Walking along Fourth Avenue here in Whitehorse the day before yesterday, I met a friend whom I hadn’t seen for awhile.
Our chance passing offered a few curbside minutes to catch up with each other and with news of mutual acquaintances. She told me that old friends who had formerly lived up on the Pelly River near Fort Selkirk had visited from Outside in August while I was away travelling.
Fortunately, she noted, that our friends had had the chance to see another of their longtime friends just days before his sudden death. It was the first news I had of this loss in our community. In the busy round of daily activities I guess that I just hadn’t noticed one less familiar face in my local tableau.
His occasional greeting on the street or shared moment at some public gathering were part of the blend of interaction that enrich and provide meaning in that most essential element of our human existence: community.
With the last lettuce coming out of my garden a week ago Thursday and arrival of serious snow, winter seems now having settled in. The rapidly fading daylight dashes any lingering hope we might have entertained of clinging for a few weeks more to our vernal illusions. Our liturgical and civil calendars both seem to be pull us, as well, towards recognition of another essential fact of human existence: our mortality.
All Saints’ Day on November 1st, then All Souls’ Day on November 2 are, of course, followed by Remembrance Day on November 11. This need to remember our dead and our own mortal limits runs deep in our shared experience. The earliest records in the Christian tradition of an All Martyrs commemoration take us back over 1,700 years.
While the Orthodox and Eastern Catholics celebrate All Saints’ Day in the spring a couple of weeks after Easter, the Western Christian tradition places it on November 1. This custom dates from the 8th century. Some historians peg the actual choice of this date with the desire of church officials to replace the Celtic celebration of Samhain. For the Celts this day also celebrated endings and remembered the dead. Syncretism, the blending or reconciliation of potentially conflicting religious beliefs, has long been part of our human way.
We need to remember loved ones whom we have lost. We also need to tell the stories of those of our ancestors who lived exemplary lives — lives that move us, lives that inspire us. There is a danger, however, that the lives of the saints can immobilize us. We can put them on a pedestal.
Proclaiming lives as extraordinary can allow us an easy way out, too easily accepting the impossibility of emulating them in any real, contemporary way. For this reason Dorothy Day (1897-1980), called a saint during her own lifetime for her determined defence of the poor, hungry and homeless and her militant non-violent stances in support of many social justice and peace causes, clearly said “Don’t call me a saint!”
She knew that we all have the same potential within us. We can reach beyond ourselves in service and sacrifice for others and our community. By remembering, those in our own personal pantheons of saints, maybe we can also look around us now and recognize those among us who are currently calling on us to reach beyond our grasp.
The Yukon Anti-Poverty Coalition will be holding its AGM on Thursday, November 6 at 5:30 p.m. in the old Legion Hall at 306 Alexander with a finger-food potluck followed by the meeting at 6 and a guest speaker, Adam Spence from the Ontario Association of Food Banks at 7 p.m. All are welcome. For more information call 334-9317.
Michael Dougherty is co-chair of the social justice committee of Sacred Heart Cathedral of Whitehorse.