Saturday, November 2, 2013

Praying for our brothers and sisters - All Souls' Day

I have just celebrated a Requiem Mass for All Souls’ Day, which, every bit as much as All Saints’ Day (though - of course - differently) expresses the unity of the whole Church, living and departed, as well as the ongoing healing and cleansing we experience as we journey further into God. For the priest it is a very moving labour of love to read out so many names before the Lord, including the growing number of his own relatives and friends whom he loves but no longer sees. Go HEREHERE, and HERE, for previous posts about this wonderful day, and the importance of offering the Holy Eucharist for our departed brothers and sisters.

This year I offer you a very fitting meditation for All Souls’ from Father Scott Looker’s blog:

The English poet, Alfred, Lord Tennyson, devastated by the sudden death of his dear friend Arthur Hallam, composed much of his poetry in an attempt to deal with his own grief at the loss of his beloved friend. In the final pages of Tennyson’s Idylls of the King, the dying King Arthur looks at Sir Bedivere, the last surviving Knight of the Round Table, and pleads,

If thou shouldst never see my face again,
Pray for my soul. More things are wrought by prayer
Than this world dreams of. Wherefore, let thy voice
Rise like a fountain for me night and day.
For what are men better than sheep or goats
That nourish a blind life within the brain,
If, knowing God, they lift not hands of prayer
Both for themselves and those who call them friend?

In his second epistle to Timothy, St Paul mentions his fellow laborer Onesiphorus, about whom the Apostle states,

“The Lord grant mercy to the household of Onesiphorus, for he often refreshed me, and was not ashamed of my chain; but when he arrived in Rome, he sought me out very zealously and found me. The Lord grant to him that he may find mercy from the Lord in that Day—and you know very well how many ways he ministered to me at Ephesus.”  (1:16-18)

Similarly, near the end of that same epistle, St. Paul writes that Timothy should 

“Greet Prisca and Aquila, and the household of Onesiphorus.” (4:19)   

These are the only times Onesiphorus is mentioned in the Bible and he is exclusively referred to in the past tense. Likewise, there is no suggestion that Timothy should greet Onesiphorus himself, only his household. Clearly, Onesiphorus has already died at the time of composition of this letter and St. Paul has, himself, prayed that the Lord would have mercy upon him even though he has already departed this life. The Apostle Paul is interceding on behalf of his departed co-laborer.

Inscriptions in the Roman catacombs suggest the practice continued from the earliest days of the Church in Rome. Catacomb inscriptions often contain prayers along the lines of “May his soul rest in peace,” “May God grant peace to the soul of Alexander (as an example),” or “May he live among the Saints.” These too are prayers inscribed on behalf of those within the catacomb tombs. The late second century bishop Abercius of Heirapolis inscribed these words on his own tomb prior to his death: “. . . May everyone who is accord with this and understands it pray for Abercius.” Tertullian of Carthage declared that it was a duty of a widow to pray for the soul of her husband, stating,

“Indeed, she prays for his soul, and requests refreshment for him meanwhile, and fellowship (with him) in the first resurrection; and she offers (her sacrifice) on the anniversaries of his falling asleep.  For, unless she does these deeds, she has in the true sense divorced him . . . ”  (On Monogamy, X:5-6)

An even greater testimony to the pervasiveness and orthodoxy of prayers for the deceased is found in St Augustine’s magnum opus The Confessions.  In chapter 13 of Book 9, St Augustine praises his mother for her virtue but ultimately begs intercession on her behalf and says, 

“I know that she acted mercifully, and from the heart forgave her debtors their debts; do thou also forgive her debts, whatever she contracted during so many years since the water of salvation. Forgive her, O Lord, forgive her, I beseech you; enter not into judgment with her.”

The earliest extant liturgies include prayers for the deceased. In the Liturgy of St James, perhaps the oldest extant liturgy, we find this passage included in what we would consider the Prayers of the People: 

“[For] the rest of the fathers and brethren that have fallen asleep aforetime.”  

This tenet of the Catholic faith is witnessed even in the 1549 Book of Common Prayer where the celebrant offered this prayer: 

“We commend unto thy mercye (O Lorde) all other thy servauntes, which are departed hence from us, with the signe of faith, and nowe do reste in the slepe of peace: Graunt unto them, we beseche thee, thy mercy, and everlasting peace, and that, at the day of the generall resurreccion, we and all they which bee of the misticall body of thy sonne, may altogether be set on his right hand, and heare that his most ioyfull voice.”  

Prayers for the departed are an aspect of that faith which has been handed down by the Apostles and has been upheld by the Church Universal throughout all ages. The practice is Biblically supported by multiple verses and historically testified to by catacomb and funeral inscriptions from the pre-Constantinian era of the Church. The Church Fathers from the obscure Abercius of Hierapolis to Tertullian, St Augustine, St. Basil the Great, and others lend their support to this tenet of faith and, finally, liturgies both Eastern and Anglican also testify to this matter.

We may not quite understand why and it may not fit into our notion of death and judgement, but Christians throughout all ages have prayed for their beloved departed. Take a few moments today when you go to the Lord in prayer and ask him to look with favor on your loved ones who have already passed out of this life.  God is not bound by human concepts like “time.” Who is to say that your prayers for a loved one today might not have brought them to a saving knowledge of Christ decades ago?  Besides, as the poet says, “More things are wrought by prayer than this world dreams of.”

O God, 
the Maker and Redeemer of all believers: 
Grant to the faithful departed 
the unsearchable benefits of the passion of your Son; 
that on the day of his appearing 
they may be manifested as your children; 
through Jesus Christ our Lord, 
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, 
one God, now and ever. Amen.


Post a Comment