When he was a teenager, my younger son finished an exciting contemporary book series by hurling the finale at the wall yelling “For that? Seven books, and ten years of my life for that? So all the heroes and heroines could end up just being ordinary? Living boring, ordinary lives?”
His outburst came to mind recently as I was wandering an old local cemetery, as I do sometimes, for the sake of both refreshment and perspective.
Reading the headstones of men, women and children whose lives had long ago become lost to any living person’s memory, I saw names of Civil War “heroes” scattered amid the graves of farmers and shopkeepers and homemakers – mothers of many. Whether heroes or not, to a visitor from the 21st Century they all seemed equal in anonymity. It made me wonder if we should broaden our notions of heroic greatness – even the greatness of the saints — just a little bit.
All Souls Day helps us to do just that. It helps us to realize that there is no reason not to celebrate the dignity and usefulness that comes from being an average and ordinary human being – fully equipped with a soul, and sparked into being by the Creator – and to appreciate the greatness of the ordinary.
It is a simple truth that most people live their lives unknown to all but their immediate family and friends. They die, and in a generation or two they are completely forgotten (except, perhaps, by freaks like me who take rubbings of interesting headstones). Even as they live, they are only regarded as unique or remarkable by those who know them.
But does that mean they are not part of something greater than themselves, and therefore worth recalling with a sense of reverence?
Greatness, of course, is no illusion. There was only one Moses, but it was the whole anonymous gang of average Jews who eventually populated the Promised Land.
There was only one Lincoln, but thousands of average soldiers who lived and died to beat down a great evil.
There was only one Martin Luther King, but another whole anonymous band of average marchers who made the trips to Mobile and to Washington DC and fought for civil rights.
There was only one Elizabeth Ann Seton but thousands of women since her time who have followed her lead in serving wherever needed, as educators, nurses, and more. And these women modeled themselves after a woman who was a wife, a mother, and a teacher, before she was a foundress and a saint.
All those “average” men and women, who sojourned or marched or fought or served, had a degree of nobility to them. It could be found in their principles or their determination or their steadfastness. Nevertheless, they still needed someone with a distinctive edge, with just a tad more “greatness” – usually found in their willingness to be fully consumed, burned unto ciphers for their causes or their God — to unify them in purpose.
And there is absolutely no reason not to recognize that, as we do on national holidays or the feast days of our great saints and certainly as we do on All Saints Day.
After all, there have only been 45 American Presidents in 240 years. There have only been 266 popes in 2000 years. Meanwhile, there have been billions of people who lived and loved and worked and died and whose contributions to the success of the great politicians, the great saints, the great movements go unremembered.
All Souls Day is for them, for the great swath of humanity that is “us” – the ordinary folk who go uncelebrated beyond families and contemporaries. It is connected to All Saints Day not by any liturgical obligation but by the Church’s quite-right reasoning that our spiritual ancestry is marked not only by the staggeringly saintly but also – and necessarily – by the smallness of ordinary faithful, bearing everyday witness to the power and value of the life in Christ.
Because the great and the ordinary need each other to get anything done, whether the aims be secular or sacred. Within the Church, All Souls Day is a time to remember that it is the people in the pews, the “common” souls who help make manifest (and then build on and sustain) the initiatives of the great ones – like the soldiers of a just war, or the front-line marchers of a moral movement, or the self-effacing servants of holy leaders.
And so, on All Souls Day, we remember the ordinary heroes of Catholicism, all unsung – whose graves are rarely if ever visited, and who are seldom brought to memory, yet are amid all the greatness:
- My grandmother – unknown to my children – whose example of living out the faith lingers within them, because I handed it down.
- A religious sister – a daughter of Mother Seton’s – whose biblical retellings held a whole class of second-graders so entranced that years later we still remember them vividly, though the sister herself was just one among many.
- The co-worker whose tossed off scriptural reference put an entire meeting into perspective and thus contributed to a shaky project’s eventual success.
My son threw his book against a wall because he wanted the narrative-movers of his epic adventure to die in order for their saga to have “real meaning.” To his adolescent thinking, a meaningful life needed to highlight a demonstrable cost – it couldn’t mean everyone just went home and cut the grass or did the laundry.
But on All Souls Day, it’s time to remember that once a hero or heroine has shaken things up, and possibly died for the effort, it is the living of countless ordinary lives that keep things going, without glamour or even unusual sacrifice, through steadfast and everyday efforts.
All Souls Day is a good time to walk through an old graveyard, or open up a dusty family album, and remember those who did the thankless work of simply pushing things forward, day-by-day, in small, unremarkable ways. Without them, there is no lasting greatness at all.
ELIZABETH SCALIA is the award-winning author of Strange Gods, Unmasking the Idols in Everyday Life and Little Sins Mean a Lot: Kicking Our Bad Habits Before They Kick You.
This reflection was originally published in 2019.