Sixth in a Series on the Life of Grace
Fr. Raphael M. Moss, O.P.
When we speak of the Communion of Saints, we sum up one of the most important dogmas revealed to us by our holy Catholic faith. It is at the same time one of the most comprehensive and most interesting, and, we may add, perhaps one of the least understood. It seems to say so very little, whilst it implies so much. It is the consequence of our redemption and sanctification, the fruit of Christ's passion and the life of grace to which we have been raised. For, by this most glorious gift of grace, purchased for us by the sufferings and death of the incarnate Son of God, we are all made members of His mystical Body, and by mutual help, mutual support, and mutual sanctification, we are meant to carry on His divine work, looking forward to the day when that work shall be made perfect and complete by the gathering together of all the elect in the kingdom of heaven. Hence, to souls bound together by this supernatural chain of faith and hope and love, time is as though it were not, and real separation is impossible. Life passes away swiftly enough, and, sooner or later, death must come to all of us, but even death, to souls in grace, is but a passing change, and when we mourn for those whom it has taken from us, we "sorrow not as others, that have no hope." On the contrary, we may truly say that human affection finds in death its surest triumph, for whereas the many troubles that surround us and the weaknesses of our own frail nature must necessarily make the strongest love rejoice with trembling, death, viewed as grace would have us view it, puts an end to all these dangers, and gives to earthly love the immortality for which it craves, making it at once unchanging and eternal. "True love," says the inspired writer, "is strong as death," and therefore "many waters cannot quench it, neither can the floods drown it;" it builds a bridge across that dark abyss, so terrifying to our weakness, and that bridge is the "Communion of Saints." Our God, as Jesus Christ Himself reminds us, is not the God of the dead but of the living, and therefore those of His creatures who die in grace are never dead to Him. Underneath them are the everlasting arms, as surely as they are beneath us, and in this firm faith the loneliest soul can always find abundant light and consolation. The task before us is to contemplate this life of grace in the world to come, to see and understand, as far as possible, all that our faith can tell us of the dead who die in the Lord, and therefore are so truly blessed.
Our thoughts go up at once to that great multitude which no man can number, standing before the throne with palms in their hands, forever reigning with Christ on high, but even as that glorious vision seems to pass before our minds, the consciousness of sin and imperfection strikes us down and bids us realize our deep unworthiness. He who tells us of that white-robed multitude tells us also they are sine macula, spotless and unstained, and therefore we must first of all direct our thoughts towards that other world revealed to us by faith and reason as the dwelling-place of all those souls, who, though God's friends, are yet unworthy of a place amongst His saints. We call it Purgatory, and we speak of those abiding there as the souls of the faithful departed. We could not justly claim to be the children of the Church, were we unmindful of those for whom the Church is so solicitous. She never forgets them. Morning by morning the sacrifice of Calvary is renewed in her midst; morning by morning the divine Victim is offered up on her altars, and following closely on the loving welcome with which she greets His sacramental presence is a prayer of supplication for the dead:
Memento Domine - Be mindful, Lord, of Thy servants who have gone before us.
It is an indication of the spirit she would foster in our hearts, for the same thought concludes all her prayers:
May the divine assistance remain always with us, and may the souls of the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace.
