Our Heavenly Friends
Have you ever wondered, or heard it asked by others, whether our departed loved ones know what is happening to us, and how we are feeling, as we continue on the life-long journey of grief?
St John Henry Newman would reply with a definitive “Yes”. The risen Christ is able to be everywhere on earth and he gathers up those who have died and carries them with him; always. Therefore, Newman says:
We naturally love places which remind us of friends; and sights and sounds (and scents) change in our estimate of them by our associating them with those we love – and thus pain loses its acuteness, and bereavement its heartache, and worldly anxiety no longer dries up the spirit, when we by faith regard them as memorials of Him who once was a man of sorrows for us and acquainted with grief. (Sermons, 1824-1843, Vol II, p.183).
Newman taught that all created things can leads us to encounter Christ and the faithful departed who have died in Him. We can, therefore, be said to ‘meet’ them with, through and in Him – because of his incarnation, redemption, resurrection, ascension and the sending of the spirit at Pentecost. When shaping his ideas, Newman acknowledged Joseph Butler’s writings on religious metaphor, John Keble’s poetic Christian Year and the Alexandrian Fathers. The emerging influence of what is known as his sacramental principle, can be seen in a series of observations he makes after the death of his youngest sister Mary: “Here every thing reminds me of her. She was with us at Oxford, and I took a delight in showing her the place – and every building, every tree, seems to speak of her. I cannot realize that I shall never see her again.” (Autobiographical Writings, p.213). Newman also shares with Jemima that: “Dear Mary seems in every tree and hid behind every hill. What a veil and curtain this world of sense is! Beautiful but still a veil.” (Letters and Diaries Vol II, p.43).
The Oratorian scholar Louis Bouyer comments:
And this invisible world is essentially a world of personal presences. Therefore it is by a linking of person with person that we come to it. Thus, Mary is now a supernatural guide. Here on earth she was loved with a love that was stronger than death; therefore, now, when she has passed beyond the veil, she is not lost to the hearts that cherished her but draws them on to follow her to the place where she abides. Thus is memory, quickening like a seed through which life has forced a mysterious passage, raised to the level of a mystical experience. (Newman, His Life and Spirituality, p.107).
Newman highlighted the importance of uniting ourselves with the Angels, Saints and the faithful departed through prayer and the celebration of Mass. He placed memorial cards of friends and family all over the wall of his private chapel beside the altar. He pointed out that it is the role of our loved ones to intercede before God for us. It follows that we ought to take note of how we are being helped, as well as requesting further assistance from them. Six years before his own death, Newman writes to Mrs Maxwell-Scott on the loss of her brother-in-law and uncle:
You have indeed accumulated sorrows. One’s consolation under such trials, which are our necessary lot here, is that we have additional friends in heaven to plead and interest themselves for us. This I am confident of – if it is not presumptuous to be confident – but I think, as life goes on, it will be brought home to you, as it has been to me, that there are those who are busied about us, and in various daily matters taking our part. (Letters and Diaries XXX, p.67).
I find Newman’s insights very consoling in my own grief. He captures the essence of his teaching in a letter to James Stewart, a recent widower, whose daughter has just passed away, when he says: “Yet you have not lost her. She has joined her Mother in heaven, to watch over you all and to bring you to her.” (Letters and Diaries XXIII, p.318).
This is the cherished vocation of our loved ones too.
Fr. Peter Conley