A month to remember those who shaped us
Western People 3.11.2020
As I write these words, the tree shedding its leaves outside my window reminds me that November is here. In this year of COVID, despite the shifting of so many of the parameters that mark our lives, Nature has insisted on working its way through the promise of Spring, the high-point of Summer, the gathering of Autumn and has now packed its bags for the deadening feel of Winter.
The leaves scattered under our feet are an anthem for the decline of another year. It’s no coincidence that November, the month of leaf-taking is also the time of the year when we remember the leave-taking of our beloved dead: in my own case, my brother, Seamus, three years ago; my mother, Ellen, 21 years ago; my father, Pat, all of 41 years ago; so many friends, parishioners, priest-colleagues, reflected in progressively browning mortuary cards as time takes its toll on memory.
Because November is a time for remembering. Memory sweeps up the scattered leaves of time and we sift through them to choose the memories that satisfy us or trouble us: the places, the events and especially the people who have shaped and formed us and who drift into our consciousness at this time of the year.
Of course, memory can deceive. Retrospect can camouflage the reality. For memory is a sieve that can refuse to allow some bits of reality to come through. The truth, Anthony Burgess once wrote, is fabled by the daughters of memory and the words with which we sometimes describe the past can disguise the truth. We remember and, when memory fails, sometimes we imagine too.
But no matter how we camouflage the past, it sometimes insists on forcing itself into our consciousness.
Walking along a road or driving a car or pottering around the house and suddenly the leaves of yesteryear blow into a heap in front of us and memory takes over.
It’s natural to remember and it’s part of our nature to remember the dead because they are part of who we are. They have shaped us and formed us in ways it takes a lifetime to explore. We are what we are because of what they have been and memory forces us to pay attention.
As a child I remember the visits to the Church on All Souls day ‘for the souls in purgatory.’ We notched the indulgences up as a kind of ransom and we passed each other out, running into and out of the church, to free as many souls as we possibly could. We visited the cemetery for the same purpose, and we were continually reprimanded for the pace of our reluctant piety and the emphasis we placed on the score we were effortlessly keeping.
Now in calmer, more tranquil November days we facilitate the past as we turn over the events of yesteryear in our minds. November is that time of year, a time for remembering those who have gone, searching for a face in the mind’s eye, re-telling an almost forgotten story, dredging the memory to keep the focus on times and people fading into the distance. Our thoughts turn inevitably to our own departed loved ones and the discomforting approach of our own deaths. And we do this not just to echo the message that nature sends to us with the coming of Winter. We do it to put a shape on life: to remember, lest we forget.
Part of that remembering is prayer: Masses for the Holy Souls, prayers hallowed with time, recollecting in the presence of God the thoughts that accompany our remembering of the dead. And visiting the cemetery.
There’s something about a cemetery in November. It’s not just that the fullness of Summer’s life has gone ragged or that the graves are easier to tidy. It’s something to do with the dampness and the cold and the atmosphere. Walking through the graves, reading the headstones, allowing the memories to surface somehow we feel reassured about who we are and what we believe. Nowhere are we closer to our own roots than walking in our own cemetery. To avoid the experience is to avoid our memories. To forget them is to lose tract of ourselves. Winter, the celebrated writer Garrison Keillor wrote, is what we were meant for.
Part of the traditional religious experience of November is collecting ‘the November Envelope’ from the Church and writing down the names of our dead. It’s both a reassuring and discomforting task. The very act of writing down the names of our beloved dead reminds us both of the finality of it all and the promise it holds. Where they have gone, one day we will follow. Some day someone will stand at our graves; someday someone will write our names in their list of the November dead.
John O’Donohue wrote shortly before his death about the need for us to ‘befriend death.’ It seems a strange, almost morbid thought but for O’Donohue it was a natural extension of living. From the moment we are born, he wrote, death walks beside us and we need to befriend it so that ‘you will have no need to fear when your time comes to leave’. His point was that an awareness of the presence of death calls our life, as it were, to attention and helps us to ‘live the life you would love to look back on from your deathbed’.
So in November we remember our dead. For all of us this November, the leaves of time will be swept by memory into the small and great heaps that give birth to our remembering. Let us remember, lest we forget, because the past, as the novelist. William Faulkner wrote ‘is not dead. It is not even past’.