We believe then, as Catholics, that there exists a place of waiting, a place of trial and most keen suffering, created by an infinitely wise and loving God for such souls as depart out of this life in a state of grace, but yet in some way debtors to His justice. It is a dogma of our faith, which hardly seems to stand in need of proof, so strongly does it appeal to reason and conscience, so manifestly does it fit in with all we know of God. If we believe that heaven is the home of absolute purity and perfection, and that nothing which is in any way defiled can pass its gates, if we believe hell to be the prison-house of those who die in grievous sin, rejecting God's most patient love and hating Him until the last, we must admit the existence of a middle state for those who are not pure enough to see God face to face, and yet have not deserved eternal banishment from Him. To deny this consequence would be to lower our idea of heaven, until it ceased to be a motive for our hopes and longings, or to create a hell so cruelly unjust as to be unreasonable and impossible. Even the heathens could not be so foolish, and Plato graphically describes a future state of punishment for those who have done evil, where some must suffer hopelessly because so hopelessly corrupted, but where others, on the contrary, find a real good in what they have to undergo, since by it they are freed from all their stains. It would surely, therefore, be a matter for astonishment were we not to find some traces of this same belief amongst the Jews, but, instead of traces only, we have the dogma put before us in its fullness, by no less an authority than the inspired word of God. In the Second Book of the Machabees (12:46) we read how Judas sent an offering to Jerusalem that sacrifices might be offered for the souls of the soldiers who had fallen in battle, since "it is a holy and wholesome thought to pray for the dead, that they may be freed from sins." Yet it was not until the so-called "reformers" of the sixteenth century had ventured to assail this well-nigh universal belief that the Church confirmed it by a solemn definition, and declared it to be the divinely revealed dogma of our faith.
But if, as we have said, it is a doctrine which in every way accords with what we know of human nature, its weaknesses and capabilities, no less does it accord with what we know of God. Without it, faith in God would be impossible. True, there are many who profess belief in God and yet deny this doctrine, but a little thought would show us that their God is not the infinitely perfect Being who is our last end, but a counterfeit deity formed and fashioned by their own poor darkened minds.
Infinite perfection implies the possession of all perfections in an infinite degree. God is just, and His justice, therefore, is infinite; yet at the same time He is merciful, and His mercy is equally limitless. But because He is infinitely just, He must necessarily banish from His presence any creature in whom His all-seeing eye discerns the faintest shadow of an imperfection, and because He is infinitely merciful, He is ready to forgive the worst of sinners. How can we reconcile these two most glorious attributes of God except by Purgatory?
Think what sin is and what are its consequences. Broadly speaking, sin is the aversion of the will from God, and the immediate consequences of this are twofold, for it inflicts a stain upon the soul, and at the same time makes it a debtor to God's justice. The soul of man is pleasing in God's sight because of the bright, shining light of reason, and that glorious participation of the divine light which we call grace; but when man's will consents to sin, it violates the order of right reason as well as the order of grace, and withdrawing itself, as it were, from these refulgent sources of brightness and spiritual loveliness, it buries itself in what is vile and earthly, and so incurs the stain of sin. Moreover, by that same act it violates the order of divine justice, and thereby lays itself under the obligation of restitution by making itself God's debtor. In other words, the unlawful self-indulgence, which we call sin, must be expiated by voluntary or involuntary punishment, and this holds good even when the stain of sin may have been blotted out by sorrow and repentance and the return of the will to God. So David sinned, and repented of his sin on hearing Nathan's parable. "I have sinned against the Lord," he cried; and Nathan said: "The Lord hath taken away thy sin." But though the sin was forgiven, atonement had to be made, and a heavy punishment was inflicted.
How many there are like David, who may have sinned grievously, and like him also have wept bitter tears for their sin, crying out with him in the anguish of a truly contrite heart:
Peccatum meum contra me est semper - My sin is always before me.
And this although many years may have passed away since that dark hour when first they fell from grace. For who can measure the debt incurred by such a fall, quite apart from all those constantly recurring minor faults and sinful inclinations which are its miserable fruits? And how will such souls stand when death comes to weigh them in the scale of the awful exacting justice of Almighty God?
Then there are others who, though perhaps they never have rejected God so utterly, have nevertheless learnt by sad experience the weakness of our human nature in those daily falls and imperfections of which we think so little, but of which God necessarily thinks so much, and who may perhaps have suddenly been called away, without a moment for repentance. How must God treat them? If we except the little child who passes from this world in all the beauty of unsullied innocence, or the brave martyr who pours out his blood in one supreme and generous sacrifice, what must be the state of nearly every soul that quits this life in friendship and union with its Maker. It stands before His judgment seat, and for the first time realizes justice which is infinite. It sees the many follies of its life on earth, the countless faults and imperfections for which it never even grieved, the many others, sorrowed for it may be, and yet not fully expiated, the divine likeness in its being, which is its only claim to glory, so miserably disfigured and defaced. What fate could it expect save instant and eternal banishment, were justice only to be heard?
