LITURGY AND LIFE
By Marie-Louise Ternier-Gommers
Feast of All Souls
This Sunday, Nov. 2, is special. We are celebrating the Feast of All Souls in the midst of the Sunday assembly gathered for the holy eucharist. I’d like to think of this feast as a Love Feast: we remember all our “loved ones” reunited with God, those with whom we shared love and mercy, compassion and joy by sharing the eucharistic feast of ultimate self-giving in Jesus Christ. For we are embodied spirits created out of love, to find our human fulfilment in self-giving love and destined to return to the Source of Love from whom we came. Love is one of those unusual attributes that only grows by being given away, by losing it as Jesus calls it in today’s Gospel from John.
Nowhere is our origin and destiny so clearly manifested as in Jesus. The way he lived, suffered and died is one great song of Love to the Father, Creator and Sustainer of all that lives. The worst enemy of life, death, indeed lost its sting when Jesus died at the hands of that sting — sin — yet stared it down with mercy and unconditional love: “Father, forgive them . . .”
Times of suffering and death make crystal clear that love and mercy are the oxygen of life; maybe that is why they are the only currencies we can bring with us into heaven. Bernie Siegel, a Jewish surgeon who’s written extensively on the connections between love, medicine and healing, has observed this over and over again. Countless times he has witnessed the importance of love and mercy given and received. In the hour of our death, everything else — achievements, wealth, possessions — falls away; only love remains. Love helps us to integrate and become whole in our soul. Love grows our humanity into radiant fullness.
A doctor once gave the following advice for physicians who despair at their inability to cure everyone: “Go to your sickest patient and sit at their bedside for half an hour. I guarantee that s/he will heal you in the time you are sitting there, by their strength and courage, by their love and mercy for you, and the fact that they are simply healed by your caring.”
What is it that allows us to live on after death? What is it that allows those we leave behind to heal from the pain of losing us? Two things stand out. The first one is love. And often it is when we suffer, when we struggle to deal with pain and disease, when we are dying that we do our best loving and forgiving, healing and teaching. We can only do this well if we’ve been steeped, like Jesus, in a healthy self-love. Healthy self-love (as opposed to selfishness) is the acknowledgment of the divine image and likeness inside of us, no matter our imperfections (remember: we are all perfectly imperfect, except for Jesus, of course). And out of self-love comes the ability to love, forgive and help others without cost. If we love, we can never be a failure. If we love, we grow a healthy spirituality. If we love, we secure for our loved ones their future, their healing and their immortality.
Jesus never doubted his own goodness and loveliness, so intimately one was he with the Father. We, on the other hand, are not so lucky. While we enjoyed such intimacy in our fragile beginnings (maybe before we opened our eyes and took our first breath), we lose it throughout life in our perishable body. Loving and forgiving then can become hard lessons as stubborn patterns of sin need breaking, broken hearts need healing, and questionable attitudes and prejudices, motivations and judgments need to be confronted and exposed, corrected and purified by the divine surgeon.
The second thing is that we must have had a chance to come to full bloom in this life. The opportunity to let our unique beauty shine has tremendous consequences for our spiritual health. If we have lived and had our shining moment, however small, then it will be much easier to let go of this life in peace. Moreover, we will know and our loved ones will know our unique beauty.
Jesus had his most shining moment on the cross: “Father, forgive them . . . into your hands . . .” In the cross, God said: “There is nothing I cannot transform with love. Try me.” No matter what happens, God can use it and transform it by infusing mercy and love. This moment on the cross, this moment of boundless love broke the chains of death, shifting the universe away from the brink of utter darkness into a safe and new place of light. This moment of radical transformation sustains us still today in faith. Its power fills us every time we lose ourselves for love and in love. Its power renews us every time we die to ourselves for the sake of another’s wholeness, like the grain of wheat falling into the earth and dying in order to bear much fruit.
On this Feast of All Souls, this Love Feast, we recommit to God’s mercy all our loved ones who have passed on from this life and whose love is sustaining us still. We commit them all to the mercy of God, a mercy that never ceases to “court” us: “Mercy courts every human being to the very end; it activates the entire communion of saints on behalf of every individual, while taking human freedom with radical seriousness. Mercy is the good, comforting, uplifting, hope-granting message, on which we can rely in every situation and which we can trust and build upon, both in life and in death. Under the mantle of mercy, there is a place for everyone of goodwill” (Mercy: The Essence of the Gospel and the Key to Christian Life, Cardinal Walter Kasper, 2014).
Look favourably on us, O Lord. Receive your departed servants into glory with your Son, in whose great mystery of love we are all united. Thanks be to God, who gives us victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.
Ternier-Gommers, wife, mother and grandmother, is a retreat leader and spiritual director, freelance writer and author of two books. She has worked in diocesan and parish ministry, in ecumenical dialogues and ministry, and co-ordinates an ecumenical network of women in ministry. Visit her website at www.prairie-encounters.ca