Lift your eyes and look. Who made these stars if not he who drills them like an army, calling each one by name? So mighty is his power, so great his strength, that no one fails to answer. Isaiah 40:26
“…and we remember James Collins, who died on this day in 1893.” Every day at Morning Prayer, we remember members of the local Augustinian province who died on that date. Here we are gathered, briefly holding in prayer a young Augustinian priest, who died a more than a century ago, just a year after his ordination by Archbishop Patrick Ryan of Philadelphia. There is no one left alive who knew him. But we pray, regardless.
Everytime I hear those prayers, I am struck by our community’s fidelity to prayer for the dead. For those we knew and those we did not. Not only this tiny community that prays the Liturgy of the Hours, or even the parish, but the entire Church who each time she gathers to celebrate the Eucharist remembers all those who have gone before us, marked with the sign of faith, even when no one living remembers them — or their names.
Still, our names are important to us. Our names are the words that can cut through almost any din and grab our attention. When I hear someone call, “Michelle,” even if it is a voice I do not recognize, I turn to look. “Who here knows me?” I wonder. It is hard not to respond, not to search for the friend I imagine and hope is present. Our names are wound into who we are in Christ. They are bestowed on us when we are baptized, elected when we are confirmed, taken up when we profess vows. They are who our community says we are, who we say we are, and above all who God calls us to be.
The fourth century bishop of Cyr, Theodoret, reflecting on this passage from Isaiah, uses this image of God’s calling the stars by name, to remind us that God sees us with extraordinary clarity, he knows our strengths and weaknesses, our loves, our hopes, our desires. We cannot help but respond to the call of someone who knows us — all the generations upon generations of His children — so well that He recalls each of our names.
But God calls us in ways that go deeper than even our names. Karl Rahner, S.J., calls the twin celebrations of All Saints and All Souls feasts of “quiet remembering.” God dwells in the silence and stillness of our hearts, and in that silence dwells, too, those who loved us whose life is now entirely enfolded in our living God. Rahner suggests that here, God calls out to us, not with shouted orders like a drill master, but “through his silence, and [our dead], by their silence, summon us into God’s life.”
We listen hard for the voices of those we love, and in that emptied silence deep in our hearts, they call our names, to invite us into the union they share with God, here and now.
In these days leading up to All Saints and All Souls, I pray for all those have gone before me, known and unknown, who dwell in my heart, inviting me to live and move and have my being in God. I walk through the Jesuit cemetery at Wernersville, looking for the grave of the young novice who died in his first year, where I stop and pray for him and for his mother. I pray for my great-grandmother whose wedding ring I wear, for the ten children she lost in a diptheria epidemic, great uncles and great aunts who I never met and whose names I never knew.
And I listen in the stillness for the voices of those I know and love, drawing me into the depth and breadth of God’s love.
May the Creator’s power protect you,
The Savior’s care enfold you,
The Spirit’s life renew you.
May you walk in the fragrant clasp
of the Three of limitless love now and forever.
— From a Celtic blessing for the dying (in Celtic Blessings by Ray Simpson)
Michelle Francl Donnay is a member of Our Lady Good Counsel Parish, Bryn Mawr.
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