October 31, 2012
For the first two days of November in the Catholic tradition we remember those who have died. On the first we celebrate the feast of All Saints and then the next day, All Souls.
Both feasts make sense within a particular world view but I wonder if there might be more helpful ways of understanding life after death that makes sense in the scientific world view that we now understand? My question arose while we were exploring how to tell Mary MacKillop’s story now that she is canonised, in a way that doesn’t turn her into a perfect model or a woman on a pedestal. How can we think about our dead in ways that give us hope, resilience and motivation to live as the kingdom of God?
The feast of All Saints may traditionally refer to canonised saints but most of us would want to add people who have loved us and inspired us but are not famous or notable outside a certain network. After all canonised saints are predominantly European men, mostly priests or religious, therefore mostly men who have lived a particular lifestyle.
We want to add to the saints others – such as our parents or grandparents, or people, like Terry Dibble, who genuinely lived for justice, or Mere and Hoane, who fostered children with great kindness for over 20 years, or Te Whiti o Rongomai and Tohu Kakahi who led the Parihaka community in New Zealand prophetically as non violent in the face of war, or Jan, who was a reconciling presence wherever she went, or Kate Shepherd, who finally won for New Zealand women the right to vote, or Suzanne Aubert, whose Congregation has shown active compassion for the poor for over 100 years, or Judy Cannato, whose teaching and writing on evolutionary spirituality is bringing about change. Our litany of names could continue. To limit saints to the canonised could be like thinking of Olympians as only those who won a gold medal in archery.
Our new knowledge does open us to the wondrous interconnections and relationships of all things and assures us that death and new life are continuous in the universe. Though our connections change through death from the energies that hold our living bodies together we are still connected in creation. For the living, the memories we have of those who have died are ways in which we continue to be connected and inspired by those who have gone before.
Indigenous people can open for us ways of understanding our connection and relationship with those who have lived before us. Maori people especially respect their interconnection with those who have passed on, their ancestors, as if separated from them by a mere thin skin. While no longer physically tangible they are remembered, connected, counted and honoured in their whanau relationships. And Aboriginal people go even further understanding themselves in a familiar network of relationship with all things, animals, insects, rocks, earth and stars. Every thing in the network of relationships is respected and known and their interconnected relationships are active and influential in their lives. These understandings of kinship relationship surviving in creation between those alive and those who have died make sense in a world view influenced by contemporary cosmology.
So do those who have died have influence with God that we don’t have? For example, some of us have been in the habit of asking Mary MacKillop or Catherine Mcauley to ‘intercede’ for us with God, or of asking for her ‘intercession’. The Mary MacKillop novena prayer speaks of asking Mary MacKillop’s ‘intercession’. This way of talking about Mary and prayer may not represent how we want to continue thinking about our relationship with God and with saints now and into the future.
When we explore the idea of someone ‘interceding’ for us it conjures a judicial context in which we ask a lawyer or sponsor to put our case forward to the judge because that person is trained in the ways of the court system and in the language of the court. Sometimes it could even be prejudicial to our case for us to speak for ourselves in court unless we are conversant with the proper language of the court.
A more historic way of thinking of intercession is within a monarchical context where the monarch and the nobles hold the power and the majority of the wealth and they operate by granting favours to those of less consequence in the system. In such situations those more favoured in the monarch’s eyes can represent a less favoured person’s case to the monarch. In each situation, the person hopes that the lawyer, sponsor or noble will get them a better outcome to their situation than they could negotiate on their own. In each scenario, the person needing the favour is not able to approach the judge or the monarch themselves either because they do not hold a particular role or education; or their social class makes them unworthy to approach the monarch face to face, or they don’t have sufficient talent or funds.
Do we think, or even want to think, of God - as a judge, a monarch– being distant from us and unreachable? We can also ask, do we think that Mary MacKillop, Terry Dibble, or Catherine McAuley would consider us too unworthy to speak to God ourselves?
