Sunday, December 2, 2012

Have Yourself a Grimy Little Christmas?

As an adolescent, I was once invited to go horseback riding with a friend. We had a great time, riding along trails in the California desert.
      Afterward my friend and I were chatting happily in the car driving home —I thought—when her mom stopped in the parking lot of a ritzy country club. Apparently I didn’t get the memo about this part of the day. The club was equipped with fancy private showers, and my friend had brought along a fresh outfit, but I all had were my dirty, horsy clothes.
     That day came back to mind recently when I read these words of St. Catherine of Genoa:

To see God when full satisfaction had not yet been given to Him, even if the time of purgation lacked but the twinkling of an eye, would be unbearable to the soul. It would rather [suffer] a thousand Hells to rid itself of the little rust still clinging to it, than stand in the divine presence when it was not yet wholly cleansed.[1]

I found that rather too much of a hyperbole at first … until I remembered how mortified I’d felt that day at the country club.
     Now for those of you who don’t know, when you ride a horse on a warm day, not only will you sweat, but so will the horse. And the two of you will especially sweat where you come in contact.  And though horses are brushed daily, they aren’t bathed that often. So I had swaths of brown along my pants, which bore the distinct odor of horse.
     While I don’t remember anyone looking at me strangely or turning up their noses, I still felt about as welcome as a skunk. I couldn’t get comfortable anywhere we went in the club, and I certainly didn’t want to sit down.
     If I felt so contemptible and out of place amongst other human beings—well-to-do and fashionable (and clean!) as they might be, still strangers whom I never saw again—how would I feel appearing, grimy with my own sin, in the presence of God, whose opinion is the only one that counts, who is the true desire and only satisfaction of my heart, whose beauty and glory and power are beyond my imagination, and who is perfectly holy?
     Yes, God’s love is infinite, and He will love us no matter what. But it is we who desire the purgation. As C.S. Lewis puts it:

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.”[2]

     November, the month when we remember the souls in Purgatory, is just behind us. Perhaps I’m not the only one who forgot or was unaware of it (with the distraction of that historic election). But our remembrance of the holy, suffering souls should not be limited to a single month anyway. Some say that All Souls’ Day is not day of the year that the most souls are released from Purgatory, but Christmas.
      And today is the first day of Advent, which—despite the decorations everywhere and the Christmas carols blaring from store radios—is meant to be a penitential preparation. 
      Advent, which means "coming," is not just about His first coming at Christmas. He is coming again, and we need to be ready. Whether or not His Second Coming is in our lifetime, Christ will come to each of us at the end of our lives—which could be any day.
     So now is a splendid time to reflect on the souls in Purgatory and to offer up sacrifices and Masses for them. At the same time, those sacrifices can make reparation for our own sins and prepare us to meet our Savior.
     A beautiful tradition and helpful reminder is to set up the stable with the animals and the manger (no Holy Family yet) and set nearby a basket of straw. For every little sacrifice offered, one can place a straw in the manger (or stable) in preparation for the Infant Jesus.  
     Advent is a time to focus on what we should remember all year round: the Bridegroom is coming! … only we don’t know when.
     You've gotten the memo. Don’t get burned. Get that grime off now, so you’ll be ready and eager to greet the King whenever He arrives.

     [1] St. Catherine of Genoa, Fire of Love: Understanding Purgatory (Manchester, NH: Sophia Institute Press), p. 75.
     [2] C.S. Lewis, Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer (1963; repr.: Orlando: Harcourt, 1992), pp. 108-9; emphasis in original.