The Commemoration of All the Faithful Departed - November 2nd, 2014
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What is the context of today’s readings?
We take a break from the usual cycle of the Lectionary to observe the Commemoration of All the Faithful Departed, more commonly known as All Souls Day. All Saints Day and All Souls Day begin the month of November in the modern Church calendar, a month that for many has become a special time to remember those who have gone before us in the faith. Both All Saints Day and All Souls Day can be traced back to pagan, non-Christian practices of remembering, or honoring, the dead, but our Christian tradition reimagines the ritual by framing this remembrance within the context of our belief in the Resurrection and the hope of Eternal Life. Each of today’s readings reflects this emphasis on Eternal Life, and for this reason they are commonly used at funeral services. But on this particular day, we recall not just one individual who has passed on from this life, as we do at a funeral Mass, but ALL those who have gone before us, and for whom we pray in the hope of the Resurrection.
So what is a soul, exactly? Does it continue after death?
There are perhaps no two topics more consistently debated nor intently scrutinized than the concepts of the human soul and the possibility of life after death. Understanding where our contemporary teaching comes from requires that we step back and review the evolution of human thinking about these difficult, if not impossible-to-comprehend, topics.
Two major philosophical understandings of the soul can be traced back to ancient Greece, in which the philosopher Socrates, and his pupil Plato, articulated one overarching theory of the soul, to which Plato’s student Aristotle responded with a competing postulation. Plato describes the soul as an immortal, immaterial essence that temporarily occupies a human body. The soul of a person, most notably the mind, or what we, centuries later would call the “self,” exists eternally, in a form that extends beyond that of our finite, physical, metabolic processes. Rene Descartes, almost two thousand years later, expounded upon this dualistic dichotomy of the immortal, immaterial mind and the temporary, physical body. This is, in short, what many of us think of when we think of a soul--a Casper the friendly ghost sort of spirit that temporarily inhabits an eminently fragile set of cells whose biological processes eventually cease, freeing the spirit, or soul, to continue existing in some other state.
Aristotle, by comparison, defines the soul as the animating force that brings to life the form of a being upon its matter. Without matter, that is, without a physical body, there could be no soul, because the soul is the life-force of the specific being, be it a tree, a horse, or a human. Moreover, the defining element of a soul is what sets that-sort-of-being apart from all others, and so for humans, it is the capacity to reason. Thus, for Aristotle, the human soul is an animating, organizing principle that engages in the process of reasoning and understanding. But it is important to note that such a process can only take place with a physical body. So for Aristotle, it is more proper to refer to the soul as the whole person, mind and body, in a single unifying life force. It would seem, then, that if a body is necessary for a being to have a soul, i.e. to be alive, then, when the body dies, that individual dies as well. There can be no after life if the body has ceased existing, because the soul was precisely the human being fully alive. This is where the Christian understanding of the Resurrection of the body, based on the Gospel account of Jesus’ bodily Resurrection, becomes so vital.
What do we believe about the Resurrection?
According to the Gospels, Jesus was resurrected in bodily form, but it was not the same sort of body he had prior to his death. In both the Gospels of Luke and John, we see that Jesus is, unambiguously, in bodily form. Jesus says, in Luke, “Touch me and see, because a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you can see I have.” (Luke 24:39) and, to drive the point home, the author of the Gospel says, Jesus asks them for something to eat, so he eats a piece of fish right in front of them (24:43). A ghost cannot eat a physical piece of food!
Again, in the Gospel of John, we witness the famous scene in which “Doubting” Thomas, who was not present with the disciples when Jesus appeared previously, is invited by Jesus, “Put your finger here and see my hands, and bring your hand and put it into my side, and do not be unbelieving, but believe.” (John 20:27) The early Christian authors of these Gospel accounts wanted their audiences to know, beyond any doubt, that the Jesus who was raised from the dead was not merely a spiritual being.
And yet, these same authors tell us that Jesus was able to pass through walls at will, that he would simply vanish from a room, and that those who had known Jesus the longest, like Mary Magdalene, did not recognize him when they saw him. So even as the evangelists wish to impress upon us that Jesus is in bodily form, they are simultaneously insisting that it is not the SAME bodily form he once occupied. It is, instead, what theologians refer to as a “glorified body,” a body that IS physical, but is incorruptible and transformed. We hold up these post-Resurrection appearances of Jesus as evidence for not only the Resurrection of his body, but as a precursor to the Resurrection of all the faithful on the last day. We attest, each week, when praying the Creed at Mass that we, “Look forward to the Resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come.”
So what does this have to do with us?
Our current, Catholic understanding of the soul, life after death, and the Resurrection of the body, owes more to Aristotle’s account than to Plato’s (though both have been influential in the development of our thinking about these inherently unknowable realities over the centuries.) St. Thomas Aquinas, arguably the greatest theologian of all time, took Aristotle’s understanding of the soul and fused it with the Christian belief in the Resurrection of the body, articulating what would become the basis for our modern doctrinal formulations.
The Catechism teaches: “Man, though made of body and soul, is a unity. Through his very bodily condition he sums up in himself the elements of the material world. Through him they are thus brought to their highest perfection and can raise their voice in praise freely given to the Creator. For this reason man may not despise his bodily life. Rather he is obliged to regard his body as good and to hold it in honor since God has created it and will raise it up on the last day. The unity of soul and body is so profound that one has to consider the soul to be the “form” of the body: i.e., it is because of its spiritual soul that the body made of matter becomes a living, human body; spirit and matter, in man, are not two natures united, but rather their union forms a single nature.”
Simply put, we are not, essentially, spiritual souls temporarily inhabiting a physical body. Rather, our spiritual self and our physical self are inextricably linked together through a unifying life force commonly referred to as the soul. And it is this WHOLE self that will be raised for Eternal Life with God the Father. This elicits all sorts of practical questions... do you get the body you had as a 19 year old? Or the one you had as a 91 year old? What about an unborn baby who dies in the third trimester, or an infant who is born with a debilitating genetic condition like anencephaly, that prevents him/her from living more than a few days? What sort of body will these persons have in Eternal Life?
The most truthful answer is that we do know. We profess belief that we WILL be Resurrected as full, glorified, bodily persons, but we cannot possibly know, in this life, what that will look like. It is a mystery to be unlocked only upon our own passing from this life into the next. But it likewise gives us great hope that, one day, we shall be reunited with those who have gone before us, in the fullest iteration of ourselves, body, spirit, and whole-self.
Questions for Reflection
1.) Do you ever think about death? Does it make you anxious at all?
2.) Have you ever suffered the loss of a loved one? Have you ever attended a funeral or memorial service for someone you knew personally? How did it feel?
3.) What is your own, personal, understanding of the soul and what Eternal Life might be?
4.) How does the Catholic understanding of the Resurrection of the body strike you? Are there any aspects... Heaven, Hell, Purgatory... that don’t fully make sense to you?