Wednesday 28 November 2012

Keeping souls happy, by K. M. Grant

Every All Souls Day, my family gathers together and prays for all the dead relations.  We're Catholic, so that's a lot of relations.  Mass is said in the chapel at Towneley Hall, our family home until 1902, when a dearth of male descendants caused my great great aunt to upsticks and sell the place for a song.  When my family gathered itself together again, since they couldn't live at Towneley they chose to live in the house previously allotted to the agent who looked after the estate.  Where the agent went, I don't know, but I doubt he was particularly sorry to move from a house memorably, if unkindly, described by my grandmother as a 'suburban villa on a bleak hillside'.  Certainly, the ancient peculiarities of house in which I was brought up hardly make it an Ideal Home - when we were little, more water came through the ceilings than out of the taps.  Thanks to my father, though, it does have a wonderful garden coaxed from from the surrounding fields.  Anyhow, the Burnley Corporation (as it then was) who bought Towneley and turned into a museum and art gallery, eventually allowed us to hear Mass there once a year.
the altar at Towneley, ready for our All Souls Mass

To non-Catholics, Catholics' obsession with the dead seems gloomy and macabre.   But preoccupation with the condition of the dead predates Catholicism by many thousands of years.   Why else did the Neanderthals bury their dead with tools and animal bones, if not to assist them on their way?  Praying for the dead is similar assistance, although for the soul rather than the body, and it's been Catholic practice to have Mass said for the souls of the faithful departed since at least the 8th century.

Catholics are keen on souls.  They're also keen on reparation for sin, hence the doctrine of Purgatory, formally defined in 1274, but connected to the ancient Jewish belief of purification after death.  Purgatory is the place where, unless you've been ludicrously good all your life, you atone for your sins before slipping gratefully into Heaven.

What a load of nonsense, you might say.  You may be right.  But understanding even the most apparently nonsensical religious practices (and this isn't nearly the most nonsensical, if you're on the lookout for nonsense) is vital to understanding how we are all shaped.  Historical novelists need to be careful.  It's fine to show that, for example, people in 14th century Europe disliked religion in the form of priests and bishops, but it would be wrong to remove their healthy respect for God, Heaven, Hell and Purgatory.   It wasn't tradition that had them pray for the dead or build chantry chapels for perpetual intercession:   the driving force was the need to get the relations into Heaven asap and by doing so to ensure your own swift passage in due course.   Call them silly if you want. Call them superstitious if you must.  But Catholics' care for the dead was neither silly nor superstitious; they believed, and still believe profoundly, that the dead need us and we need them.

I am not a good Catholic.  In many ways, I'm barely a Catholic at all - it goes in phases and I'm currently in a 'no' phase.  Nevertheless, when I see the Whalley vestments, brought to Towneley during the dissolution of the monasteries;  when I pass through the oak door bearing the initials of John and Mary Towneley, married in 1556;  and when I kneel in front of the sixteenth century altar in the house of my ancestors, I feel challenged.  Do I really know better than them?  And so what if I do?  Isn't praying for the dead better than not praying for them?

After we've done the Dead, we have breakfast in the servants' dining room.  That, far more than the continuation of the All Souls Mass, would cause surprise.  'Good Heavens!' the spectral relations might well exclaim.  'The servants' dining room?  What the hell are you doing in there?'


Pauline Chandler said...

Thank you for this lovely post. It was exciting to read such a personal account, with a direct connection to the past, especially as it chimes with my current w-i-p!Towneley sounds wonderful.

H.M. Castor said...

Wonderful post. And not remotely silly, any of it. Thought provoking, awe inspiring. What a wonderful thing, to have such strong tangible (as well as spiritual) connections to your ancestors. I envy that!

Sue Bursztynski said...

I agree with Helen, it must be inderful to have that connection with the past, to be able to visit the place where your ancestors lived hundreds of years ago.

And it's very good to learn still more about the way people thought in the past(as well as now) - I have read too many historical fantasy novels in which the importance of religion was left out because some writer thought they could just use the costumes and the scenery to build their worlds.

K.M.Grant said...

Thank you very much for these lovely comments. A visceral connection with the past is wonderful, yet at times can feel quite burdensome. Keeping up with the Ancestors has aspects of Keeping up with the Jones's about it. I feel another blog coming on. Next month!

Theresa Breslin said...

Coming late to this one but lots of resonance here. The altar is magnificent - surely worth a whole other Blog?