If we make God into the judge, the monarch of our scenarios, we can continue to think of God as distant and even aloof from us. We can continue to get the help of go-betweens to approach God instead of speaking for ourselves. We can continue to think of ourselves as unworthy to approach God directly even though we have pressing needs and worries. And we can wait for the outcomes of our intercessory efforts wondering if God is hearing us. Maybe we might prompt our intercessors to greater efforts on our behalf with visits to their tombs or flowers.
I don’t think that God is distant from us in the way of a judge or monarch and therefore needs to have only special people approaching. Instead I think that God is very near and is listening with particular keenness to those suffering, worrying, ill and anxious. God knows our heart’s desire, our deepest hopes and yearning. God certainly knows about our illness, our unemployment, our child’s diagnosis of cancer. We read in Scripture images of God as listening as a mother to her child, as one truly upset by injustices meted out to people, as one aware of suffering and as one conscious even of a bruised reed. God is at the heart of our universe.
We also know that God does not have a protocol as to who can speak and how we speak. Jesus consumed by God’s mission, welcomed little children to him, listened to tax collectors and sinners, to the mothers and fathers worried sick about their children, to Peter’s mother-in-law sick in bed, and to Mary and Martha grieving their brother Lazarus’ death. In fact, Jesus showed that God’s mission favours the lifting up of the downtrodden and anxious and bringing relief to the worried. Jesus believed this so strongly that he died rather then retract on his commitment when he was threatened, judged and condemned.
People like Mary MacKillop, Terry Dibble and maybe our parents, lived in God’s presence. They found God’s presence in the kitchen and the church, in school and the prison, in the rain and the beach, in their families and in strangers, in the soil and in the starry night. Like the psalmist they could ask, “God, where can I go from your presence?” and like the psalmist they found that God’s presence is everywhere. They didn’t speak of God as being aloof or distant but rather as being concerned for them and for those with whom they were concerned.
How then can we speak about Mary MacKillop, Francis of Assisi, or Judy Cannato and prayer and not use intercessory language?
I think that we find an answer by watching what happens when people come to Mary MacKillop Place to pray at Mary’s tomb. Every day dozens of pilgrims come alone or in groups. They often share their stories of why they have come with those engaged in pastoral ministry in the chapel. They come to Mary as to a friend and mentor and as someone who would really understand what they are going through. They converse with Mary, write notes outlining their concerns, leave flowers that can be used to beautify the space. They kneel at her tomb, sit close, touch it, lean on it and lie on it. They sit quietly, pray sotto voce, weep, converse aloud, pray traditional prayers, and sing. They act like her friends!
I think that why so many make the journey to the chapel is that they are coming to someone who will understand and accept their anguish or joy, their fear or their hopelessness. Their actions indicate that they are asking Mary MacKillop to pray WITH them rather than to pray on their behalf. They too want to have in their lives what they perceive as the qualities of her life – courage in the face of disappointment, anxiety, illness; hope in the face of a diagnosis of infertility; trust in the face of personal hurt; steadfastness in the face of another employment rejection. To acknowledge this we are changing the prayers to ask Mary MacKillop to pray WITH us rather than for us. By asking all the saints to pray WITH us, rather than FOR us, we claim our own worthiness to approach God and we learn from their belief in and experience of God’s creative, provident presence.
So when All Saints day arrives, let’s ritualise our memories of those we know who witnessed in their lives that they were friends of God. Let’s tell the stories again of granddad with his generosity and green fingers, and Nana Wise with her cheery kindness, and Christine Clark knocked down on the picket line, and Hine who put a roof over the head of her boozy cousins, as well as St Catherine the Great, Sts Peter and Paul and Terry Dibble. And then on All Souls day let’s remember again our friends who have gone before us. Let the memory of their generosity, kindness, inclusiveness, endurance, humour, forgiveness and courage seep transformatively into us. Let our memories and the telling and retelling of their stories connect us more richly and strongly in ordinary life and more mindfully into the kindom of God.
Ann Gilroy rsj
Pictured below with Mary MacKillop are some of the other saints in the Josephite network. May their images bring to mind the faces you hold dear of your own saints. We invite you to pray with us and with them at Mary’s tomb and to share your memories of them on the Josephite Facebook page