The Feast of All Souls

It was Odilo’s stroke of genius to place his new holiday as the matching bookend of All Saints’. For … there are suffering souls who depend on the ordinary mass of the faithful just as the ordinary mass of the faithful depend on the saints. While it is true that the prayers of the pious monks of Cluny held special power, no prayer by any Christian is useless. Though some are stronger than others, all can pull on the same rope, and every little bit of energy helps the cause. The feast of All Souls became a way for simple and quite unsaintly Christians to reciprocate, to participate in the economy of prayer not just as receivers but as givers.

This is what Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy meant when he claimed that the creation of All Souls’ marked “the first universal democracy in the world.” The saints have special access to God, they are our patrons and friends, but then we too may befriend those departed who in their suffering are very far from God….

The Cluniac vision of all Christians joined in a vast circle of the prayerful, loving and interceding for one another, is a powerful one, especially since, just as there are saints whose spiritual power and even existence are unknown to us, so too there are poor suffering souls in a place of torment whose names equally unknown and who are therefore in particularly dire straits. Thus in the Sarum Primer — a vastly influential collection of liturgical prayers developed at Sarum, near modern Salisbury, in England — there is a poignant “prayer to God for them that be departed, having none to pray for them.” Such poor souls, “either by negligence of them that be living, or long process of time, are forgotten of their friends and posterity”; thus they “have neither hope nor comfort in their torments.”

In societies which place a great emphasis on familial duty, a phrase in that Sarum prayer can be stinging: “by negligence of them that be living.” Thus an anthropologist named Andrew Orta has recently reported on the way All Souls’ Day is practiced among the Aymara people in the Bolivian highlands: they build household altars and pray for all the ancestors whose names they know, and then, when memory fails, they pray for all the unknown ancestors as laqa achachilas — dust grandparents.

— from my book Original Sin: A Cultural History