Wednesday, November 4, 2009

All Souls Day

I have a new hobby. Or at least, a relatively new hobby. It's a hobby that I've been able to combine with my interests in photography and history. It's also a hobby that when I tell people about it some are perplexed, some cringe, and I'm sure a few wonder what must be going on in my head. My hobby is hanging around in cemeteries. Let me explain…

It all started a few years ago when my friend Peggy told me how she and her husband Joe had visited the ruins of a Catholic Church in the Patapsco State Park. I was intrigued and after finding out how to get there I went hiking in the park one day to look for the ruins. I found them where the church was originally built more than a century ago, on a hill overlooking the Patapsco River. At one time it was known as St. Stanislaus Kotska Catholic Church, and it served a community of textile workers at the mill complex on the river near Ellicott City. Over the years as the mill's fortunes waned Hurricane Agnes finally drove the last of the people from the area. The church itself had burned in 1926 after being struck by lightning, and a newer structure was unfortunately built closer to the river, and in the path of flooding, as was the rest of the town.

I enjoy visiting the church again and again, just sitting there within the crumbling walls on a quiet day and meditating or praying. I was fascinated with the way others that visited the church would occasionally leave prayers written on pieces of paper and wedged into the walls of the ruins. Someone even set up a small altar of sorts set up in a corner - a prayer space with candles and other written prayers and objects left behind. But what also fascinated me was the cemetery.

Just above the church on the hill is a small cemetery. For the most part the stones are well-worn and barely readable. A few have fallen over, either as the land has shifted over time or vandals have forced them over. It saddened me that there was this little forgotten plot in the state park. And so when I visited I would say a prayer for those whose earthly remains rested there.

I became particularly interested in one particular stone, a stone that seemed to have an interesting image on it that I couldn't quite make out. I took photos of it, did charcoal rubbings, but still couldn't determine what the image was. So I decided that perhaps the thing to do would be to go to other cemeteries in the area and see if I could find a similar stone from the same era.

Since then I have spent many quiet and enjoyable days strolling around cemeteries in the Baltimore area. My favorite is New Cathedral, the Catholic cemetery near my parish. I love walking around and looking at the stones and the statues that go back a few hundred years. I've enjoyed learning about the famous buried there - four Hall of Fame baseball players (the most of any cemetery in the country); Mother Mary Lange, founder of the Oblate Sisters of Providence and who appears to be on her way to sainthood; a conspirator in the Lincoln assassination; actors, politicians, priests and religious. There are at least two bishops buried there and literally hundreds of priests and religious order nuns. And the people - people of faith, people each with a story.

I began photographing many stones and statuary and learning about cemetery iconography, understanding what the symbols and imagery on the markers represent. I always enjoy finding yet another stone for a priest, often with an image of the Eucharist carved into it. I'm always saddened by the markers for children. There's one in particular from the early 20th century commemorating three young children that passed away over a period of about five months - I would assume from some illness that swept through the family. And I often say a short prayer for those that have gone before and have been remembered in such poignant ways.

When I decided to become Catholic someone I knew argued that one of the things wrong with the Catholic Church was that we pray for the dead. They said it was not scriptural and a waste of time since the fate of the dead was predetermined. I don't believe that. I told the person that saying prayers for the dead was a waste is really putting human limits on God. We think in a linear fashion - that what's past is gone and what is in the future just hasn't come yet. But God is not linear. God is totality. God is beginning and end and everything in between. And our prayers for those that have gone before us or even those yet to come are all heard by God, all considered by God, all experienced in the totality that is God.

A few months ago I came across a stone that really excited me. Excited me because it was quite discernible and appeared to match that stone in Patapsco State Park that had been a mystery to me. And I've only seen this one stone like it. The stone is an image of heaven, with steps leading up to the gates. The gates are open, and through them flies a dove, a symbol of hope and peace. Throughout the history of our faith we have offered prayers for those that have gone before. Those that gave us life. Those that handed down the faith from generation to generation. All Souls Day is a time when we can remember those people and offer our prayers for them. But not just on All Souls Day, but any day. Any time we happen to think of it, any time we may find ourselves walking around a cemetery on a crisp autumn afternoon. Any time we think of that vision of the gates of heaven opening to welcome us, that we may all be united in the warm embrace of God's eternal love.

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