All Souls 2012

Catholicism can be an uncomfortable religion to live by, but it is a wonderful religion in which to die. As death draws closer we are surrounded by prayer, our bodies are anointed and we receive the Viaticum to help us on our way. At the moment of death a singularly beautiful prayer is prayed, and after death our bodies are accorded the simple rituals I described in an earlier post. But that is not the end of of the matter. The Church goes on praying for us, perseveringly. November, in particular, is a month when we pray for the dead with special earnestness. Today, on the feast of All Souls, everyone will join in praying for all the faithful departed — not just the people known to us, but those unknown, those who have no-one else to pray for them. The feast of All Souls thus unites the living and the dead.

Last year I summed it up by saying

Instead of pushing the dead out of sight or surrounding them with euphemisms, we state the facts baldly and pray for the dead as we pray for ourselves, asking God to remove every trace of sin from those not yet ready for the blessedness of heaven. We believe that our prayers can help those who have died and are undergoing the final purification of purgatory, when the soul is prepared for the vision of God. To pray for the dead is thus a work of charity, a way of helping those who cannot help themselves.

Inevitably, there was a clash with some of my Protestant friends who reject the idea of purgatory. I very soon realised that few of my objectors knew what the Catholic Church teaches about purgatory (as distinct from what they thought the Church teaches) so in later posts I went into it in some detail. Underlying such misunderstandings is a much bigger question which no amount of explanation will ever really help. I would have liked to have taken my friends on a journey to a cemetery in southern Europe on the eve of All Saints, or transported them through time to the tombs of the early Christians. Possibly our very correct English sensibilities would be a little shocked but perhaps the sense of ease with death would take away some of the terror of death and dying that afflicts many people. All Souls is a reminder of the importance of death, and our part in assuring the entry into blessedness of all our fellow Christians.

Eternal rest give unto them, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them. May they rest in peace. Amen.

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Death, Be Not Proud

Last night came the telephone call we had been expecting for a long time, although, when it did come, it came as a shock, as these things always do. Quietnun’s mother, Jean King, slipped quietly out of this world and into the next. She was 97.

I imagine Mrs King would be mildly perplexed by her daughter’s praying for her. As a good Scottish Episcopalian, she was not exactly in sympathy with Quietnun’s firm belief in purgatory as the final preparation for the vision of God. All the rituals with which we surround the dead body — the sprinkling with holy water, the incensing, the deep bows to what was in life a temple of the Holy Spirit and is now closer to that vision of God than those of us who remain — would have seemed alien to her. I have no doubt, however, that she would have affirmed her belief in her Saviour, Jesus Christ, and trusted to the love of her children to perform all the last offices with reverence and dignity.

Death has become something of a taboo subject today. We use euphemisms like ‘passed away’ and speak of ‘the deceased’ as though they had ceased to be real persons. The truth is, they are more real now than they have ever been. We shall soon be celebrating the feasts of All Saints and All Souls. Together they invite us to understand what the Church is, what her hope is, and how we ourselves fit into the great story of humanity and our redemption in Christ.

Today in the monastery there is no weeping and wailing but instead a grave quietness, a sense of irreplaceable loss, a confident hope in the goodness and mercy of God. In short, a host of apparently contradictory feelings brought into unity by the belief that Mrs King has entered upon the final purifcation and we can aid her by our prayers. Death destroys many things, but it cannot destroy love which reaches beyond this world to the next.

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All Souls

All Souls, the Day of the Dead, is something Catholicism does rather well. Instead of pushing the dead out of sight or surrounding them with euphemisms, we state the facts baldly and pray for the dead as we pray for ourselves, asking God to remove every trace of sin from those not yet ready for the blessedness of heaven. We believe that our prayers can help those who have died and are undergoing the final purification of purgatory, when the soul is prepared for the vision of God. To pray for the dead is thus a work of charity, a way of helping those who cannot help themselves.

In the monastery, prayer for the dead, like prayer for the absent brethren, comes at the end of every Hour of the Work of God and at the end of every meal. We are constantly reminded of our connection with those who have ‘gone before’. They are as familiar to us in death as they were in life and death itself is much less terrible as a result. I find purgatory a very comforting doctrine. I like the idea of being prepared for the vision of God; I like the idea that the Church will continue to pray for me when I can no longer pray for myself. Best of all, I like the hope of mercy that purgatory proclaims.

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