All Saints and All Souls a time to remember

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A nun and member of the Australian Ukrainian community cries during a July 2014 prayer vigil for those killed in the crash of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17. Photo: CNS/David Gray, Reuters
A nun and member of the Australian Ukrainian community cries during a July 2014 prayer vigil for those killed in the crash of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17. Photo: CNS/David Gray, Reuters

Death’s blows are not softened by distance. This weekend begins the month of the dead, when the Church gives special attention to the deceased with the first two days commemorating the feasts of All Saints and All Souls.

It could be said that these initial days of November embrace memories of everyone we have known but who is no longer with us in this life.

When growing up, I remember my parents and others of their generation pouring over newspaper columns and often remarking on the passing of people they had known.

The practice seemed so far removed from those who were younger and mostly divorced from considering the realities associated with the end of human lives.

Times change as people age but they often spark the development of similar concerns about the passing of relatives, friends and workmates in ways that were once viewed as something belonging only to older generations. Saying final farewells to those around us becomes more frequent through the process of ageing and becoming a “senior”, to use a term somewhat more polite than others which are sometimes cast upon older people.

We learn also that the physical distance which can develop between us and those who we have known, loved and shared good times with offers no shield when we learn of their deaths. My family has lost two very good friends this year who were physically half a world away and yet had been very important contributors to our lives.

Separation can enhance positive feelings about people we know; maybe because absence makes the heart grow fonder, or that having spent only limited times together triggers increased appreciation of the better sides of relationships.

Whatever the reason, losing those who are so far away offers no consolation when lives are ending.

No sense of so-called “closure” is easily achieved by distance – whether or not there has been some regular communication with those who are facing the prospect of dying.

We were able to keep reasonable contact with one of our friends until only a few weeks before his passing but with the other, the circumstances of her rather sudden deterioration delivered only a few shared emails some months before contact was lost and she died.

Those limited chances to be in touch were helpful for us and we trust that the feeling was mutual, yet those last months didn’t open the way to ponder such questions.

This month sparks similar reflections for all Catholics as many Mass intentions are devoted to the losses of those who were either close to us or separated yet still involved through memories of times shared and hopes of seeing them again after our own passing.

Our friends were able to address issues concerning the ends of their lives, while others are not able to make such preparations.

Patsy Healy, writing in the current issue of the WN Bull magazine Dialogue, has recalled the sudden loss of those aboard Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 which was
attacked over Ukraine last year.

“What had become an event ‘over there’, became something that impacted on my own life. Memories of conversations and humour and appreciation were mingled with those television and newspaper images,” Patsy wrote concerning the loss of one passenger, former Kincoppal-Rose Bay boarding mistress Sr Philomene Tiernan RSCJ, whom she had known through planning the funerals of some of Sr Philomene’s fellow nuns.

Her account presented another recollection of a distant passing, yet one that resonated back here.

This month of the Holy Souls sparks the recall of words from St Thomas Aquinas: “The greater the charity of the saints in their heavenly home, the more they intercede for those who are still on their journey and the more they can help them by their prayers; the more they are united with God, the more effective are those prayers.”

Losing people at a distance can provoke feelings that perhaps they may still be out there somewhere, given what was contact shared less frequently than we may enjoy with those physically closer us.

While they hopefully have been born into eternal life, we sadly miss making even telephone or email contact with our departed friends.