roamin' catholic: karin rosner

All Souls’ Day: Breath and Death

Posted on: November 2, 2011

I’ve been having trouble breathing over the last couple of days. I had a tumble on Sunday’s ice, and managed to pull a muscle in my diaphragm. Deep breathing hurts, yawning is excruciatingly painful, and coughing makes me want to scream, but screaming and singing are really impossible right now without the ability to really take in the oxygen those activities need. I’m slowed down, taking escalators and elevators instead of climbing the stairs. My long walks are on hiatus. As I quickly type this entry, I’m riding the local bus instead of walking uphill to the Subway station. I am slowing down every move I make, acutely aware of every breath. At least my asthma is behaving itself: no wheezing, only comical pain. It is getting better; I am not going to die from this.

It’s All Souls’ Day and as I frustratedly try to breathe like a normal living human being, part of my day will involve dealing with living souls with severely damaged lungs. I help answer the phone lines that you see advertised on TV: “Have you been diagnosed with Mesothelioma or Asbestos-related Lung Cancer? Call our law firm now…” Some of these souls are still with us; some have passed one and their loved ones are calling in. Survivors have had their breath knocked out of them, their souls are often crumpled and gasping for air, seeking comfort from anywhere. One person dear to me is in the beginning of the Battle for the Breath that’s part of Mesothelioma. He came home from the hospital yesterday after a little bit of surgery and exploration.

All Souls’ Day asks some important theological questions that the triumphant strains of All Saints’ Day can push aside. Halloween pokes fun of death and the fear of our demise, but All Souls’ takes our lives and our final demise very seriously. Many Christians have completely done away with the Roman Catholic teaching about Purgatory (necessary punishment for sins that eventually ends in a welcome fully into God’s presence in heaven: human souls are purged and cleansed of faults and made perfect to enter into the Perfect ) but the question about what happens to us when we die lingers around our collective religious imagination. The simplest idea is that our bodies fall asleep in the created world and our souls wake up in Heaven and see Jesus. We instantly attain Heaven because his death on the cross accomplished what teachings on Purgatory suggest – Jesus paid it all, took all of the punishment for all of our sins upon himself. Some Christians teach that we are asleep in Christ until we rise again with him in his glorious return: what happens to each one of us between the moment of physical death and the last trumpet blast on the Universe’s historical timeline is a mystery. When my mother died, my friend and pastor offered up an evangelical version of Purgatory: those who fall asleep in Christ wake up to discover gradually more and more about who God is, moving from glory into glory.

My great grandmother died in the first decade of the twentieth century, when my grandmother was very young. Great-Grandmother Maria was a daily mass goer in the Old Country. She apparently was done-in by an asthma attack in the snow on her way to morning Mass. My grandmother’s story about this haunts me, having those moments myself where I’m furiously digging through my purse for my rescue inhaler when my chest feels tight. I doubt my devout Catholic ancestors in Slovenia and Austria would ever have heard of the Biblical Hebrew term in the Old Testament for the Breath of God, “Ruach Elohim”. My GGM was devout for a reason besides Catholic guilt. It’s the Spirit of God, breathing in us that draws us to Christ by any means necessary. It’s God’s breath that frees us from death, keeping our spiritual lungs and hearts breathing and working in a world that can crush our chests and break our hearts. Christ’s promised spirit of himself, The Holy Spirit, is our life line, our comfort and our CPR when our heartbeats misfire. In our living in Christ, he comforts us. In our dying he leads us to himself, however long it takes, however it happens. We live with the mystery of death, and the Holy Spirit breathes into us the inspired gift of Faith that Jesus has it all covered. We’ve been given the gift of eternal life and we do not need to be afraid. We’ll get to the only “there” that matters, and worship God in glory with all of the saints who have gone on before us, including my maternal ancestors. All Souls’ Day is time to remember the Comforter who breathes into us and helps us recall this promise.

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