When the internet works, it is wonderful. When it doesn’t, it can be very annoying indeed. For some days now the abbey’s connection has either been down or so slow that it would have been quicker to walk to Google HQ in California to get the search results. Mind you, since our broadband provider is called Demon, some trouble has to be expected.
Today the Church commemorates All Souls. Having on 1 November honoured all those who have gone before us and are now with God, today we remember those who have died and still await entry into God’s presence. In other words, we pray for those being purified in purgatory. It is a sad fact that in the average parish church purgatory will rarely get a mention, so much so that some people even think it was dropped as an article of faith after the Vatican Council. It is a great pity because purgatory is both a consoling fact of the life to come and a rich part of our life in the Church.
There are many places online you can go to read about purgatory and to read one or two solid Catholic explanations of it. Suffice it to say that it is a truth that gives us hope. The Letter to the Hebrews teaches that without holiness we cannot see God. Since it is only a few who die anywhere near fully holy, God does not hold this deficiency against us at death. Rather, even after death he gives us time to become holy enough to be in his presence. Not that we can do anything of ourselves there. Rather we are purified of all in us that is not of God (“as by fire” to use St Paul’s metaphor) so that God may fill us with his life and his love.
The wonderful thing is that the Church on earth is given a role in this process. By our prayers and good works offered for the sake of our brothers and sisters being purified for heaven, we can hasten the day (so to speak, for of course there is no time as we know it in eternity) when they can come into God’s presence. This is part of God’s way in general: humanity has a role in its own salvation. That is why St Paul called Christians “co-workers” with Christ. So when our loved ones die, there is still something we can do for them, that the Church can do for them. Funerals above all must be times when we pray for those who have died: it is far more useful to them now than celebrating their lives (which best belongs to the wake). Indeed surely it is our duty. There is more to the corporal work of mercy to bury the dead than buying the coffin or digging the grave.
Purgatory is also a reminder to us that, as the first Preface of Christian Death in the Liturgy puts it, at death life is not ended, but changed. As a Church we are communion not only with fellow Christians around the world, but also with those in heaven and those in purgatory. This is the communion of saints in its fullest sense. Our prayers and good works offered for the dead bind us ever more closely to the cosmic Church, and into the communion of saints. Through them we demonstrate our faith, our hope and our love, and no matter our vocation life these three virtues must always be at the heart of it.
All Souls is, as you probably know, a gift of the Benedictine order to the Church. By the very early middle ages monks were commemorating their dead brethren by prayer on the day at Pentecost. Around the turn of the millennium in 1000 AD the monks of Cluny and its dependent monasteries, a truly international congregation, were praying for the souls of all the faithful departed not yet in heaven on 2 November, the day after they honoured those who had made heaven already. From these monasteries the practice spread throughout the Church.
So today and for the next week it would be a Christian thing to do to pray for the dead, especially those of your own family and among your friends, and perhaps even to visit a cemetery and pray there. For as we read in 2 Maccabees 12:46, “It is therefore a holy and wholesome thought to pray for the dead, that they may be loosed from sins”.