The Commemoration of All Souls

Today is the Feast of All Souls, called in the Book of Common Prayer 1979 “The Commemoration of All Faithful Departed. The Feast of All Souls has its origins in the early Middle Ages. Apparently it was first celebrated at the great Abbey of Cluny in the 10th Century. Cranmer eliminated it from the 1549 Book of Common Prayer. In the sixteenth century, it was closely tied to the Doctrine of Purgatory which came under sharp attack from Protestant Reformers.

We generally collapse the commemoration of all the faithful departed into our observance of All Saints’ by reciting the names of those who have died in the past year during our Prayers of the People. We will do that, but November 2 fell on Wednesday this year, our Wednesday service became our All Souls service. It was beautiful and moving for those of us in attendance.

All Souls is an opportunity to reflect on and remember those who have gone before us, our friends, loved ones, and others who have helped to shape us into the human beings and followers of Christ that we are. It is also a reminder that the Church, the Body of Christ, consists not only of those we see in this life, but all those who have gone before and entered the nearer presence of God.

When I think of Christians’ remembrance of the dead, I always return to Eamon Duffy’s magisterial The Stripping of the Altars, his examination of late medieval piety and the transformation of that piety in the sixteenth century.

The focal point of the Church’s liturgy of supplication for the dead, All Souls’ Day, was properly called the commemoration of All Souls. It was, of course, the desire for prayer which lay at the root of this preoccupation with remembering. The dead needed to be remembered, for the dead were, like the poor, utterly dependent on the loving goodwill of others. For all the stories of apparitions and Purgatory spirits walking to disturb their survivors, it was orthodox teaching that the living hold no direct converse with the dead. For medieval people, as for us, to die meant to enter a great silence, and the fear of being forgotten in that silence was as real to them as to any of the generations that followed. But for them that silence was not absolute and could be breached. To find ways and means of doing so was one of their central religious preoccupations. For what late medieval English men and women at the point of death seem most to have wanted was that their names should be kept constantly in the memory and thus in the prayers of the living.” Eamon Duffy, The Stripping of the Altars, p. 328.