As I write this article, the eight o’clock night bells are ringing their familiar resonant tone. It would be the last ringing of the bells for the day, a slow alternation of a big deep-throated clang and a tiny resounding ring that ushers in silence and slumber. Day is done and the long wait for rest from my daily chores is about to end. My bio-rythym almost always heed the sound of these bells as I begin to yawn and yearn for the comforts of a bed.
Tonight, however, is different. The sonorous sound of the bells did what they were supposed to do to me in the first place. It called me to remember, and in particular it called me to remember my grandmother.
It must have been fifteen years by now, too long for the memory cells to normally remember the details of an encounter. But I remembered, and vividly so, because it was my first conscious encounter with death -- human death. It was the first time that I was personally affected and grieved deeply the loss of a loved one and reflected on the possibility of loosing another and ultimately myself.
I was in grade six then and in that fateful morning before going to school, we were all herded to pay our last respect to her. I entered her room, lit by the early morning sun and a candle. No sound could be heard except that of the respirator and the soft murmur of a prayer I could not comprehend. The scene seemed synonymous with the impending gloom. I gave her what would be my last kiss and from the coldness that my lips felt when they touched her forehead, I knew then that it was bound to happen. I would lose a person who cared and whom I care for.
She cared for us as I cared about her, and that was the reason why it was hard for her and me to accept her death, to let go and leave everything behind. I knew that was the reason why she fought hard and struggled against it aided mostly by the respirator. She told us once that our grandfather was already calling her to join him, but she looked back, she could not yet fully entrust everything she has cared for to those who will be left behind. I too fought back but I could only watch with tears in my eyes.
Death is the final attempt of God who would ask us for the last time to surrender and abandon everything to Him. It would be our last act of faith and trust. But most of us go through life without knowing how or even trying to. And for this reason, death - the last act of surrender, becomes difficult. In life it is not easy to say “into your hands Lord, I commend everything, or say “Lord , I abandon myself into your hands, do with me what you will,” or say “take Lord . . . everything,” and really mean it. It is not easy because we want always to be in control, to be master of ourselves. But in death we are given the final chance to offer everything back to God and surrender our will. It will be our last chance for conversion, and it would not be easy, not unless in life we have practiced it - becoming so to say “like little children” in the hands of our Father. For my grandmother it was her last. For me, her death ushered the series of surrendering which I have to make in life, which would culminate only in my own experience of death.
In death I have seen so many people who wanted to hold on to anything they can for as long as they can. It is said that Queen Elizabeth waited for her death standing up, in full royal regalia, maintaining her regal composure in a desperate bid to hold on to power and to life. For many it might not be as dramatic as this but there are people who build monuments for themselves before they even die with activities done for the sole purpose of perpetuating a name and a memory. There are people who even write their epitaphs before they die, planning their funerals in a manner they like, in a way they want to be remembered, just to hold on to whatever self-identity they could cling on to. I believe this is where purgatory comes in for if we could not fully let God take over ourselves, another process is called upon. Purgatory is not just a cleansing or purgation of our past offenses as if God wants to exact justice from whatever fault we may have done. For me it is the breaking down of the remnants of resistance to surrender everything to God and to let go; the breaking down of the resistance to love and be loved by God, so that we may be fully prepared to relish heaven with all its delights - delights which only a selfless man could fully appreciate.
This is the reason why we pray for our beloved dead and this too is the reason why the bells of the cathedral are rung at eight in the evening, to remind us of their need, to help them in their final struggle.
Back then when my grandmother died, I longed for the first time for her presence, her touch, her laughter, her call. I have no concept of the possibility of the resurrection then, and neither have I any understanding of the word. But I felt this painful longing for my grandmother. And what words my feeble mind could not capture, my yearning for her physical presence spoke so eloquently of the idea -- for isn’t resurrection a hope, a yearning so certain to be physically together again?
Now, as a priest I would often comfort a family who grieves for a lost love by saying that we do not actually say goodbye in death nor do we say paalam, but in Spanish we say “hasta la vista” - till we meet again, because we will meet each other again. Yet, even though we are assured by our faith of this reality, the yearning is still there. We could not easily free ourselves from the human grief of letting go, for the resistance to surrender like Jesus on the cross is so great. There is always in us the element of holding on, of looking back and taking control. Even in Jesus’ life the struggle is evident in the agony in the garden where he prayed for the cup of suffering to pass. Human nature has always wanted to become like God, as our first parents did. But we want it in our own way, in our own time and in our own making. We all will become gods someday and all of us will have the power to live life forever. But the manner and the time will not be ours to decide for we could not appropriate these for ourselves. It is God who will give them to us as gifts.
As we commemorate the feast of all the saints and remember our beloved dead let us be joyful in our communion with the saints and in the hope that one day this communion would not just remain a spiritual reality but become a physical reality where all will be one. On that day there will be no more tears, no more yearning, no more painful emptiness for we will be together again.