November, with its feast of All Saints and the memorial of All Souls, reminds us of the dead who have played a role in our lives and whose presence we deeply miss. They may be friends or relatives or—in my case—parishioners, like those whom I knew well at my former parish in Washington, D.C., and now in my present parish in New York City. I keep their names on a piece of paper, and in my morning prayer the sight of them summons up their images to my mind’s eye.
Among them is Clarissa, an African American woman of great faith, who died of multiple sclerosis. Her home was a basement apartment almost devoid of natural light—a circumstance that added to her pain. So now, in prayer, my words take this form: “I hope, Clarissa, that you are in a place radiant with light, where pain is unknown.” I feel sure she is present to me in ways that will become still clearer when we meet again. Another is Frances, who lived in a low-income housing project on North Capitol Street. Coming to early Mass one Sunday, she said, “The doctor says I’m doing better.” There was hope in her words, though the hope, as it turned out, was unfounded. She is another whose face I see in the early morning.
Here in New York, others whom I came to know in a pastoral context have also died, and theirs too are faces I bring to my inward eye in prayer. For several years I helped out at St. Clare’s Hospital, before the new drugs made it possible for those with AIDS to live relatively normal lives. Ramón, a Hispanic man whom I knew there and whom I continued to visit after his transfer to an AIDS hospice near my parish in lower Manhattan, stands out. A pastoral care coordinator at St. Clare’s had told me that initially Ramón wanted nothing to do with religion. In time, however, her genuine concern touched him, and he came to accept the invitation to receive Communion and then to be anointed.
The hospice to which he went was located near his childhood home, a neighborhood of tenements and public housing. Once there, Ramón reestablished contact with his father who still lived nearby. During one hospice visit, he showed me a frying pan and other kitchen items a friend had brought from his former apartment. “They’re for my father,” he said simply. Apart from a few clothes, these were all that remained of his material possessions, which he wanted to dispose of by way of preparing for his death—a final act of control over his waning life. The hospice called me the night he lay dying so that he could be anointed one last time.
His estranged wife subsequently arranged for a memorial service at my parish. Only she and his father were present. Here was a man who owned little in this life, but as it neared its end, he knew he was in the hands of a loving God. Him too I expect to see again.
Consideration of the death of people close to us formed part of my retreat this past summer. When, months beforehand, I asked my spiritual director how to prepare for those eight days, he said, “Think about whom you would like to bring with you.” I knew immediately that these and other deceased friends would be among them.
A reflection by the Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner deals with this issue of remaining in touch with those who have died: “The great and sad mistake of many people...is to imagine that those whom death has taken, leave us. They do not leave us. They remain! Where are they? In darkness? Oh, no! It is we who are in darkness. We do not see them, but they see us. Their eyes, radiant with glory, are fixed upon our eyes.... Oh, infinite consolation! Though invisible to us, our dead are not absent.... They are living near us, transfigured...into light, into power, into love.”
Such a strong assurance of the continued presence of those for whom we have cared can serve as a needed November consolation.