I had just seen my grandfather a few weeks before his death. He was in the hospital; and in accordance with the directives of his living will, the feeding tubes had been removed. He was unable to speak and mostly unable to move, but it was clear he knew when my brother and I walked into the room. I was the last one to leave his hospital room that night, staying behind to say goodbye and to whisper a prayer over him, tracing the sign of the cross on his forehead. It was the first time I had ever prayed with Louis DeLorenzo.
I had looked upon death with my grandfather once before, five years earlier. On a characteristically warm and wet Florida afternoon, I stood with my arm around my uncharacteristically vulnerable grandfather. The proudest and most stubborn man I have ever known was crying like a child in the rain. The woman who had been his wife for more than 50 years was lying in a cardboard coffin in the building behind us, awaiting cremation, and he had just kissed her forehead for the last time. Even at the end of a long and loving life, he felt her loss as an unmitigated tragedy. Dorothy DeLorenzo was gone.
The month of November opens with two feast days that have shaped my experience of celebrating and mourning the lives and deaths of my paternal grandmother and grandfather. On the solemnity of All Saints the church observes the treasury of blessings of the great number of holy ones. The next day, on the feast of All Souls, the church observes the mystery of reaching for departed loved ones, in prayer or simply in longing, whether or not we have rationally or emotionally accepted their deaths.
And while it might seem that the first day is pure celebration, while the second alone makes room for concern and yearning, the deeper truth is that even the day devoted to All Saints brings forth its own measure of concern. On that first day, the concern belongs to the saints and is directed toward those still living as well as those who have died. On the second day those still living practice taking on the concern common to the saints as we pray for our dead.
Memories Within Memories
Although more than 1,600 days would pass between that day and his last day, a good part of my grandfather seemed to die when he was forced to let go of his wife. There was a hole in his life that nothing else could fill; and to be honest, I am not sure it was meant to be filled.
As far as I know, my grandfather never attempted to explain where his beloved went after death. It would have been comforting, I am sure, to imagine that she had slipped out of the confines of this life into a better, happier place. But there was a certain discipline and authenticity to the way he thought about her after death. Instead of trying to make her right for his own sake, he allowed himself to be wounded for love of her. He had been tied to her so deeply for so long that he could not replace her with a thought or a wish about where or how she was now. He refused to allow her death to be any less serious than it really was. She was gone, and that made a difference to him. He longed for her, but to what end?
It is hard, if not impossible, to give an account of exactly how someone has affected you. Not only am I unable to explain what my grandmother meant to my grandfather, but it is also difficult for me to explain what she meant to me. If I sat still long enough, I could conjure up countless memories of her: some that would cause me to chuckle, others that would irritate me, others still that would perhaps leave me with tinges of regret and many that would fill me with gratitude. Of all those memories, though, I find it curious which memory usually comes to mind first.
What I remember first about my grandmother—in a vivid snapshot memory—is her sitting at the kitchen table in the slowly intensifying light of the early morning. The house is silent. Her elbow is resting on the table, one hand pinching the skin above her brow, the other telling the beads of a rosary dangling near her knees. Her eyes are closed tight and she has the look of intense, almost painful concentration on her face while her lips mutter prayers into the stillness of dawn. Something of what she meant to me is wrapped up in that memory, though I cannot wrap my mind around that meaning.
I do not have that memory of my grandfather’s faith. I tend to remember his childlike laugh when he teased my little brother, whom he loved with a special kind of devotion. I remember his voice rising above its normal volume to correct or to command. I remember the picture of him clad in an orange hunting suit, smiling next to the carcass of the deer he strung up at the end of the day. He never came to Mass with us when I visited my grandparents for weeks every summer when I was younger. I cannot recall a time when I saw him pray. He was relentlessly disciplined and principled, though he certainly was not what one would recognize as a person of faith.
I loved both my grandparents, and because of that love I feel their loss even today. I do not feel that loss as greatly or regularly as I should, but I do feel it. My love for them also springs forward in hope. I want them to live in some way, even though they have died and I feel their absence.
The difference between them for me, though, is that I lack for my grandfather what I have for my grandmother: a memory to anchor my hope. When I return to my faith and seek to entrust my grandmother to the love of God, I can move from what I myself have seen toward what I imagine God sees when he looks at her, even now. I can hope that God’s first memory of grandma is something like my own—or that mine is something like God’s, as it were. I hope that God sees her sitting at the table in the early morning, moving beads between her fingers, praying alone before the tasks of the day. Maybe that is who she truly was, beneath all the other memories.
