Soul Saturday

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In my early exposure to Orthodoxy, I became intrigued with the term, “Soul Saturday.” My family would visit a monastery not too far away for their annual pilgrimage that occured on one of the weekends of a “Soul Saturday.” This is term from popular parlance, the more proper English title of the event is a “Memorial Saturday.” These are held at a number of times during the year, mostly during Lent. They are days set aside to pray for and remember the departed.

After becoming Orthodox in 1998 these events became supremely important. Our congregation suffered two very unexpected deaths (both in car crashes) in the course of our first two years that left all the devastation that grief can wreak. For a congregation that was young, we were suddenly faced with that which faces the old with great frequency.

Had you told me we would have buried our first member within our first year I would never have thought of the young woman taken from us. But such is our power over our own life. We control virtually nothing.

My first two years as an Orthodox Christian I supported myself by being employed in the local home hospice program. Thus I was no stranger to death. Nor had I been in my last Anglican parish, where I had buried over 100 people in my years there. I knew the power of grief and how helpless people can be when it comes.

Thus it was that “Soul Saturdays” became times of deep importance for me. The population of my grief world was far larger than I would have expected by that time in life – much less with so much that was so fresh in mind.

Praying for the departed, and doing so with such frequency was easily a part of the Tradition of the Church that seemed not only wise, but so totally essential. I was no stranger to prayers for the departed (I had always prayed for the departed as an Anglican). But never had I prayed so much with such fervency.

The bright sorrow of the Russian tune, “Memory Eternal,” that closes a memorial service took up a place in my heart that no other song will ever have. I do couple it with “Christ is risen from the dead,” lest I be lost in my own grief.

But in a world where so little is remembered (already the deaths of 911 are more a matter of political football than memorials) it is of supreme comfort that the Church pauses these many Soul Saturdays and says: “Remember.” And not only to us but to God, “May their memory be eternal.”

There is no purgatorial teaching in Orthodoxy, just the simple assurance that our prayers “are of benefit” to those who have died. Of this I have no doubt. But I also know just how great the benefit is for those who are still remembering from here.

Grief is strange stuff. I was taught, when I was doing hospice work, that each grief is really every grief. That one small grief will open up the vast pool of grief that lies within us. Thus none of us is ever just grieving one person or event. Blessedly, it is all in the hands of the good God who loves mankind and who Himself bore our grief.

Tonight I will have gathered in the Church to sing Vespers, and to offer the memorial service. To hear again, “Memory eternal,” and know that there is a deep promise at the heart of our prayer, a promise that was ratified at the resurrection of Christ.

I know as well, that our feeble prayers here are nothing like the mighty chorus that ascends to God from those who have gone before us and remember and pray for us. That “great cloud of witnesses” sustains the living though we too easily forget this. Memory Eternal for us all, until the battle is done and everything has found its rest.

It is this kind of rhythm, found in the liturgical life of Orthodoxy, that has been lost from so much of Christianity, where the grief is certainly as great. I know that I could not bear the weight of all I remember were I not able to stand with others and pray God’s eternal remembrance. There are times as an Orthodox Christian that I am not just grateful for the grace God has given, but wonder how I ever lived without it.

8 comments:

  1. I spent 6 years with the Greeks. Though it was never said explicitly in my parish, the prayers for the deceased stayed limited to those that were Orthodox. My godson will be graduating from Holy Cross seminary, and he tends to stay away from prayers for other than those that reposed Orthodox.

    I’m of a totally different mindset. I pray for anybody, alive or deceased, heretic or Orthodox. When anybody dies, I pray that God will forgive any sins they may have failed to repent of and unite them to Himself. I just don’t see God as limited to not being able to forgive somebody if He so chooses. I have become quite the optimist on the salvation of individuals (which is why I am quite fond of St. Gregory of Nyssa), as opposed to what a pessimist I was as an evangelical. Any thoughts on the subject?

  2. Father, I hope to make it to tomorrow’s liturgy…Hope to, but it will be hard. Tomorrow marks 11 years since our Sweet Baby Seth was taken from us.

    How wonderfully ironic that it falls to this day so often before we enter the Lenten period?

    But I still find it a day that leaves me quite undone and in Liturgy I can feel his presence and prayers for us more often. It is a bittersweet pain and one I have to brace myself for to be public with.

    I feel like the Rich Man in the parable of Jesus and Lazarus. Wishing to cross a chasm that I can feel open during liturgy. Knowing that only my sins and my skin keep me bound here….

    For now.

    Please keep my in your prayers.

  3. “I spent 6 years with the Greeks. Though it was never said explicitly in my parish, the prayers for the deceased stayed limited to those that were Orthodox. My godson will be graduating from Holy Cross seminary, and he tends to stay away from prayers for other than those that reposed Orthodox.”

    Yes, I know of this practice – not only among the Greeks but among other Orthodox Christians, too. So it is with some hesitancy that I wonder and ask if at Memorial prayers this evening at my parish I may even ask to include the names of my parents who were not Orthodox but who were, nonetheless, devout in their own Christian tradition. Is this done?

  4. When I was first looking into Orthodoxy, there was one day where I was overcome with pity for a German philosopher (long dead) that I’d been reading since I was a freshman in college. I felt I knew this man, since I had read almost all of his stuff, both published and unpublished.

    Yet he was a complete heretic. He might have had good intentions, but his basic unwillingness to be humbled undid him later in life as he went crazy. I journeyed with him several years, nursing my own resentment, fears, and regrets in his writings as I desperately looked for freedom in the wrong places.

    So this one day I was just filled with pity for this dead white guy, and I prayed for his soul. In this life he probably would have hated that, but I hope to think maybe he can appreciate it now.

  5. Fr. Papa,

    Most assuredly, you never lived without the grace of God. Its that “dark figure that moves from tree to tree” (to quote the back of a Flannery O’Connor book)– following you everywhere– sometimes whether you want it or not!

    To those wondering whether they should submit non-orthodox names for remembrance. Surely it is only a deception that would ever keep us from remembering those who have died, no matter the state in which they died. You will run into people who will tell you that it is “unorthodox” to remember the dead who are not orthodox, but in fact, they aren’t being orthodox at all! All who have died deserve our prayers. And God’s grace is unlimited.

    Memory Eternal!

  6. It is a common practice among the Orthodox (at least in America) to remember any who have died. How can we not pray for someone? I’m aware of the other practice, but I pray for all. If I am wrong, may God teach me otherwise – but I rarely think it’s wrong to act in mercy and kindness.

    God alone knows the state of hearts. I pray, and God takes care of the rest.

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