In the Catholic calendar November is the month we remember our deceased loved ones in prayer. Many pre-Vatican II Catholics will recall that as children we ran in and out of church to say one Our Father, one Hail Mary, one Glory Be for a poor soul in Purgatory on All Souls Day, Tuesday, November 2. We were told that this prayer would release a poor soul into heaven each time we said it, left the church and flew back in to say it again and release another soul. Talk about Catholic legend!! It got competitive. I was going to release more souls than my friend, Kathleen Corrigan did. At the end of recess, the time we engaged in this exercise, I said to her, “I got 10 souls released. How many did you release?” It was like setting free captives and gloating about it. We were champions of those poor fettered souls, flames all around them, hungering for heaven which could have been in the distant future for some. Oh, we were good at this. It’s a wonder I didn’t go into criminal justice for a career because of this influence!
Let me be clear that this practice, innocent as it was, does not exist anymore. I think. And, the question of purgatory, while fertile in Dante’s mind as well as the minds of children, may not quite resemble what we had been taught. Some theologians speculate that purgatory is the period after death when we face our sinful reality as we prepare to meet God. It is likened to an examination of conscience. I once read what Ladislas Orsy, the Jesuit theologian, described as ‘purgatory’ and it was and remains the best explanation I have ever learned. Purgatory, he said, is when the soul is ready to move on from this life and is aware that some of his/her life has not been what it should have been. You know, those nagging sins that kept one from hitting the target; the Greeks called this failure hamartia, not bad enough for condemnation but choices of sin over goodness, falling short of just plain goodness, of missing the mark. Orsy says we all know when we committed these sins. So we appear on that liminal place between earth and heaven and suddenly we ‘see’ God. And it’s God’s look of love that burns away our guilt, because God wants us. And we simply say ‘I’m sorry’. The fire of God’s love is the fire of purgatory. And we’re in!!! How about that? I prefer this version of purgatory to any other I have read or learned.
So why then pray for the dead? I see two reasons as part of our obligation as members of the Church on earth. First, we pray for them so we may connect to them. Praying for them helps us recall what they meant to us in our lives. This is a prayer of gratitude for them. This thinking matures as we do. Second, we pray to continue our walk with them. In other words, if they are not yet complete, maybe still struggling to see the loving Face of God, maybe still struggling to let go of something, they will yield to the Face before them and feel the burning away of their guilt. And they will help us along too as we confront our own challenges and sometimes ‘miss the mark.’ This is the mystery part of remembering the dead. We pray for them out of our faith, a belief that they will see God and if they do already, they will share their joy interceding for us.
So, lets continue to pray for our dead, those we know and those we don’t know. In the Book of Wisdom in the Hebrew Scriptures, we read a powerful message which I ask you to reflect on now.
God did not make death, nor does he rejoice in the destruction of the living. For he fashioned all things that they may have being; and the creatures of the world are wholesome and there is not a destructive drug among them nor any domain of the nether world on earth, for justice is undying. For God formed man to be imperishable; the image of his own nature he made him. But by the envy of the devil, death entered the world, and they who belong to his company experience it. Wisdom 1:13-15; 2:23-24
Pray for and to the dead. Those you have loved beyond any measure of devotion and those who are acquaintances. The more you pray for them, the more real they will become to you
God bless each of you my readers and anonymous angels who read but do not divulge your identity. You are all in my prayers.