November begins in much of the world with All Saints’ Day, or All Hallows, an ancient holiday to commemorate “all the saints, both known and unknown.” This holiday is not widely known in the United States except in its commercialized guise as Halloween. But throughout Latin America and Europe, it is celebrated as a time to remember family and friends who have died.
Whether or not you celebrate All Saints’ Day, I encourage you to take time this week to remember eternity and to give thanks for the lives of loved ones who are now with God. This need not be a morose thing; it can be redemptive, even joyful. Even if it involves grieving, through giving thanks we can honor the deceased.
Personally I think first of all of my parents, Heinrich and Annemarie. My mother was much healthier than my father, but my father outlived her by two years. They had been married for forty-six years. They experienced much from God together and loved one another dearly. The final separation from my mother broke my father’s heart. He just did not know how to go on without her. He must have gone through a lot of loneliness, which I as his only son did not appreciate enough at the time.
My father loved these words from Mother Teresa: “We need to find God, and he cannot be found in noise and restlessness. God is the friend of silence. See how nature – trees, flowers, grass – grows in silence; see the stars, the moon and the sun, how they move in silence…We need silence to be able to touch souls.”
Those words helped him grieve. After the death of my mother, he spent many hours in silence and prayer, simply in the longing to find God and to be close to him. I should have spent a lot more time with him then, to experience these God-given moments. Too often, I was busy with other things. I have regretted this many times. One thing we did do together after my mother’s death was go through the diaries and letters she had written as a young adult. Reading these together made her life real to us and drew our family together.
Already as a teenager, my father was interested in the medieval mystics, especially Meister Eckhart, whose writings point to the importance of silence and prayer. Throughout my father’s life, these two things played an important role, until at the end they became a way of life. Perhaps that is why he was loved by so many people, and why even strangers trusted him and shared their stories with him. Out of prayer and silence, he drew strength to face the temptations and struggles that everybody faces as their life comes to an end, and thus he was able to help others.
The peace and purpose we feel in our old age corresponds directly to how well we grieve, and whether we can move from lonely anguish to new joy after a loved one has departed. If we spiral into depression, or dwell too much on past experiences, we may miss the chances offered us to use our grief in a positive way.
If, on the other hand, we remember eternity when we think of those who have left us, we will live each day to the full. Then we will have renewed joy in those we encounter and will find our fulfillment in serving others. I can’t imagine a better way to honor the lives of loved ones – and the lives of “all the saints, both known and unknown.”
Johann Christoph Arnold is the author of Rich in Years, from which this piece is adapted.