November is a month of remembrance and gratitude, from the start of the month with All Saints Day and All Souls Day to the end of the month with Thanksgiving Day. We remember with gratitude those we love who have died, and whom we believe are with God in eternal life.
Twelve years ago, then-Pope Benedict XVI wrote an encyclical, “Spe Salve,” which is Latin for “In Hope We Are Saved.” This letter to all the people of God still stands as a masterpiece of consolation for any who have lost a loved one in death, and for any who have lost someone with whom they were angry and never reconciled. Death is hard in both realities.
The death of a friend or family member makes one vulnerable to both hope and despair. The loss is deep, deeper than anything experienced before. It is new and raw. God is present, but everything is different. It almost seems as if God is new, beyond all other experiences; or even worse, it seems as if God is absent.
God has never been with us in this place before, because we have never been there ourselves. Death forces us to face the belief that “life will not end in emptiness.” The emptiness part certainly is real. In those unguarded, barely conscious moments when you go to pick up the phone and call the person or think of something to tell him or her, the emptiness pours over again as if for the first time. Emptiness is felt when an absence in the midst of a room is more palpable than those present. God is present in the absence, in a reality beyond words.
Pope Benedict told us of the visual images left on tombstones in the early Christian era, the images of Christ as philosopher and as shepherd. In the face of death the philosopher was not depicted as the boring teacher, but as the one sought for meaning to the “art of being authentically human — the art of living and of dying.” Christ is the philosopher who “shows us the way beyond death.” Christ the shepherd is the “One who even in death accompanies me.” Both images speak to the pain of death and the desperate need for the living to search for the meaning of life when life appears to have ended, and to feel the presence of someone with them in the darkness of death.
How strange that death gives the ultimate meaning to life. The loss can only be born through hope in the meaning of life. We fear the loss of meaning with the loss of the person. Yet in a way death makes the person closer to us than in life. It is as if we see the person in his or her fullness. We remember their gifts of graciousness and generosity, their selflessness and enthusiasm. We don’t dwell on material possessions or honors. Such things fall to their proper place of total irrelevance. Death teaches us to measure according to God’s way. We who live get purified through the death of those we love. All that matters is life and presence to one another.
Death also leaves a vacuum when those with whom we have had conflicts die. We may still feel hatred for them even in death. We feel the hurts all over and the impossibility of any resolution to the mess of life. We believe death is not the end. Love reaches beyond the grave; the grave has no power over us.
In his encyclical “Spe Salvi,” Pope Benedict XVI says, “The belief that love can reach into the afterlife, that reciprocal giving and receiving is possible, in which our affection for one another continues beyond the limits of death – this has been a fundamental conviction of Christianity throughout the ages and it remains a source of comfort today. Who would not feel the need to convey to their departed loved ones a sign of kindness, a gesture of gratitude or even a request for pardon?” In death we believe in life; in life we believe in life after death. We believe in a God who holds the living and the dead in loving arms.
Sister Patricia McCarthy currently teaches Math at a Catholic School. For many years she taught troubled children and victims of abuse.