The Cult of the Dead: All Souls and the Christian revolution

Yesterday was All Souls day, when we pray for all who have died. I have been reading a few very interesting books recently about the early Christians and their beliefs, and the thing which really upset the pagan world was their attitude to death.

First the two books are:
The Cult of the Saints, by Peter Brown

The Memory of the Eyes, Georgia Frank

For Christians the dead were their friends and close companions. Jesus after all had lain in cold tomb, his flesh shredded and his physical frame wrapped in a shroud. But there pretty soon after came thousands, millions of martyrs, equally dead and buried. But for the Christians these dead people were not safely put away somewhere out of harm's way, or simply vanished out of sight. No, these people remained intimately close, real companions in this life as they continued to guide those still here to the gates of heaven.

This was a community for whom the physical remains of these holy people were of inestimable value, not just preserved as mementos but kept as treasured relics by which their spiritual prowess could in some way be shared. This sense of intimacy between the dead Christ and the living community was nowhere more evident than at the heart of Christian liturgy, for from the time of the apostles Christians met not to think and remember Christ’s sad death sometime in the past, but to celebrate his return among them and to feast with him truly Present in the banquet of the Lamb and to take within themselves his very Body and Blood. And more to the point, in this celebration they gathered with all the saints, those dead who had gone before them into the very Presence of the Living God. The Eucharist was the wedding of heaven and earth, a ‘thin place’ where heaven and earth were united.

I have been thinking a lot about this on and off and it has many profound implications, for understanding the situation of the early Christians, but also to understand the distinctiveness of Christianity for our own times and the demise of Christian faith and practice in the contemporary West.

The Reformation began a process of not just Christian reform, but of profound de-Christianisation which has, I would argue, climaxed in our own time with the emptying of churches across Europe and the emergence of a very different culture, not least about death. The Reformists of the 16th century wanted to impose the old Roman pagan divide between the living and the dead. Gone was purgatory, and prayers for the dead. And with that went the cult of the saints, of their immanency with the living, divine helpers in the walk to heaven and of their relics which were tossed out as so much rubbish. And with that went the Mass, the moment of union between heaven and earth, replaced with a memorial meal that tried to remember the great events of salvation way back in history.

The Reformation saw any dealings with the dead as superstition and magic, and so sought to put the dead back in their coffins and well out of sight, and to purge the Christian consciousness and its culture from all that had any reference to any intimacy between the dead and the living. In doing so they were, unintentionally, returning Europe to its pagan Roman times where the living and the dead were kept well apart, the dead something associated with magic and superstition.

Without the cult of the dead, that is of the prayers of the saints for the living and the prayers of the living for the departed, Christianity became a denial of itself. As St Paul pointed out, “If Christ is preached as raised from the dead, how can some among you say there is no resurrection of the dead? If there is no resurrection of the dead, then neither has Christ been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, then empty too is our preaching; empty too, your faith.” I Cor. 15. The whole point of the Christian faith was that death had no more sting, was emptied of its fear and caprice. The tombs were no longer filled with decay but filled with life. And Christians got that as St Paul, no less, rammed the message home. This was the distinctive Christian mentality, one which enabled the Church to find life and hope through the torrent of blood which streamed from the bodies of the martyrs. It was bizarre and repugnant to the pagans  and nonsense to the Jews, but to those who came to believe and live in and with the Jesus who had died and come back to life, it all made perfect sense.

The Reformation attack on the intimate union between the living and the dead began a process of unravelling which has only just come home to roost. After the rejection of the cult of the saints and the martyrs came the rejection of prayers for the dead, and of the power of the Eucharist. The whole edifice of the Catholic Church, which was shaped around the Mass and its celebration as the intimacy between God and humanity, was replaced with learned men who spoke a lot about what they had come to think, and read from the Bible as though it had dropped from heaven ready formed into their lap, a sort of latter day Quran. The Protestant world was one of books and morality, of effort, hard work and a way of salvation that was invisible, elitist and individualistic.

Without the sense of the radical intimacy between the living and the dead this was no longer Christianity as it had been understood from the beginning, but a humanistic religion plagiarising certain Christian motifs. Not surprisingly it rested for its authority not on spiritual princes of the Church but the very temporal monarchs of the times. The world was severed from its intimacy with the Divine, which no longer was seen to dwell in the Eucharist or work through holy water or through images or statues but a wholly interior affair answerable to no one but God Himself, direct and unmitigated. Every many who could read could think about what he read, and so a whole myriad of vaguely Christian beliefs shaped themselves into communities, and some of which discovered new sorts of superstition, such as shaking in the Spirit, or hearing God speak in times of spiritual intensity, and of course the mythical status of ‘the Book’, in the English speaking world the King James version of the Bible.

