Soul Saturday – And Forty Days

IMG_1007In my early exposure to Orthodoxy, I became intrigued with the term, “Soul Saturday.” My family would visit an Orthodox monastery not too far away from here for their annual pilgrimage that occured on one of the weekends of a “Soul Saturday.” This is term from popular parlance – the more proper English title of the event is a “Memorial Saturday.” These occur at a number of times during the year, mostly during Lent. They are days set aside to pray for and remember the departed.

After becoming Orthodox in 1998 these Memorial Saturdays became supremely important in my life. Our congregation suffered two very unexpected deaths (both in car crashes) in the course of our first two years that left all the devastation that grief can wreak. For a congregation that was young, we were suddenly faced with that which faces the old with great frequency.

Had you told me we would have buried our first member within our first year I would never have thought of the young woman taken from us. But such is our power over our own life. We control virtually nothing.

My first two years as an Orthodox Christian I supported myself by being employed in the local home hospice program. Thus I was no stranger to death. Nor had I been in my last Anglican parish, where I had buried over 100 people in my years there. I knew the power of grief and how helpless people can be when it comes.

Thus it was that “Soul Saturdays” became times of deep importance for me. The population of my “grief world” was far larger than I would have expected by that time in life. Praying for the departed, and doing so with such frequency was a part of the Tradition of the Church that seemed in my first introduction – not only wise, but completely essential. I was no stranger to prayers for the departed (I had always prayed for the departed as an Anglican). But never had I prayed so much with such fervency.

The bright sorrow of the Russian tune, “Memory Eternal,” that closes a memorial service, took up a place in my heart that no other song will ever have. I often couple it with “Christ is risen from the dead,” lest I be lost in my own grief.

But in a world where so little is remembered it is of supreme comfort that the Church pauses these many Soul Saturdays and says: “Remember.” And not only to us but to God, “May their memory be eternal.”

There is no purgatorial teaching in Orthodoxy,  just the simple assurance that our prayers “are of benefit” to those who have died. Of this I have no doubt. But I also know just how great the benefit is for those who are still remembering from here.

Grief is strange stuff. I was taught, when I was doing hospice work, that each grief is really every grief – that one small grief will open up the vast pool of grief that lies within us. Thus none of us is ever just grieving one person or event. Blessedly, it is all in the hands of the good God who loves mankind and who Himself bore our grief.

This weekend (on the New Calendar) is the weekend of a Soul Saturday, according to Russian usage. Saturday also happens to be the 40th day of my mother’s passing – an event that is always marked with a memorial service. Something is completed and something begun in that mystical number of forty days. I bought flowers today for this evening’s service, and immediately remembered the many occasions on which I gave my mother flowers (or failed to). And the tears of 40 days greeted the thought.

Tonight (Friday) I will have gathered in the Church to sing Vespers, and to offer the memorial service. In the morning we will offer the Divine Liturgy for the blessed repose of those who have gone before. We will sing again “Memory eternal,” and know that there is a deep promise at the heart of our prayer, a promise that was ratified at the resurrection of Christ.

I know as well, that our feeble prayers here are joined to the mighty chorus that ascends to God from those who have gone before us and remember and pray for us. That “great cloud of witnesses” sustains the living though we too easily forget this. How is it that the living pass their days with no thought of those who stand witness before God?

Memory Eternal for us all, until the battle is done and everything has found its rest.

It is this kind of rhythm, found in the liturgical life of Orthodoxy, that has been lost from so much of Christianity, where the grief is certainly as great. I know that I could not bear the weight of all I remember were I not able to stand with others and pray God’s eternal remembrance. There are times as an Orthodox Christian that I am not just grateful for the grace God has given, but wonder how I ever tried to live without it.

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present and the Glory to God podcast series.





26 responses to “Soul Saturday – And Forty Days”

  1. elizabeth Avatar

    Memory Eternal.

    and yes, we are so blessed to have the Church to hold us up. Thank you for this post.

  2. easton Avatar

    thoughts and prayers are with you. memory eternal for all our loved ones who have passed.

  3. George Patsourakos Avatar

    My sympathy, Fr. Stephen, on the 40th day of your mother’s passing. May her memory be eternal.

    “Soul Saturday” is just one example of how the Orthodox Christian Church goes “the extra mile” for its departed loved ones. Other Christian denominations may have a service for departed loved ones, but I do not believe that they can match the depth, the inspiration, and the solemnity of memorial services in the Orthodox Church.

  4. Fr. James Early Avatar

    May her memory be eternal!

  5. Margaret Avatar

    Thank you for sharing these encouraging words, Fr. Stephen! Glory to God for All Things! May your Mother’s Memory be Eternal!

  6. Theophan Avatar

    Memory Eternal!

    Father, forgive me for not earlier extending my condolences to you. I have been blessed to remember your mother in my prayers these past forty days, and am taken by surprise that it is already forty days. Memory Eternal! I confess I didn’t properly understand the term before. To be forever remembered by God — what a Blessing! what a Promise! Memory Eternal! Thank you for this posting (and all your postings).


