All Souls’ Day
At the end of Richard Adams’ book, ‘Watership Down’ – Hazel, the Buck Rabbit who is the hero of the story is resting in his burrow. Like Moses he had led his rabbits from their old home which was threatened by destruction to a new and safer place.
His work is done and he was very old. Dozing in and out of sleep he wakes to find another rabbit lying quietly beside him.
“Do you want to talk to me?” Hazel asked.
“Yes, that’s what I’ve come for,” replied the other, “You know me don’t you?”
Hazel, though he searched hard to remember his name, mumbled ‘Yes, of course’ and then he saw the silver light around the strangers ears.
“Yes, my lord” he said more confident now, “Yes, I know you.”
The stranger told Hazel that he had come to take him to a new home. “If you’re ready, we might go now.”
They went out into the shining sun and as Hazel went along, he decided he wouldn’t need his body anymore, so he left it lying on the edge of the ditch, but stopped for a moment to watch his rabbits and to try and get used to the extraordinary feeling that strength and speed were flowing inexhaustibly out of him into their sleek young bodies and healthy senses.
“You needn’t worry about them” said his companion, “They’ll be all right, and thousands like them. If you’ll just come along, I’ll show you what I mean.”
He reached the top of the bank in a single, powerful leap. Hazel followed; and together they slipped away, running easily down through the wood where the first primroses were beginning to bloom.
Unlike birth which is surrounded by people – especially the mother, the midwife and increasingly the father, death is often thought of as the loneliest of experiences as the loved one slips away – to what? to where?
Yet this story of Hazel’s death suggests something much more vibrant. Frail and tired, Hazel follows the one who has come for him and as he sheds his body, he is filled with a new power, a new life.
We get the sense that as one journey ends, he is embarking on another, more exciting journey.
It’s only a story, of course but it came to mind soon after my mother’s death.
Sitting at her bedside that last night, I watched her slip away. At first, after I arrived, she nagged me for being out so late (it was the early hours of the morning) but gradually I became less important. Her last conversation was not with me but with long-dead people – significant people in her own life – who had, like the stranger coming to Hazel, come for her.
The lonely figure in the hospital bed was suddenly transformed. She became animated as she saw what I couldn’t see; people who would be taking care of her – people, if I dare say it, who had been sent to her by God.
In that moment, the veil which separates us here from those who have gone beyond death seemed very thin.
My mother slipped away from me but not into oblivion. There was, without doubt, something beyond this physical death I was witnessing and as I left the hospital I had an overwhelming feeling that, like Hazel in the story, she had left her useless body behind and leapt into a new life.
My faith tells me something of that life and we are given plenty of clues by Jesus and by the New Testament writers.
I love the Proper Preface that we slip into the All Souls day Eucharistic Prayer which talks of the ‘hope of a glorious resurrection’ and assures us that though death comes to us all, ‘yet we rejoice in the promise of eternal life’ and then those vitally important words: ‘ for to your faithful people life is changed not taken away, and when our mortal flesh is laid aside, an everlasting dwelling place is made ready for us in heaven.”
That is what our faith tells us.
It all sounds very exciting and if, as I believe, it is true, then I cannot be sad for those who have left us here on earth to embrace the eternal life given to us by our eternally loving God.
They’re all right but then I have to deal with those words the Lord Rabbit said to Hazel, that we too will be all right.
It doesn’t always feel like that as we go through the process of mourning with its sense of loss and loneliness, emptiness and sadness. I’m sure it isn’t feeling all right for those mourning loved ones. Yet strangely, it is. The Lord Rabbit spoke a great truth.
Of course we miss our loved ones in the sense that we are denied their physical presence and those intimate sharings of life on earth. There will always be that void within us which no one can occupy – and which no one should because if it were otherwise, our feelings, our love for them would be diminished.
But it needn’t be such a lonely sad place. ‘Life is changed, not taken away’ – there is a glorious resurrection; there is an eternal promise.
And inasmuch as we live a life of faith then there will always be that interconnection, that bond which death cannot break.
“Therefore with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven…” The veil is lifted between us and them – we are together, in the Eucharist gathered with them and the whole company of heaven.
All is eternal. We are all held in the love of God. We meet each other around the altar of our Lord.
We who mourn and are sad will be all right. Dare we believe it? Dare we give thanks?
All Souls day is not a morbid introspective sad day but a day of joy and thanksgiving that, in God, we are all together, held in his love.