My father served in the US Army at the end of the last world war, arriving in Manila just after the Japanese had been politely escorted off the Island. My uncle Frank served in the Marines much earlier in that war, and it was his photograph that I placed on our “November Altar” in remembrance of the Faithful Departed (Dad at 92 is still very much with us but Uncle Frank died in 1993). This November Altar is the closest we have to a camposanto at Star of the Sea. That word in Spanish and Italian means “holy ground,” which best describes a cemetery or graveyard. The relics of our forebears render a burial place holy because their bodies were temples of the Holy Spirit. Until the last few decades, most larger parishes would have made room for a kirkyard for their deceased loved ones, or perhaps interred their dead within the church itself.
In this month of November we have at least dedicated Our Lady’s altar to the Holy Souls. Every day this month I kneel before these pictures and light a candle for my Nana and Uncle Frank, and for every person remembered there. Seeing these beautiful faces has brought the entire parish into deeper communion with each other. We cannot help but love the living as we pray with and for the dead.
Every person portrayed on our November Altar is a miracle of life and gift of God. I cannot help but thank God each time I kneel before these images of His beauty. The November Altar, however, provides us with something even more sacred than remembrance. Contemplating those who have died brings us to anticipate our own final end. Our society both obsesses over the dreadful aspects of death (think of the zombie and vampire movies) and at the same time avoids death’s deeper significance. Death is in fact life, as St. Therese observed on her deathbed: je ne meurs pas; j’entre dans la vie. November prayers for the dead to restore Christian courage and fill the heart with joyful gratitude.
Seeing these beautiful images of individual lives, and knowing that they are now with God, reassures us that the purification of the body is relatively quick and painless. Images of the deceased placed on an altar changes hopeless dread into joyful hope. A November Altar infuses our parish church with a depth that only sister death with her, pointing to our first principle and final end. We know where we have come from and we know where we are going. “The souls of the just are in the hands of God,” wrote the sage in Wisdom 3. “For grace and mercy are with His chosen ones, and His care is with His elect.” He has chosen every one of us.