For my grandfather, I just don’t know what I hope that God sees. Does God see the delight of that childlike laugh? Does God hear that voice ascending over the humdrum of domestic life? Does God rejoice at a successful hunt? The man whom I last saw fading away when the feeding tubes had been removed in that lightly lit, modestly comfortable hospital room more than 10 years ago is the same man who I know entered into the darkness of death and was no more. Into that uncertainty I cast my hope—inchoate as my hope may be. Perhaps this is hope beyond hope: to believe that life may be called out of loss, without any assurance, without any fully explicable reason, save one.
I have struggled to know where that hope begins in my imagination; but over time, the memory that has tended to recur most frequently when I think of my grandfather is of our last moment together in that hospital room. Part of me is still surprised that I had the audacity to trace the sign of the cross on his forehead and pray over him. Perhaps the meaning of who he was to me is mysteriously wrapped up in that memory, even though I am still trying to understand it.
Searching and Sanctity
My grandparents are not the only loved ones I have lost and try to remember, but the simultaneous connection and difference between them places me in the troubling predicament of how to pray for each and for both of them together. Without the practice of the liturgy, I would be left to my own to try to figure out what my partial notions mean and what I am therefore to do, or even hope for. To begin to grasp the gift the church gives on these simultaneously connected yet different liturgical observances at the beginning of November, we might pay attention to the prayer over the offerings at Mass from each of the two days. This prayer is offered at the conclusion of the presentation and preparation of the gifts and at the threshold of the eucharistic prayer, when the work only God can do becomes the work the church engages.
On the solemnity of All Saints, the church prays this prayer over the offerings:
May these offerings we bring in honor of all the Saints be pleasing to you, O Lord, and grant that, just as we believe the Saints to be already assured of immortality, so we may experience their concern for our salvation. Through Christ our Lord.
In this one prayer, the church makes a concession and a request. It concedes that there is no need to harbor concern for those celebrated in this Mass—both those whose names are known and the anonymous saints—for they already share in the eternal glory of God. The request, therefore, is not for them but for ourselves: that we may “experience their concern for our salvation.” To celebrate the saints means celebrating those who concern themselves with our good. They pray for us, and we pray that their prayers may be fruitful.
I can recognize my grandmother in this prayer, if only indistinctly, as in a murky mirror. If she enjoys beatitude with God in Christ, then she also joins with all the saints in their “concern for our salvation.” This touches on the strangeness of All Saints’ Day: in celebrating them, we are celebrating their concern for us. To recognize the saints as saints means recognizing ourselves as the ones they are concerned about. If the hope I draw from my memory of my grandmother praying in the early morning at the kitchen table gives me confidence in her salvation (which I cannot see), then the liturgy teaches me that this confidence is also about accepting myself as well as my grandfather as the very ones to whom she would hasten in holy concern. I hope that she tells her beads for us.
But what about my grandfather? Unlike with my grandmother, my own memory and understanding make it difficult for me to locate him on the feast of All Saints. Instead, I feel myself forced to seek him on Nov. 2. He is one of those for whom I am called to pray. In doing this, however, I am formed for another kind of humility. Whereas the prayer of Nov. 1 beckons me to accept the saints’ concern for us, the prayer of Nov. 2 leads me to offer my own concern to the Lord so that he may bring about what I can barely even imagine:
Look favorably on our offerings, O Lord, so that your departed servants may be taken up into glory with your Son, in whose great mystery of love we are all united. Who lives and reigns for ever and ever.
This prayer is for those about whom we do still exercise concern. It is a prayer not to abandon but to commend: We entrust to the mercy of God those whom we have no power of our own to help. And to ask the Lord to take our own loved ones into that “great mystery of love [in whom] we are all united” is to ask not only that those we love may be filled with new life but also that that life may be filled with concern for our own salvation.
The strange logic of Nov. 1 informs the strange logic of Nov. 2: To pray for the salvation of our loved ones is also to pray that they will enter into the unceasing prayer for our own salvation. Such is the mystery of the body of Christ.
What seems like an intellectual puzzle becomes a bodily practice in the work of the church’s liturgy. By showing up for the liturgy on these days, I practice words and prayers I have to learn to understand and, in doing so, I slowly come to understand what it means to pray for Grandma and Granddaddy, even now. I learn to imagine what I could not otherwise imagine, and my heart moves.
As I learn to pray for them, I also learn the significance of yielding to the prayers of others for me. Like all acts of liturgy, those in the first days of November are practices in communion. But here, perhaps more than at any other time in the liturgical year, these practices of communion are ventured across the otherwise unthinkable difference and immeasurable distance between loved ones, when death intervenes.
In this way, the space between All Saints and All Souls is where we search in mourning, prayer and longing for the loved ones we have lost. And the church teaches us that in searching for them, we discover ourselves anew as the ones pursued in love.