How quickly the sunny days of summer seem to have fled, leaving us to a period when, in the words of the poet Walter Scott (of the northern hemisphere):
November’s sky is chill and clear,
November’s leaf is red and sear.
Some of us may recall Thomas Wood’s unkind description of the month:
No Park – no Ring – no afternoon gentility –
No company – no nobility –
No warmth – no cheerfulness, no healthful ease,
No comfortable feel in any member –
No shade, no shine, no butterflies, no bees,
No fruits, no flowers, no leaves, no birds –
Yet, this is also the month when, (this year) Hindus celebrate their festival of light, and Sikhs will be remembering two of their gurus.
People remember the names and deeds of great ones on whom we have records: historical, anecdotal, or legendary. But beyond the known personages of eminence there have been, in all cultures, many individuals, modest perhaps in their recognized accomplishments, but deserving to be remembered no less for their thoughts and deeds.
One way of remembering them is by dedicating a day to all worthy people. This is one way of interpreting All Saints Day which is observed on November 1 by the Roman Catholic and Anglican Churches. It dates back to more than a thousand years: this remembrance of the countless martyrs and saints, known and unknown, who lived in the Christian world. In the tradition, one pays homage to God for those precious lives which exemplified some of the best elements in the human potential and expressed the capacity for self-sacrifice for a cause.
In an extended sense, all who toil lifelong for the common good with more pain than personal benefit may be looked upon as saints; all who show extraordinary compassion and kindness, humility and empathy for the suffering of others, and whose lives enrich and enhance the well-being of others, are saints too. So, whether Catholic or Anglican, Christian or otherwise, we can all pause for a moment in reverence for our fellow humans who have been martyrs and saints in this extended meaning of the word.
In the first decade of the seventh century, the Pantheon in Rome was consecrated to Sanctae Mariae et Martyres. In the next century, Pope Gregory III made a special chapel in St. Peter’s where the relics of all martyrs were kept, and “for all the just made perfect who are at rest throughout the world.” This is one of the few inclusive statements from the Catholic Church, for it does not explicitly exclude Non-Christians, reminding one of the Vedic prayer loká samastaa sukhino bhavantu: May the whole world be happy!
The word martyr is not etymologically related in any way to death. It originally meant “a witness who testifies to a fact of which he has knowledge from personal experience.” It is in this sense that the original Apostles of Christ were the first martyrs. In an extended sense again, all those who have had profound and genuine spiritual experience are martyrs, whether or not they belong to the Christian tradition. From this perspective we may regard All Saints Day as a day to remember the worthy souls from all over the world.