Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington
Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane
Deacon Eric Meisfjord, Editor
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Dance of glory
by Father Michael Savelesky, for the Inland Register
(From the Oct. 20, 2005 edition of the Inland Register)
With the biting temperature changes so characteristic of the fall season, many of us cradle Catholics are provided our annual lesson in spirituality. Hanging by tired fingers after a long and marvelous summer, millions of leaves now have started to lose their grip, taking a colorful plunge to the ground. Whether nature’s tumbling act takes place in one fell swoop overnight, or embraces the earth one fluttering leaf at a time, God’s dance of glory dazzles the eye. Is all that awaits these dancers the rake, plunging children and smoke?
Somewhere in the midst of my very impressionable youth, I was advised that the death-tumble of autumn’s leaves should remind us of all the souls winging their way to purgatory. Another version imagined countless number of souls plummeting to hell. (Whoever made that one up must have been offended by the stench from fall’s burning leaf piles.) It’s impossible to trace the origin of these childhood “lessons,” but they have left a persisting impression.
The analogy reflects a rather strong preoccupation with sin and an image of God as judgmental – concepts I never could coordinate in my mind with the beauty and unique excitement of fall. On the other hand, fall is a rather reflective time of year. It does resonate with a certain melancholic tone. And, yes, fall does bring with it apparent signs of death for what was once luscious and green.
The quickly approaching month of November is especially a time laden with signs of nature’s dying. Cold mornings, fogged-in airports, rain and traces of snow, diminishing sunlight.... With good pastoral reason the Church has taken advantage of the throes of nature, inviting us to reflect on death and its significance for us. In a few short days, the month will begin with an opportunity to reflect prayerfully, not about own our personal death, but the departure from our midst of others.
All Saints Day – the first day of November, and a Holy Day in the United States - marks a festival in honor of all the faithful departed who now enjoy the fullness of God’s Kingdom. This is not the feast of all those who already have their designated square on church calendars. Nor is it the feast of those who would have been canonized by officialdom, had better circumstances provided.
All Saints Day is the festival of individuals whom each of us has known: moms and dads, brothers and sisters, grandparents, friends and associates – all those who have sought the Lord with a sincere heart during the course of their lives. It is also the feast day for all those whose faith is known to God alone and who, like the recognized, also now enjoy eternal heavenly bliss. Somehow, I think it is these people who are honored in nature’s glory dance on these frost-bitten mornings. St. John’s Book of Revelation in the New Testament may envision them as white-robed crowds flocking around the throne of the Lamb. But in my estimation, the image of bright-colored leaves wafting their way to a final resting place is just as appropriate.
Traditionally, too, November is also the month during which we pray for those we acclaim as the “poor souls in purgatory.” Only God knows if these souls are as numerous as the scads of leaves that bite the dust this time of year. In fact, only God knows what a post-life state of purgation is – and if there is anyone “there.” All things considered, I would hope that souls under any kind of purgation or cleansing would be far outnumbered by the saints-without-title. Certainly, I would hope (and pray) that the numbers of those who get the flu, have to do their homework, and pull weeds in the garden of heaven (my childhood image of this place of “temporary punishment due to sin”) because of God’s amazing love indeed are small in number.
Fall leads us to think of those who died – especially for those who have been significant and close to our hearts. The Church wisely teaches that it is a “good and wholesome thing to pray for the dead.” But let us not get carried away with our imagery. I doubt very much if a loving God, who actively seeks out sinners, sits at purgatory’s gate weighing quantities of prayer, pain and sacrifice against the account books of sins committed by suffering souls – just as I find it difficult to believe that the souls of the dead are like stacks of rotting leaves. The fate of the dead literally is known only to God. We pray for the dead because we need to. These people are important to us, and our hearts still want what is best for them – especially in death. Our hearts will not let these people merely fall to the earth and die. We cling to our faith in the resurrection of the body and life everlasting. Above all, our prayer is that God will bring to completion in their lives what was imperfect or incomplete at their death. After all, each and every saint still dies a sinner. God is the giver of life, not us.
Somehow, I think the glory dance of fall’s leaves is God’s subtle way of assuring us that our prayer is answered. Our faith tradition testifies to a God who is the One made flesh – in Jesus of Nazareth, who hounds the sinners, always calling them to life. Each of us ultimately is accountable before God. We hope that whatever suffering may come our way in and through death will be short-lived because of the loving and merciful hand of God. In any case, in the end we Christians need not sulk in our loss of loved ones. We need not beg a distant and unconcerned God for a merciful change of sentence. With faith in a promise made and lived in Jesus, we join in the glory dance of the dead, trusting that God will indeed be faithful and grant them eternal life.
(Father Savelesky is pastor of Assumption Parish in Spokane. His book, Catholics
Believe, is available from Harcourt Religion Publishers.)
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