At this point heaven was not only pushed far away except on very limited terms, but the authority of the Christian community to proclaim the Gospel with any certainty was shattered. The authority of the Church was based around the power entrusted to it to bring salvation to the living AND the dead, to be a community which could tend to the souls of the dead as well as the living, to be a conduit through which grace could bless and tend the souls still alive but destined for heaven. Without this sense of the immediacy of life after death, temporal life gained a more immediate focus, such as wealth creation, science, social reform etc. Now these are not necessarily bad things, nor would some of them not happened without the reformation, but cumulatively it represented a profoundly de-Christianised outlook where the things of earth eclipsed the things of heaven. Heaven became a distant, if longed for, place, not an intimate home just a breath away and which was frequently glimpsed in the life we lead now, but something relegated to myth and the great unknown. It was as though the veil was drawn back across the entrance to heaven and the world became focused more and more simply on itself. Or to put it another way, out of sight, out of mind.

The history of modern Europe is in one sense the simple working out of that fundamental breaking of the hold of  Christian culture over the imagination of a whole continent. Pretty soon revelation was replaced with rationalism and scientific methodology, and societies paid homage to nationalism and the cult of very human monarchs, dictators and presidents. Indeed, Elizabeth I very deliberately presented herself as the regal and temporal virginal replacement of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and with quite considerable success. In essence the presence of the Divine was no longer through the Church and the revelation entrusted to it, but through the agency of human reading, reason and power.

(Interestingly, Latin America with its local cults of the dead adopted the Christian mentality completely, adapting or echoing it through its long held beliefs about death and sacrifice, something which still has a lingering hold on contemporary Latin American culture. I am speculating here, I might be completely wrong as my knowledge of the Americas is limited).

Contemporary Western society has finally emerged from the last vestiges of Christian culture, i.e. one centred on the intimate union of the living and the dead in the Person of Christ. And this is very obvious when it comes to death and dying. Quite frankly we have not the faintest clue what we are doing. Funerals are now sentimental bilge most of the time, with pop songs with gushing words and emotive tunes, or that most apposite for the times, Frank Sinantra’s ditty, ‘I did it my way’. Everyone is assumed to be in heaven, unless it Myra Hindley or Adolf Hitler. Mobster or philanderer all seem entitled to their own pastoral bit of paradise, though no one can say why apart from it wouldn’t be nice to say they couldn’t. Death itself is packed away in hospice’s, and children are deliberately kept away from funerals so they don’t get upset. The rite of dying is one of unmitigated sadness, hopelessness and a complete aridity of certainty about what lies ahead of us dressed up in well meaning but vacuus pap. Death, stripped of this guff is actually one long aching loneliness, a sense of complete and utter separation and no idea where those we love actually are.

Anglicanism’s Prayer Book ritual for burial is dire, basically a warning to be ‘good’ or else you risk eternal damnation in the fires of hell. There is no prayers for the dead, just a commending of the soul to God, and comforting words from Scripture. I did my grandfather’s funeral and couldn’t bear to use the Prayer Book as it was so bleak, and instead did an version heavily amended with contemporary Catholic funeral prayers. Interestingly the two church wardens said afterwards that they loved the service, it was so beautiful and inspiring.

However, the Catholic Church has herself become infected with this de-Christianising movement which neutralises the real intimacy between heaven and earth in its relationship. It shows itself in the way in which the Liturgy is celebrated, but is reflected in the way in which the Church frames its relationship to the world and its place in it. The Mass in particular has become a source of angst, even a battleground, traditionalists verses liberals in a very vicious and ill tempered way.

However, stand back from the tensions and ideological terms it is framed by, and I think you can see this as a tension caused by those who have lost the essence of this intimacy between heaven and earth, of the cult of the dead, and who have re-shaped the Liturgy as a touchy feely entertainment which is shaped by temporal issues of social justice. For example, First Holy Communion is inevitably all about ‘all are special’ and ‘joining in Jesus’ special meal’ rather than entering into a profound communion with all Christians living and departed through the Mystery of God himself entering into death, breaking the power of the grave and inviting his disciples to feast with him in his Kingdom. This essential step of initiation in salvation is so often stripped of what makes it salvific, and we are left with those bits which seem nice, digestible, what is couched in terms of ‘suitable for children’. Just as children are sheltered from the reality of death in our culture, they are sheltered from the one thing that can transform death from a thing of fear, dread and crushing emptiness.

And having expunged this from their early formation it will always be an ‘extra’, an add on to what has been laid as the foundation. And without the foundation embracing death, Christianity becomes a facile gloss, and the whole spiritual, theological and moral edifice which Christianity has built upon it will crumble to dust, as indeed it has.


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