There is an old saying, “There are no atheists in foxholes.” I’ve never been involved in trench warfare, but I have no doubt that the saying is true. In my experience, neither are there atheists in final exams or funerals. One of the very predictable things about college students is the end-of-the-semester panic experienced by those who don’t keep up to date on their studies. When I was doing college campus ministry, I learned to expect standing room only crowds on the Sunday before final exams. Even the students who didn’t practice their faith were drawn to seek divine intervention, or at least to hope for it, when faced with the insurmountable odds of their own procrastination.
Another predictable phenomenon that I’ve noticed is the short-lived, but very authentic, religiosity of some people who attend the funerals of friends or relatives. Regular attendance at religious services is at a low ebb in this country, but religiosity often surges when a friend or loved one dies. Obviously, it would be better if that short-term religiosity gained a long-term sustainability. Nonetheless, I think it is worth our attention to reflect on why some people who are not otherwise religious become so at the funeral of a loved-one.
Much of what passes for a religious understanding of the possibility of an afterlife is a variation on the common “carrot and stick” approach to behavioral motivation. The afterlife, or the possible loss of it, is very often portrayed as the reward or penalty for one’s moral behavior. The afterlife is offered as a potential reward for those who act politely, and the loss of an afterlife is held up as a threat to dissuade those who are inclined to uncivil or uncooperative behavior.
While this type of motivational strategy works in some circumstances, I don’t think that it is appropriate in the realm of faith. Reward and punishment work as motivators with regard to individual behaviors, but a human life is much more than the sum of a person’s behaviors. A person is more than their actions. It doesn’t seem sufficiently respectful to characterize the goal of human life as being merely to pass a test, or make a grade or survive a struggle.
Personally, I would like to view the end (both in an historical and a metaphysical sense), of human life as being more oriented toward hope than toward some particular accomplishment(s). I’ve never seen a U-Haul truck in a funeral procession; if the goal of human life is to accumulate accomplishments, then human life is completely absurd: we can’t take any of those with us. Personally, I would prefer to live with hope, hope for myself, my loved ones and even the whole universe.
This is why I suggest some serious reflection on the short-lived religiosity that is often displayed at funerals. Those who do not regularly practice a religion are lacking in faith, in the biblical sense of the word. When the Scriptures use the word “faith,” it refers to a personal loyalty to God. The word has other meanings as well, but its primary meaning is loyalty. Those who do not practice a religion are lacking in the kind of loyalty that brings people to worship on a regular basis. Nonetheless, many of those lacking in faith appear to be filled with hope. They pray for deceased loved ones, and they offer comfort to mourners.
This phenomenon of hope is worth noting, as it appears even in the faithless. There is a natural inclination in us to hope; specifically, there is a natural inclination in us to have hope with regard to eternal life. A hope toward the eternal is so much a part of our human nature that it finds expression even when a person has made a conscious rejection of religion or God. There are no atheists in foxholes, final exams or funerals. This easily observable fact is sufficient reason to reject the “carrot and stick” explanations of morality, religion and eternity. A hope for the eternal remains a constant, even in those who are not motivated by “carrot and stick” ethics.
I would like to suggest to you that hope is the only way to avoid the conclusion that human life is absurd. If we value only what we can accomplish in this life, we are faced with the ultimate defeat of losing all we value to death. If, on the other hand, we attend to our natural inclination to hope then both life and death gain the balance and permanence and substantiality that they need and deserve.
The Scripture readings for today’s Commemoration of All the Faithful Departed (All Souls’ Day), are the readings used at funeral Masses. The first reading said, “The souls of the just are in the hand of God, and no torment shall touch them.” (Wisdom 3:1) Jesus affirmed this same promise when, in the Gospel reading, he said, “this is the will of the one who sent me, that I should not lose anything of what he gave me, but that I should raise it on the last day.” (John 6:39)
These readings are used at funeral Masses because they address our natural inclination to have hope about human life and death. Most people would like to be able to hope that, after this life, they will be reunited with their loved ones and friends. Most people would like to be able to hope that, at that reunion, they will no long be encumbered by their failures to be loving toward others. Most people would like to be able to hope that the afterlife will lack the kinds of things that are burdens in this life. It is no mere coincidence that the Scriptures promise exactly these things for which we want to hope.
Eternal life with God is cheapened when made into a reward to be gained or lost by our behavior. Eternal life with God is the proper goal of living in this world. The Commemoration of All the Faithful Departed is one of the ways that we acknowledge our trust in God’s promise of eternal life. We pray with, and for, those who have died. We pray as an act of faith, and we give expression to an impulse planted deep within us: the inclination to hope.
Some of our deceased relatives and friends are the people who were the center of our holiday celebrations. Their presence will be missed severely in the upcoming holidays, and their absence is a constant aching in our souls. We look forward in hope to that day of Resurrection when we will be reunited with them, and “abide with God in love.” (Wisdom 3:9) Others among our relatives and friends might have been the people whom we wished wouldn’t show up for the holidays, but always did. We pray for them, too; if there is hope for the outliers, there is hope for all of us.
It is traditional in Catholicism to remember the dead today and throughout the month of November. There is a prayer published in this Sunday’s Bulletin that I will ask all of you to pray together after the General Intercessions. I encourage you to make a conscious effort to remember to pray throughout this month for the departed faithful. To do so is an act of faith that begins at the center of what it means to be human, and reaches to the end (the goal and purpose), of what it means to be human: the hope we have for eternity.
Prayer for Those Who Mourn
Lord God, you are attentive to the voice of our pleading.
Let us find in your Son Jesus
comfort in our sadness,
certainty in our doubt,
and courage to live through our grief.
Make our faith strong through Christ our Lord. Amen.