I have been impressed by the occurrence of All Souls Day and the observance of Remembrance Sunday falling within the one week. Each of these occasions is about remembering the dead.
The Feast of All Souls is of course the occasion when we remember all who have died in the faith of Christ, acknowledging our connection with them beyond time in the Church, the Body of Christ.
Traditionally the range of the doctrine behind ‘All Souls’ has restricted it to those considered within ‘the faith of Christ’ but that restriction begs more questions than it answers. Who are we to speak for God or determine the reach of Christ? In fact it seems to me that the reach and range of this feast is immeasurable: it presents us with the impossible prospect of countless souls, millennia upon millennia, being remembered before God in prayer.
The feast is the most daring stretch of the liturgical imagination and the most ambitious expression of our hope in Christ. It takes us beyond the scope of our finite imagining, our conceptual framing, and all reach of words, gathering us up into the mystery of being, time and mortality that compels us to silence in which we may at best light a votive candle or let the music of lux aeterna speak.
By comparison with All Souls, the scope of Remembrance Day seems relatively modest. Even so, it is huge and imaginatively intolerable as one considers images of war cemeteries, crosses after crosses in endless progression; name after name etched on walls of remembrance, caves, cells, and monuments around the world; the countless dead whose remains are lost in the forests, steppes, and killing fields of Europe and Asia; those lost in the oceans of the world; or those vaporised by nuclear weaponry. The mind and spirit falter at the scope of what such remembrance may require. At the tomb of every unknown warrior this immeasurable army of the unknown dead attends.
It is worth remembering how in July, 1945, Benjamin Britten accompanied the violinist Yehudi Menuhin on a brief tour of defeated Germany. One day, the two men visited the concentration camp at Bergen-Belsen, and performed works by Mozart and others for some former inmates. Stupefied by what he had seen, Britten went home to the East Anglian coast and set to music the most spiritually scouring poetry that he could find—the Holy Sonnets of John Donne.
Of these, Sonnet 7 of Donne’s Holy Sonnets is the poem that most powerfully expresses the impossibility of remembering or imagining our mortality across the sweep of eternity. Nonetheless it somehow accomplishes the impossible in the bare 8 lines of its octave.
Anticipating the Last Judgement Donne summons all our dead and our living:
At the round earths imagin’d corners, blow
Your trumpets, Angells, and arise, arise
From death you numberlesse infinities
Of soules, and to your scattred bodies goe,
All whom the flood did, and fire shall o’erthrow,
All whom warre, dearth, age, agues, tyrannies,
Despaire, law, chance, hath slaine, and you whose eyes
Shall behold God, and never taste deaths woe.