Heavenly hosts have been described as a great cloud of witnesses. By tradition the word “host” has a military overtone meaning “armies” which the Hebrew translates as Sabaoth in reference to God’s angels, often engaged in battle with Satan and his army. The purpose of combat is to ensure peace and so this heavenly host is likewise on hand to welcome the newborn Child in Luke’s Gospel (Chapter 2:13-14).
And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among men with whom he is pleased’.
These hosts are made up of witnesses and if we trace this word back we discover that “witness” derives from an old English word meaning knowledge or testimony. Today we tend to think of it in its court setting of giving evidence, confirmation or proof of a scene or situation by one who was an on-looker. In its scriptural or religious sense it verifies one’s heroic support by word or example to the life of the divine.
Well, what about the term “cloud”? Have you ever experienced both the light and darkness of clouds? Clouds can sometimes have an eerie light about them and at the same time cast a shadow of darkness on the earth below. When a plane enters the clouds those below on the ground witnessing it lose sight of the plane. Although seemingly invisible the plane, while hidden, is still there.
When the Israelites left Egypt during the Exodus they were covered for protection by a cloud by day and the Egyptians in quick pursuit lost sight of them when the cloud was over them. God unseen, wrapped in a cloud, was protecting His chosen people, leading them on the right path while at the same time confounding their enemies.
By day the LORD went ahead of them in a pillar of cloud to guide them on their way and by night in a pillar of fire to give them light, so that they could travel by day or night. (Ex. 13:21)
The Israelites looking up saw a visible cloud enveloping an invisible Presence protecting and guarding them. God has created a multitude of angelic spirits who are entrusted with the care of the world He has brought into being and with the spiritual protection of His earthly children. But we ourselves must also care for one another both during our lifetime here and in the next world.
Our title would indicate that the heavenly hosts we want to talk about here are not angelic spirits, but nevertheless a real cloud of witnesses of human persons who, while on earth, embraced the Carmelite way of life. Just as the universal Church commemorates November 2nd as the feast of All Souls remembering those persons who have now died and may still be in Purgatory, the Carmelites set aside November 15th for those in their religious family who are still awaiting their entrance into heaven from Purgatory.
Thus the Carmelites here on earth pay tribute to those in the Carmelite family who have gone before them and are now in the final stages of their purification. These souls are now our Heavenly Host. They have been part of our family and we remember them for the witness they gave us on this earth and their continued love, support and protection which they continue to offer us from their special vantage point. While they are no longer in a position to help themselves, they can help us and we can offer them the help that they need.
In the 1st Reading for All Carmelite Souls Liturgy taken from the Letter of St. Paul to the Romans (Ch. 14:7-9, 10c-12) we read:
The life and death of each of us has its influence on others; if we live, we live for the Lord; and if we die, we die for the Lord, so that alive or dead we belong to the Lord.
This influence comes from the human family which provides a seedbed for memories. Whether the immediate family is large or small there is always the extended family of grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins and others. In other words there is a host or multitude of members. In my own family I grew up without siblings but there were always the get-togethers at each other’s homes especially during Thanksgiving and Christmas.
Today it only takes a fall leaf dancing across the lawn or a pumpkin outside someone’s front door to bring back memories of past Thanksgivings with family members. The falling of snow is a reminder of a long-ago Christmas visit to relatives when we bundled up and tracked melted snow into their cozy homes, as well as the smells coming from the kitchen as we entered of cinnamon or cookies baking in the oven.
The family was our earthly cloud of witnesses, normally the first ones who influenced our lives and surrounded us with love, care and concern. Each of us had our ups and downs, our joys and sorrows, our struggles and challenges, our successes and failures. But we had one another and as we grew so did the cloud as it drew in others.
This cloud expanded to include parish, neighborhood, friends, school, teams, occupations, organizations, volunteer groups and many others. Eventually as we moved into adulthood new families were formed through marriage, ordination or consecration into religious life. We expanded our experiences of the past while creating new ones. As this happened the cloud of witnesses became a “host” or multitude.
This multitude also extends back into our family ancestry or heritage. Working on one’s genealogy has become very popular today. Both my parents worked on theirs and I am very fortunate to have a combined copy of both sides of my family tracing my grandparents, great grandparents and ever so great grandparents back in an unbroken line to the late 1500’s by dates of birth, marriage and death and further back by names but without definite dates. This so fascinated me to realize that I had the names of these persons, most of whom I have never met nor know anything personal about them, but nevertheless are part of my family that I charted by months and days their dates of death. I carry this list in my prayer book and check it daily so that if any of my past grandparents may still stand in need of prayer I intercede for them daily. They are my family cloud of witnesses and I am indebted to them for my place in the line of their descendants. I am also convinced that they have a vested interest in me and from their heavenly position, if they are in either Purgatory or Heaven, will love and care for me until such time as I join them.
It is the custom of Carmelites world-wide to not only have a Carmelite All Souls Day but to offer Mass and the Divine Office monthly for the souls of those Carmelites now deceased as well as the deceased members of their relatives and the benefactors of their Carmelite communities.
Would you like to add another Cloud of Witnesses to your sojourn on earth?
Then join us in the special prayer with which we end the Divine Office on those days!
Ternary Monthly Prayer
Father, source of forgiveness and salvation for all mankind, hear our prayer. By the prayers of the ever virgin Mary, may our brethren, relatives and benefactors who have gone from this world, come to share eternal happiness with all Your saints. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, Your Son, who lives and reigns with You in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen