hearing my mother making plans even as Dad’s body had just left in the ambulance.
“I’m going to bring him to New York and we’ll have the service there.”
“Sure Mom, whatever you say.” I couldn’t understand how she could function when I knew she was as devastated as I.
The next day I was at the gate to meet the plane, back when we were allowed to do that. I looked out the picture window as the boxed coffin came down the conveyor, before passengers disembarked. Numb, I watched the baggage handlers as they carefully—respectfully—put my dad into a hearse which drove slowly away as the rest of the luggage started down from the cargo hold. The baggage handlers resumed their normal, rough routine. I shifted my eyes to the gate, watching for my mother, grateful for the moment of respect I had witnessed through my tears as my father came off the plane.
That night, our family left early for the wake so we could be together to see Dad before visitors arrived. When we entered the funeral home, my cousin exclaimed, “Well, we know where Uncle Jim is going!” I was thunderstruck. I hadn’t thought of heaven—or hell, for that matter. I hadn’t contemplated where Dad might be going . . . or where he was right then. I just knew he wasn’t in the casket. I could only look at his handsome body dressed in his good suit with his hands neatly folded on his chest. I kissed his cold lips and knew he wasn’t here.
My cousin’s words kept replaying in my head. My father was my saint for sure, but was he really a saint? I knew he had faults. Lots of them. Fortunately, his goodness tipped the scale. He was faithful to his church, his wife, his children, his job. He sang in the church choir, worked hard, and attended night school for his college degree. He read books, helped neighbors with renovations, and volunteered for all manner of church projects. The worst of his language was “hell’s bells!” How far does the scale have to tip? How good is good enough? Only saints are a sure bet for heaven.
We look to the saints to be somehow above humanity, somehow better than we are in our fallibility. We find inspiration in lives well lived. Saints are a connection to goodness, godliness, and morality. The liturgical calendar is filled with saints. There are at least 10,000 of them recognized by the Roman Catholic Church. There isn’t room on the calendar to give each saint a holy day. Over the years, saints have had their feast days moved or removed from the liturgical calendar as history has been forgotten or turned into myth. Saints Christopher and Nicholas are two of many whose feast days were either removed or made optional.
All Saints Day is a wonderful time to appreciate the communion of saints—the larger Christian body that we’re connected to, both living and dead. Pope Boniface IV initiated All Saints Day in 609 AD. While the calendar date has changed over time, November 1 is now the Holy Day of Obligation to celebrate the heavenly state of grace reached by known and unknown saints, whether canonized or not.
In thinking about the saints, we can’t help but wonder how we stack up. That wonder just might help us to become more loving and trusting human beings. If I were to choose a saint to be my patron, it would be Saint Catherine of Bologna, patron saint of artists and of those who endure doubt. I like her hint of frailty. Even in her sainthood, there is the acknowledgement of human fragility.
As wonderful as All Saints Day is for celebrating those known to be in heaven, I look forward to the next day, All Souls Day. This is not a Holy Day of Obligation, but it is the day to remember and pray for all who have died and may not yet have reached heaven—yet being the operational word.
For me, All Souls Day is my mother’s feast day, a celebration of her great soul. During her long decline into dementia she often said, “When I die, make sure you pray for my soul.” As Alzheimer’s disease affected her mind, we held onto the fact that the spiritual part of her—the part created in God’s image, her innermost aspect that is of greatest value—was not the brain she lost but the immortal soul that God keeps.
Whether saint or soul, my parents live on in my heart. Their legacies are safe as I share them with my children. I support their organizations, cook their recipes, try to do the good they taught me to do. The day we set my mother’s ashes in the vault next to my father’s, my sister, cousin, and I went for a “cemetery tour.” We wandered through three cemeteries along the west coast of Florida to visit the graves of my parents and those of my father’s two brothers and their wives. We traced their names with our fingers, looked at the view of Tampa Bay, shared stories, and prayed for their souls and the souls of all the faithful departed.
So yes, Mom, we honored your request when you died, on each All Souls Day, and most especially during November, the Month of the Holy Souls. A month to reflect on not only the atonement of the dead, but on the kind of life we ourselves are living. A month to think about the meaning of life and death—to not look away, but to confront death in all of its mystery. Most of all, to honor, respect, and pray for the souls of those who have gone before us, that they might have eternal rest.
God, Lord of mercies,
Grant to the souls of
Your servants and handmaids,
The place of refreshment,
The bliss of eternal rest and
The splendor of your light.
Jane M. Bailey is a writer from Litchfield, Connecticut. You can find more of her work at JaneMBailey.com.