But mercy speaks as well, for in all God s works, says the Angelic Doctor, mercy and truth go hand in hand, or, as the inspired writer expresses it:
Mercy and truth are met together, justice and peace have kissed each other.
The soul passes from this world into the world of Purgatory, its stains are burnt away, its debts are fully paid, and the beauty of God's image is marvelously restored. Truly we have here a wonderful revelation of God and His attributes, and it is no exaggeration to say that without this dogma of our faith, belief in God would seem impossible. For not only does the teaching of the Church on this point reconcile these two grand attributes apparently so contradictory, but it goes further, and explains them in the fullest way.
We have already considered the light it throws upon God's justice, and its dealing with us, but as a revelation of God's mercy it is so wonderful that we may look upon it as its very masterpiece. For when we contemplate the world in which we live, and see and note the well-nigh universal triumph of the powers of evil; when, day by day, in a thousand different ways we are brought face to face with moral failure, and so realize - though ever so faintly - the utter forgetfulness of God in which the vast majority of His creatures seem to live, the sight of all this, the knowledge of all this, would surely extinguish our faith in God as the Almighty Ruler, our hope in Him as the Savior of mankind, our love of Him as a most tender Father, were it not for this creation of His mercy, where justice and mercy are so wonderfully blended. Purgatory is the solution of this most terrifying mystery. There, God wins back all that He seemed to lose in life, and the many defeats of time are more than compensated for by the great victory of eternity. There must be millions of souls who during life have wandered far from God, and yet have ever kept alive that little twinkling light of faith and reason which, even at the last hour, can show them how to find Him once again, and what we call a death-bed repentance, though always a miracle of mercy, must be a frequent source of joy to the angels of God. An old English writer expresses this very vividly in the well-known lines:
Between the stirrup and the ground
I mercy asked, I mercy found.
And it would not be just to call this a mere poetic exaggeration, for all that God wants is the beginning of the great work of grace, the conversion of the will, and purgatory will do the rest. We could not easily believe that one little act of contrition, imperfect perhaps in many ways, would have sufficient power to carry the sinner's soul into the glory of God's presence, but we can believe it strong enough to break the chains of sin, and make the soul God's friend, and then, in that mysterious world where sin becomes impossible, and grace triumphant, God repairs His handiwork, and fits it for a place in His eternal kingdom.
Souls must be saved, and the saved multiplied, and the heavenly banquet crowded, even if the constraints of fire be needed to anneal the hastier works of grace. Therefore is it that the vast realms of Purgatory are lighted up with the flames of vindictive love. Thus a huge amount of imperfect charity shall bring forth its thousands and its tens of thousands for heaven. Redemption shall cover the whole earth and be plentiful indeed, and the very unworthinesses and shortcomings of the creature shall only still more provoke the prodigality of the Blood of the Creator. Oh, the mercy of those cleansing fires! What could have devised them but a love that was almost beside itself for expedients?
And again, appealing to the very sufferings of Purgatory as a proof of God's wondrous mercy, the same writer continues:
The extreme severity of the punishments of Purgatory is a consideration which leads the mind to contemplate the immense multitude of the saved, and of those saved with very imperfect dispositions, as the only solution of these chastisements. Purgatory goes as near to the unriddling the riddle of the world as any one ordinance of God which can be named. [...] Now, does it come natural to us to look at all this system, this terrible eighth sacrament of fire, which is the home of those souls whom the seven real sacraments of earth have not been allowed to purify completely; does it come natural to us to look at it all as simply a penal machinery? [...] Does not the view at once recommend itself to us that it was an invention of God to multiply the fruit of our Savior's passion, that it was intended for the great multitudes who die in charity with God, but in imperfect charity, and therefore that it is, as it were, the continuance of death-bed mercies beyond the grave?
