Monday, November 28, 2011

Revamping Purgatory's Reputation

Does anyone remember that creepy chant: "Pray for the dead, and the dead will pray for you"?  The eerie and mock-solemnic tone we kids used to adopt when singing that (while leaning into another child's face) reflects the misconceptions and repugnance surrounding the idea of Purgatory.
     In November, the Catholic Church not only celebrates All Souls' Day on the 2nd, but dedicates the whole month to the souls in Purgatory. Now I’m not going to tackle the whole question of the existence of Purgatory, which most Protestants dispute and even a good number of Catholics either question or misunderstand. To do the topic justice would require a long chapter if not a book. But I will touch on some points that help me to understand it.
C.S. Lewis, who was not a Catholic, believed in Purgatory. He remarked:

Our souls demand Purgatory, don’t they? Would it not break the heart if God said to us, ”It is true, my son, that your breath smells and your rags drip with mud and slime, but we are charitable here and no one will upbraid you with these things, nor draw away from you. Enter into the joy”? Should we not reply, “With submission, sir, and if there is no objection, I’d rather be cleaned first.” “It may hurt, you know”—“Even so, sir.”1

Another way to understand Purgatory is to remember that here as in so many other areas of the spiritual life, there is needed something both from God and from us. Two perennial temptations are to rely too heavily on one or the other. We can no more expect God to do it all for us in the area of our sins than in the area of providing for us—in the latter, we can trust in Him and know that He is the One who gives us everything, but we still have to go out and try to find a job. On the other hand, it is as fruitless and foolish to rely solely on ourselves and our own efforts in the former as in any other area. He did his part already: paying the eternal debt for our sins on the cross. But we need to do something too. Our sins have not only offended God, but hurt our brothers and sisters. A common explanation likens sin to hammering a nail into a fine piece of furniture: Christ’s sacrifice for us removes the nail. But a hole is still left behind, and it is up to us to repair it.
      If we don’t make reparation for our sins now, then we will still owe the relatively puny part of the debt that the Lord left for us to pay ourselves. Jesus warns us to prepare for the day of our judgment when he says: “Make friends quickly with your accuser, while you are going with him to court, lest your accuser hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you be put in prison; truly, I say to you, you will never get out till you have paid the last penny.” We might think this prison must be hell, where the debtor will be held forever, for how can you pay a debt if you’re in prison? But the debtor’s prison of Jesus’ day resembled that of Dickens’, in which a debtor did stay until his family or friends could pay the debt for him. This is precisely what the Catholic Church teaches: that the souls in Purgatory owe a debt and can do nothing for themselves; they rely on our prayers and sacrifices for them.
      We Catholics, if we think of Purgatory at all, too often think it will be over soon and won’t be too bad. St. Francis of Assisi, however, reportedly chose three days of suffering on earth over one day in Purgatory when a heavenly vision offered him this choice on his deathbed. Not only does this testify at least to St. Francis’ view of the pangs of Purgatory, it should also give us pause. If someone as holy and ascetic as St. Francis still required even a day in Purgatory, what will the rest of us need? All too often these days,

we tend to ‘”canonize” our … loved ones immediately after their death. Father Frederick Faber tells us, “We are apt to leave off too soon praying for [them], imagining with a foolish and unenlightened esteem ... that they are freed from purgatory much sooner than they really are.”2

We needn’t fear that our departed loved ones will be insulted if we pray for them in case they might be in Purgatory. Believe me, they will be grateful, not insulted! And even if they are in heaven, no prayer is ever wasted. God can and will apply our prayers to another soul in need.
      The following prayer of St. Gertrude has traditionally been held to be very powerful:

Eternal Father, I offer Thee the most precious Blood of Thy divine Son, Jesus, in union with the Masses said throughout the world today, for all the holy souls in Purgatory, sinners everywhere, sinners in the universal Church, those in my own home and within my family. Amen.

      And of course, the most powerful prayer of all is the Mass.

1 C. S. Lewis, Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer (San Diego, New York, London: Harvest/Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1964), pp. 108-9.
2 Susan Tassone, Thirty-Day Devotions for the Holy Souls (Huntington, Ind.: Our Sunday Visitor Publishing, 2004), p. 76.

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