  7. Anxious Anglican Avatar
    Anxious Anglican

    Father Stephen: My prayer for you this evening is adapted from the Book of Common Prayer, but I hope you’ll overlook the source and take comfort in its intention: Almighty God, Father of mercies and giver of comfort: Deal graciously, we pray, with all who mourn, especially Father Stephen and all who are grieving the loss of a parent; that, casting all their care on you, they may know the consolation of your love; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

    I took great comfort myself from a particular line in your post: Memory Eternal for us all, until the battle is done and everything has found its rest. Is that from the Russian hymn, Memory Eternal, or from another source? It is a powerful prayer.

  8. eleftheria Avatar

    Memory eternal!

  9. fatherstephen Avatar

    It was my own words – the thoughts of my heart.

    The words to the hymn Memory Eternal are simply “memory eternal”

    We sing it in it’s Russian setting though it is sung in every Orthodox language with varying tunes. In general OCA practice we sing it in English with the Russian tune. Hauntingly beautiful.

    Father Stephen+

    Sent from my iTouch

  10. Romanós Avatar

    The Greek version of the hymn “Memory Eternal” for me evokes the purple time of anticipation just before true dawn when the sun appears, making me think of that pre-dawn just before the second coming of the Son of Man, when the dead in Christ will rise.

    I sing it whenever I am praying for the reposed, and I hope it will be sung for me when my time comes. Its voice is thunder concealed in the storm cloud that brings the rain of God.

    Aionia i mnimi…

  11. Ben Avatar

    It is also the day of the commemoration of the Mother of God, Joy of All Who Sorrow, an Icon near and dear to my heart.

    May the most holy, ever virgin, mother of God, the blessed virgin Mary bring you peace through her prayers and through the prayers of all the saints on this day as you sing the church’s requiem for those reposed.

    Memory Eternal!
    Memoria in Aeterna!
    Vechnaya Pamyat!

  12. Elizabeth Avatar

    Memory Eternal to your beloved mother, Father, and to all the departed whom you commemorate.

  13. fatherstephen Avatar

    Lovely. We use the Greek hymn occasionally as well. I will now have a new thought to go with it! “The purple time of anticipation just before true dawn.” Homer could not have said it better!

  14. maryc Avatar

    my prayers join with the rest of your flock, father stephen,
    with gratitude and hope,
    may her memory be eternal!

  15. katia Avatar

    Memory Eternal to your mother father and Lord have mercy!

  16. Fr. Philip Avatar
    Fr. Philip

    In our parish we have been singing the Akathist for the Repose of the Departed every Friday for the month of October. We have had a difficult couple of months with members of the parish losing family members. As you mention in your post, our prayers for the departed are “of benefit” for them. But, the words of the prayers resound for us here as we ask for God’s mercy on us as our time draws near, as we remember all those who have helped us through our life, and even all those who have wronged us and spitefully used us. Thanks be to God for his mercy and remembrance of us sinners! May the memory of all of our beloved departed be eternal! Thank you for this timely post.

  17. Marsha Avatar

    Memory Eternal for your mother!

  18. mary Avatar

    May her memory be eternal, Father.

  19. paytonsaunders Avatar

    May her memory be eternal!

  20. Charlien Johnson Avatar
    Charlien Johnson

    If you have a regular newsletter, would you please send me Orthodox reading material from Father Stephen? I had the most blessed opportunity to see you speak at Sunnyside Mennonite Church in Lancasterr, PA. last fall. God Bless You, a pilgrim on the road to Orthodoxy,
    Charlien Johnson

    I also regularly attend a small Early Risers Orthodox study group at Annunciation with Father Alex Gousettis…..

  21. fatherstephen Avatar

    I have no regular newsletter other than my parish newsletter – which is mostly parish news. The blog is where my writings can be found (at present). I do not mean to disappoint, but you must have seen another Fr. Stephen in Lancaster, PA. I was not me.

    May God bless you on your journey – and bless the other Fr. Stephen!

  22. Steven Clark Avatar

    Thank you Fr. Stephen. May your mother’s memory be eternal. And may all our dear ones who have passed from this life have eternal memory, through Him Who has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows.

  23. […] 5:00 p.m. this coming Saturday evening (April 6th) – Commemoration for the Saturday of Souls (also on April […]

  24. Paula Avatar

    Blessings, Father Stephen.
    I noticed on my Church calendar that tomorrow is “Saturday of Souls” with a service being held in the morning. Not familiar with this particular service, I searched for information and came across this post. Your words were very helpful in bringing an understanding of why we set aside special days to commemorate the departed. Our gathering together somehow reminds us that the souls of the departed are still with us in some way, as is the “great cloud of witnesses”…so we pray for them. This somehow assuages our grief, and restores the perspective of death which Christ has radically transformed for all.
    You mention lastly, the importance of the rhythm of liturgical life. I am learning the truth of this, and as you say, wonder how I ever lived without the Grace of this life.
    Thank you again.

  25. […] takes place as the need arises, there are in the Orthodox calendar several days designated “Saturday of the Souls.”  On these days we remember those departed and pray for them.  This is so different from my […]

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