All Souls Day

For those of us who believe in universal reconciliation and apocatastasis, today, All Souls Day, just might be our defining holy day. Theologically speaking.

Yesterday, November 1st, was All Saints Day, the day when we remember the "faithful departed" now in heaven. We remember these saints as spiritual examples and as sources of encouragement for our own journey. They are where we want to be. They are who we want to be.

Today, November 2nd, is All Souls Day, a holy day linked with All Saints. Specifically, on All Saints we remember the saints who have attained to the Beatific Vision (what we often call "heaven"). On All Souls we remember the saints who dwell in torment because they have fallen short of attaining the Beatific Vision. These saints are undergoing a time of purification in purgatory. However, prayers and good deeds done in the name of these saints is believed to shorten their time in torment. This is what we do on All Souls, pray for those in torment to hasten their purification. From the Catholic Encyclopedia:

The theological basis for the feast is the doctrine that the souls which, on departing from the body, are not perfectly cleansed from venial sins, or have not fully atoned for past transgressions, are debarred from the Beatific Vision, and that the faithful on earth can help them by prayers, almsdeeds and especially by the sacrifice of the Mass.
All Souls was established by St. Odilo of Cluny at his abbey of Cluny. The legend goes that one night the monks at Cluny took in a pilgrim returning from the Holy Land. While at the abbey the visitor told the monks a curious story. On a ship heading home from the Holy Land the pilgrim told of a storm that wrecked his boat on a desolate island. There on the island the pilgrim met a hermit who told him that there was a deep crack in the rocks of the island. This crack was so deep one could hear, if you listened, the continuous groans of the tortured souls in purgatory. One night, while listening at the crack, the hermit overheard demons whispering deep in the bowels of hell that the prayers of the faithful could shorten the time a soul was in torment in purgatory. More, of all these prayers the demons expressed fear and admiration for the prayers of the monks of Cluny. The prayers of Cluny, the demons said, were the most powerful prayers in rescuing souls from hell.

Obviously, the monks of Cluny were excited to hear this news about the efficacy of their prayers. Consequently, from that day on, praying for the souls in purgatory became a large part of Cluny monastic life. Eventually, this practice of praying for the souls in purgatory spread throughout Europe and became incorporated into the liturgical calendar as All Souls Day.

Now to be clear, All Souls Day doesn't endorse universal reconciliation. The idea is to pray for the faithful departed. But there are three things about All Souls Day that resonate with those who subscribe to the vision of universal reconciliation.

First, the key theological notion involved in All Souls Day is the key theological notion behind universalism: Post-mortem sanctification. The whole notion of purgatory is the natural theological response to the logical, moral, biblical, theological, and missional problems associated with the belief in an eternal binary outcome that is fixed at the point of death. So while purgatory isn't the same thing as universal reconciliation it is motivated by the same suite of theological issues.

Second, in Latin American countries All Souls Day has expanded to include all of the dead. Prayers are offered on Día de los Muertos for all the departed, not just the faithful. In this we see an evolution within All Souls Day where the scope of salvation is generalized to all souls. Universalists would be sympathetic to this development in the celebration of All Souls.

Finally, the deep motive behind All Souls is hope. We are asked to pray today for the salvation of souls long or recently departed. I have no idea if our prayers will be as effective as the prayers of Cluny. Or if they will be effective at all. Regardless, the prayers represent a hope. It was the great theologian Karl Barth who said that he couldn't be sure if universalism was true but that it was every Christian's obligation to hope for it to be true.

Today, then, through my prayers for All Souls, I fulfill that obligation.

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5 thoughts on “All Souls Day”

  1. Why would prayer on behalf of the dead be a problem? Are we not called upon to pray for our enemies? Sanity and contemporaniety have little to do for whom we pray. I even pray for my late mother-in-law.


  2. What an intriguing and thought-provoking article (yet again!!!)
    I have long held the notion behind the Barth quote without actually knowing that he'd said it. What a warmth and openness and sense of exploration Barth exemplifies - in my humble opinion, his attitude here is spot on and one that I always seek to aspire to. To not know something is more than okay, as long as one is open to ANY possible answer, wherever that answer might take us... It's certainly an edgy way to do theology but also an exhilirating ride for those of us willing to live it out...

    Am I alone in becoming just a little bit addicted to this blog?

  3. Whoahhhh wait a minute!!!!! As if universal reconciliation isn't heresy enough, we are now venturing into the realms of Mormons, taking 1 Cor. 15:29 as a Biblical basis for baptism of the dead? If one closely reads this verse in its context, Paul is in no way advocating the spurious practice of baptizing for the dead which has no effect; rather, he is using a rhetorical question to make a point in defense of the resurrection (i.e., if you do not believe in the resurrection, "Why do you baptize for the dead?").

  4. A good article to read that provides a very basic explanation of my previous post is found at the following site:

  5. I should also correct my post in that Paul's wording of his question is not "Why do you" (referring to the believers of Corinth).." but is "Why do they" (referring to pagans who practiced baptism for the dead). A close look at the Greek and Paul's usage of the verb that implies a third person plural pronoun ("they") makes this clear though many English translations do not.

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