Let us, then, go down in spirit to that land of patient suffering, and contemplate the state of those most holy souls - holy, because incapable of sin, because so patient and resigned, because so precious in God's sight. It is quite possible, probable even, that many of them are bound to us by ties of blood and kindred, or the yet tenderer ties of love and friendship; once, perhaps, they shared the joys and sorrows of our lives, and helped us by their sympathy; for many reasons, therefore, we ought to feel compelled to do our best to find out all our faith can tell us of their state. Two things only has the Church defined in this most interesting subject, firstly, that there is a Purgatory, and secondly, that the souls therein detained are helped by our prayers and good works, but this implies enough to satisfy the most anxious inquirer, and with it as our groundwork, we may listen to what the Saints and Doctors of the Church can say by way of explanation.
A very little thought will show us how profoundly true and theological is this teaching. It puts before us joys and sorrows well-nigh unspeakable, and without appealing to the example of St. Paul and other Saints of God, who superabounded with joy in all their tribulations, our own little experience is sufficient to convince us of the possibility of a union of the two. We will take the sorrows first, because in our minds, the idea of suffering is always uppermost when we think of purgatory.
These holy souls suffer, and suffer most grievously. They are banished from God's presence at the very moment when, for the first time, they appreciate Him as He deserves. The heart of man was made for God, and God alone can satisfy its boundless power of love. In this life, many things combine to lead it far astray, and make it seek elsewhere the good for which it was created; but when death comes, and, for the first time, all created things must stand aside, the soul sees the truth, and with a passionate longing craves for that union which alone can make it blessed. But there is a barrier in the way. With that first mighty act of love there comes the realization of sin, the bitterness of separation which it involves, and the anguish of that "hope deferred, which maketh the heart sick." St. Thomas maintains that this suffering is far beyond all that we can feel or imagine in this life. It is, he explains, of a twofold nature, the pain of loss, which is the postponement of the sight of God, and the pain of sense, by which we understand the punishment of fire, and in both respects, says the Angelic Doctor, the least pain of purgatory exceeds the sharpest pain we could be called on to endure in this life. For the more intensely we long for anything, the more keenly do we feel its loss; and because the longing of these holy souls for Him who is their highest good is most intense, since the time for enjoying it has come, and there is nothing to distract the mind in any way, the anguish of their disappointment is unspeakable. So also with regard to what we call the pain of sense. It is altogether dependent on, and in proportion to, our sensibility, and hence it is that mental sufferings are worse than bodily, and any pain which acts directly on the soul itself, the source and cause of all sensibility, must of necessity be the keenest pain of all. Once we understand the two-fold cause of purgatory - the loving torment of unsatisfied desire for God, and the vivid realization of the horror of sin - we need say no more about the intensity of its sufferings. Cardinal Newman most perfectly and most beautifully expresses the same teaching in his Dream of Gerontius:
The sight of Him will kindle in thy heart
All tender, gracious, reverential thoughts.
Thou wilt be sick with love, and yearn for Him,
And thou wilt hate and loathe thyself, for though
Now sinless, thou wilt feel that thou hast sinned
As never thou didst feel, and wilt desire
To slink away and hide thee from His sight,
And yet will have a longing aye to dwell
Within the beauty of His countenance.
And these two pains, so counter and so keen,
The longing for Him, when thou seest Him not,
The shame of self at thought of seeing Him,
Wilt be thy veriest, sharpest purgatory.
So the work of expiation is gradually accomplished. How long it takes, God only knows; but with fixed, unwavering patience, the holy souls endure it all, lonely, though in the midst of such a multitude, in intensest silence, since their thoughts are not for words to utter, incapable of forgetfulness, or even of one poor solitary distraction, their whole being throbbing and pulsating with the fiery burning of a longing love, compared with which all other fire is but a painted imitation, ever waiting for the hour when suffering shall have done its cleansing work, and God's angels come to call them to their home of everlasting rest.
