Five years ago today, I was in Munich, Germany.
I was here:
(And then after that I was at the Hofbrahaus. Ahem.)
It was the very end of the famous (in the UD world) “10 day”–that fabled time during our Rome semester in which the campus was closed to us and we were told to go have some adventures. And boy, did we have some adventures!
Sidenote: By the way, this is one of the many reasons I love UD. They push us to go beyond our comfort zones and to not be afraid. We can read Nietzche (and even like him, and some of the things he says) and still be Catholic. As St. Paul says, “Examine everything carefully; hold fast to what is good” (1 Thessalonians 5:21).
I was in Munich, this day, five years ago, after having spent three days in Paris and a day before that in Lourdes and the days before that in Barcelona, Spain.
On my third day in Paris, the eve of All Saints’ Day, I had gone to Notre Dame Cathedral for the Vigil Mass. Actually, we barely made it to Mass on time because we had spent the day exploring Versailles. I remembering running from the metro stop to the cathedral, and being astounded that, although the choir was singing, no one had begun to proceed down the main aisle. For some strange reason, the Mass had started late and we were therefore on time.
It was one of the many little things on that memorable trip that added up to grace.
My grandfather had died earlier that year, and I had been struggling for months trying to really accept it. For the first time, death had become real to me. And yet, during Holy Communion that evening, with the choir’s voices swelling behind me and lifting up my grief to the highest parts of the cathedral, I felt very close to him, and very aware that in the Communion of Saints, he was with me. I remember walking down the aisle of Notre Dame for Holy Communion and asking him to help me.
I love All Saints’ Day. I don’t think we really think about it enough, or what it really means. Or at least, not until someone whom we love dies. Then, I think, we begin to see it.
C. S. Lewis, for many years already an apologist for Christianity, became far more convincing when his wife died. In his amazing book, A Grief Observed, he shares his pain and brings some real clarity to what is at stake when we talk about death, and the saints, and heaven. He gets to the heart of the matter – of the fear we all feel when we encounter death. Is it The End? Is there really a Heaven? Or do we simply just stop existing? Were the saints wrong after all? Is there Nothing?
What about the people we love who die?
These questions only start to really matter to us when we face death for real:
If H. ‘is not,’ then she never was. I mistook a cloud of atoms for a person. There aren’t, and never were, any people. Death only reveals the vacuity that was always there. What we call the living are simply those who have not yet been unmasked. All equally bankrupt, but some not yet declared.
But this must be nonsense; vacuity revealed to whom? Bankruptcy declared to whom? To other boxes of fireworks or clouds of atoms. I will never believe — more strictly I can’t believe — that one set of physical events could be, or make, a mistake about other sets. (Lewis, A Grief Observed)
All Saints’ Day is about this frightening experience. In it, the Church affirms that, not only the somewhat distant halo-bearing statues and stained-glass images, but also the living and breathing people we knew and loved for years, are still real. More real, in fact, than we are now — even as we struggle to remember them as clearly as we would like – that face, that laugh, that way of saving something just so, that odd habit, that wink.
This solemnity is about all the uncanonized saints. This solemnity tells me that yes, in fact, I may meet C. S. Lewis himself someday — and Flannery O’Connor, and my great-grandparents, and all the people whose words I have read or whose stories others have told me or whose faces I have seen in photographs and icons, but who have remained for me silent witnesses.
Two of my friends who I was traveling with, Rachel and Teresa, had to bolt out of the cathedral after Mass to catch their overnight train to Munich. They were late. Far too late.
But so was the train.
I remember thinking, rather stubbornly, that my grandfather had to exist still, because I knew I was still his “sweetheart”–as he used to call my sister and me. Not even death could change that.
I’m not saying it was (or is) easy for me to believe this. I think atheists and agnostics have the wrong idea if they think that believing in heaven or in God is easier than not. As O’Connor says,
I think there is no suffering greater than what is caused by the doubts of those who want to believe. I know what torment this is, but I can only see it, in myself anyway, as the process by which faith is deepened. A faith that just accepts is a child’s faith and all right for children, but eventually you have to grow religiously as every other way, though some never do.
What people don’t realize is how much religion costs. They think faith is a big electric blanket, when of course it is the cross. It is much harder to believe than not to believe. If you feel you can’t believe, you must at least do this: keep an open mind. Keep it open toward faith, keep wanting it, keep asking for it, and leave the rest to God. (O’Connor, The Habit of Being, my emphasis).
One of my friends on our ten day journey was struggling a lot with faith, and with believing in particular providence (the idea that God actively intervenes in our day-to-day lives, rather than in a more general way). Yet I think those ten days gallivanting around Europe did more to lead her to convert to Catholicism than anything I ever could have said or done. Throughout our Rome semester, I prayed for her at the tombs of many saints — in particular, the tomb of Saint Monica (Saint Augustine’s mother), in Rome.
We probably have no idea how many saints are paying attention to us right now, and how God gives us grace through them.
My favorite image from Narnia is the scene in The Last Battle where Tirian stumbles through the stable door and finds himself in the “Real Narnia,” and sees for the first time all the old heroes he had only heard of in stories – and his own father, and all those whom he had ever loved. One of the other characters says,
I have come home at last! This is my real country! I belong here. This is the land I have been looking for all my life, though I never knew it till now. The reason why we loved the old Narnia so much is because it sometimes looked a little like this. Bree-hee-hee! Come further up, come further in! (Lewis, The Last Battle)
And to any of you who are grieving the loss of someone dear to you, and are confronting death face to face, I think ending with Lewis’ words is best. Here, he describes an experience that happens to him many months after the most harrowing stages of his grief. Excuse the very long quote, but it is worth it:
… Something quite unexpected has happened. It came this morning early. For various reasons, not in themselves at all mysterious, my heart was lighter than it had been for many weeks. For one thing, I suppose I am recovering physically from a good deal of mere exhaustion. … And suddenly, at the very moment when, so far, I mourned H. least, I remembered her best. Indeed, it was something (almost) better than memory; an instantaneous, unanswerable impression. To say it was like a meeting would be going too far. Yet there was that in it which tempts one to use those words. It was as if the lifting of the sorrow removed a barrier.
Why has no one told me these things? How easily I might have misjudged another man in the same situation? I might have said, ‘He’s got over it. He’s forgotten his wife,’ when the truth was, ‘He remembers her better because he has partly got over it.’
Such was the fact. And I believe I can make sense of it. You can’t see anything properly while your eyes are blurred with tears. You can’t, in most things, get what you want if you want it too desperately: anyway, you can’t get the best out of it. ‘Now! Let’s have a real good talk’ reduces everyone to silence. ‘I must get a good sleep tonight’ ushers in hours of wakefulness. Delicious drinks are wasted on a really ravenous thirst. Is it similarly the very intensity of the longing that draws the iron curtain, that makes us feel we are staring into a vacuum when we think about our dead? ‘Them as asks’ (at any rate ‘as asks too importunately’) don’t get. Perhaps can’t.
And so, perhaps, with God. I have gradually come to feel that the door is no longer shut and bolted. Was it my own frantic need that slammed it in my face? The time when there is nothing at all in your soul except a cry for help may be just the time when God can’t give it: you are like the drowning man who can’t be helped because he clutches and grabs. Perhaps your own reiterated cries deafen you to the voice you hoped to hear. (Lewis, A Grief Observed)