Remember the Holy Souls at Mealtime
by Jeff Young
November ushers in the end of the year, the end of the season of autumn and, as it turns out, the end of the Church’s liturgical year. Each year in November the Church celebrates the consummation — the end — of its liturgical year with the Solemnity of Christ the King. That solemnity focuses our attention on the end goal, the final purpose of life, which is Christ. As the Book of Revelation notes in chapter 19, all of creation is moving toward the goal of all goals: the wedding feast of the Lamb.
November has also been traditionally dedicated by the Church to the holy souls in purgatory. The holy souls. The faithful departed. It makes sense, doesn’t it? The season changes from autumn to winter, the winds chill us to the bone, and the leaves brown and fall and wither away, leaving only the skeleton of the tree visible to us. Nature itself gives us a clear reminder of death. And the Church joins in, pointing us toward death and — beyond death — to the life that is to come.
At first glance, it might seem odd to focus on death. I mean, we are heading into the holiday season, right? Well, yes, we are. But in the grand scheme of things, we are all heading toward death, too.
And according to ancient Greek philosophers — and saints and sages throughout the ages — it is good for us to be mindful of our own death. It helps us to live a better life.
Remember your death
Just ask Sr. Theresa Aletheia Noble, FSP. Over the last couple of years, she has nurtured a growing movement of people trying to take up the ancient practice of remembering one’s death on a daily basis. Using the hashtag #MementoMori (Latin for “remember your death”), she started sharing her own personal devotion with folks on social media and has since published a Lenten devotional book and a companion journal to aid us in making Memento Mori a daily practice.
As Sr. Theresa says on her website PursuedbyTruth.com:
Reflecting on death is not a morbid affair; it is a healthy and often healing practice that helps us accept the inevitable with hope. The eternal life promised in Jesus Christ is our ultimate, hoped-for end. Embracing the reality of death helps us live a better life now. In the light and strength of Christ, it helps us.
I escaped childhood, adolescence, and my teenage years without being touched by death. No one close to me died all those years. It wasn’t until my mid-20s that death came near, and it came seemingly in rapid succession. First an uncle. Then a grandparent. Then two more grandparents. It was jarring. I had seen death before, but not this close.
While in the seminary in Mexico with Mother Teresa’s priests, I saw four bodies over a two-year period. Three of them I saw shortly after they passed. The fourth was at a wake. I was asked to accompany one of our priests as he visited the family of the deceased at the wake. I remember him preparing me for what I would see as we walked the dirt road to a neighboring village.
The priest explained that in the area of Mexico where we lived, the custom was to have the wake at the deceased’s home, not in the funeral parlor. He said, “It can be unsettling if you have never seen it before. … But the family lays the body out on the dining room table during the wake.”
I didn’t believe him. It made no sense to me. But when we arrived at the house, I found out that he was telling me the truth. The deceased was the patriarch of the family. He was tall. I noted how his boots hung off the end of the table. I kept thinking, But they eat at that table. It just didn’t compute for me. And I couldn’t stop looking at the body.
Yet even this very unsettling experience was nothing compared to the deaths of my relatives. When someone close to you dies, the fragility of life really hits home. At my uncle’s funeral, I got stuck on the concept of time. I know him. I knew him. Looking into the coffin, I thought, That’s him. … But that’s not him. My heart was moved to pray for him and to pray for all the faithful departed.
When I was a seminarian in Mexico, we had a custom in the house to pray the After Meals prayer together:
We give you thanks, Almighty God, for these and all thy benefits, which we have received from thy bounty, through Christ our Lord. Amen.
Then we would pray the Salve Regina and conclude with the traditional post-Rosary prayer:
May the divine assistance remain always with us. And may the souls of all the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace. Amen.
This was a tradition, a habit, that I eventually brought into my marriage. Both after the Rosary and after the Before Meals blessing, we pray for the holy souls — those we know and those we don’t know. And during the month of November, we pray Rosaries especially for the holy souls, and we have Masses said especially for them. I want to remember those who have gone before us. I want to pray for them. Because one day, not too long from now, I’ll be one of them. And I certainly hope that there will be good people still here (hopefully my children!) who remember and who pray for me, too.
This month, remember your family members (and perhaps friends) who have gone before you. Tell your children stories about their grandparents and great-grandparents. Pray for the holy souls. Mealtime is the perfect time for these conversations and prayers. And perhaps you can serve this side dish with one of your meals: Lebanese green beans. Simple, flavorful, and complements almost any main course. It’s a recipe that has been handed down from one generation to the next. And now I share it with you. Enjoy!
Lebanese Green Beans
✓¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
✓1medium sweet yellow onion, chopped
✓1large clove of garlic, chopped
✓½ cup of water
✓1pound fresh green beans (or 1pound frozen or canned)
✓1can petite diced tomatoes
✓Salt and black pepper, to taste
✓Fresh lemon juice, to taste
To prepare: If using fresh green beans, snip off the ends, string them, and cut into 2-inch lengths. Set aside.
- In a skillet over medium-high heat, sauté the onion in olive oil until golden brown, about 12 to 15 minutes. Add the garlic during the last minute of sautéing.
- Add the green beans and reduce heat to low or medium-low. Cover and allow to steam for 10 minutes, stirring once during that time.
- Add water and petite diced tomatoes to the skillet. Cover again and allow to cook for 20 minutes.
- Taste for seasoning and adjust. Add fresh lemon juice to taste.
NOTE: Can be made without the tomatoes, if desired.