Gone, But Not Forgotten

November -- A month for remembering those who have gone before us

A girl holds a candle beside tombstones on All Saints Day in Manila, Philippines. (CNS photo/Cheryl Ravelo, Reuters)
Since becoming Catholic, I must confess that I look forward to November — the month when we commemorate the dead. It’s a time to remember those who have gone before us and upon whose shoulders we now stand. It is a month when we give thanks for the legacies of our departed wisdom figures and reconcile ourselves to our fallen adversaries. We lament perished innocents, lost victims and slain heroes who remind us of life’s challenges that we still must face.

The remembrance begins November 1 with All Saints Day when we celebrate those deceased whose faith has been particularly noted by the Church as an example for many. The next day brings All Souls Day when we celebrate the faith of all our beloved dead. These days are important for Catholics, and many other Christians, because they remind us that we are always connected, even to those who are deceased. They also remind us how short and fragile, yet how valuable and precious it is. We remember our hope in the common phrase, “rest in peace,” which I believe we offer as much for ourselves as for those who have died. We remember that we don’t have all of the answers to the questions surrounding death and dying. Yet we need not speak, for presence is itself an amazing gift.

Family reunion

November is like a family reunion for me. I have the opportunity once again to commune actively and openly with my deceased loved ones. To remind them (and myself) that while they may be gone, they are not forgotten. I catch up with them and update them on the adventures of my priesthood and how life and people continue to surprise me.

In turn, I allow their legacies and lessons to continue to form and inform me in the rapidly changing world that I live in. I cook with my great-grandmother, “Nanny,” whose caramel cakes (and anything she created in her kitchen) were the stuff of dreams and whose strength and steadfastness continue to be standards toward which I strive. I try to convince my grandparents that the world is not going to “Hell in a handbasket” simply because all the news that is shown on TV is bad news, and people are more disrespectful to one another than ever before. I try once again to reconcile with a cousin who died because of his own stupid life decisions. Thanks be to God that over the years we’ve stopped arguing. Now we’re talking in order to understand one another better.

And I believe the nicest part is that I get to show these family members that their legacies are carried on with pride. I get to show them what I’ve done to make the world a better place, how I’ve helped others, how my relationship with God has grown since they introduced us, and how much their prayers, hopes and hurts have been strength for my continuing journey.

Spiritual practice

Most parishes, if not all, will use All Souls Day to feature a Book of the Dead where people can write the names of the deceased, which will be lifted in prayer regularly throughout the month. Perhaps in addition to the celebration of All Souls Day, your local parish will have a special Mass for the Dead featuring special rituals to help in our remembrance and, if necessary, our consolation.

I heartily advise participation in this month in some intimate way. Have dinner or make a toast in honor of a loved one who has passed. Light a candle in your house and create your own Book of the Dead where you offer prayers and reflections. Write a letter to a deceased friend or family member and keep it in a sacred place to be revisited and added to next November. One of the best ideas I’ve heard is gathering some friends for an “homage reception” where people bring pictures of their beloved dead and share memories and stories of loved ones.

Our beloved and blessed dead still have a lot to teach us should we have the courage and patience to listen. But even more insightful is this: As I get older, I discover that the great pains we suffer in life lie not in remembering, but in forgetting.

Fr. Steven Bell, CSP, is a Paulist priest who leads parish missions, retreats, revivals and workshops, all of which consider the importance of reconciliation and healing. Fr. Steve previously served as associate director of Newman Hall / Holy Spirit Parish at the University of California at Berkeley and associate director of St. Thomas More Newman Center at The Ohio State University in Columbus, OH. Prior to this assignment, Fr. Steve was the associate director of Busted Halo. Ordained in 2008, Fr. Steve served at St. Austin’s in Austin, Texas, where he led lessons on faith for school-aged kids at summer camp and motivational talks for African-American professionals. He also led retreats and missions for young adults and other groups in the church.