And this leads us to the joys of Purgatory, for, as we said, it is a land where joy goes hand in hand with sorrow, and the first and most abundant source of joy is to be found in this sure hope and certain knowledge of their final deliverance. For when the waiting seems most wearisome, when the keen fire thrills them through and through with anguish, when their whole being seems upon the point of being drowned in bitterness, there sounds within their souls the music of an angel's whisper:
Confortetur cor tuum, et sustine Dominum - Let thy heart be comforted, and wait for the Lord.
These words are the conclusion of the twenty-sixth Psalm, and seem to come as an inspired answer to the beautiful acts of hope of which the psalm is full, so that we might almost call it the Psalm of the Holy Souls:
The Lord is my light and my salvation, whom shall I fear?
The Lord is the protector of my life, of whom shall I be afraid?
My enemies that troubled me have themselves been weakened and are fallen.
One thing have I asked of the Lord, this will I seek after,
that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life.
My heart hath said to Thee, my face hath sought Thee, Thy face, O Lord, will I seek.
Hide not Thy face from me, and turn not away in anger from Thy servant.
Be Thou my helper, forsake me not, do not Thou despise me, God my Saviour.
I believe that I shall see the good things of the Lord in the land of the living.
And oh, the flood of joy and happiness unspeakable which sweeps through these sorely tried souls at this thought:
Credo videre bona Domini - I believe, I know, that I shall see the good things of the Lord!
The certainty of heaven! Could any suffering neutralize a joy like that? But there is another joy to be found in the sufferings themselves, because of the clear understanding the holy souls have of them, their knowledge of their work and purpose, and the loving resignation with which they accept them. They are the means ordained by God for the breaking down of the barriers sin has raised, by them they are enabled to pay back the debt they have incurred, even to the very last farthing, and hence they submit to them most willingly. St. Catherine of Genoa writes:
When the soul, separated from the body, finds itself wanting in requisite purity, and sees in itself an impediment which cannot be taken away except by purgatory, it at once throws itself into it with right good will. Nay, if it did not find this ordinance of purgatory, aptly contrived for the removal of this hindrance, there would instantly be born in it a hell far worse than purgatory, inasmuch as it would see that because of this impediment, it could never get to God, who is its End. Wherefore, if the soul could find another purgatory fiercer than this, in which it could the sooner get rid of this impediment it would speedily plunge itself therein, because of the impetuosity of the love it bears to God.
Here again we may turn to the beautiful poem of Newman above quoted, and in the exquisite lines in which he expresses the feeling of the soul at the judgment seat, we may trace once more the marvelous identity of thought between the Italian saint and the great English cardinal:
Take me away, and, in the lowest deep,
There let me be.
And there, in hope, the lone night watches keep,
Told out for me.
There, motionless and happy in my pain,
Lone, not forlorn,
There will I sing my sad perpetual strain
Until the morn.
There will I sing and soothe my stricken breast,
Which ne'er can cease
To throb and pine and languish, till possess'd
Of its sole peace!
There will I sing my absent Lord and Love.
Take me away,
That sooner I may rise and go above,
And see Him in the truth of everlasting day.
Each moment, as we have said, sees the sufferings lessen and the joys increase. The brightest jewel in the world, to borrow a striking comparison from St. Catherine, cannot reflect the sunlight, if it be hidden beneath a coating of impurities, but as these are cleansed away, it manifests its brightness more and more, until at last we see it in its perfect beauty. So is it with the soul in the cleansing fires of purgatory. Its earthly stains are gradually destroyed, and when at last the work is done, God draws it to Himself, and being brought face to face with Him it is made like to Him and shines with the brightness of His glory.
Such then is the dogma of Purgatory, most beautiful, most reasonable and most consoling. For us it has a practical conclusion which we must not overlook, for the Church has also defined that these most holy souls are helped by our prayers, and we cannot refuse that help unless we are utterly wanting in generous love of our neighbor, in zeal for God's glory, and in care for our own interests. We have seen how they are suffering, and how God longs to give them rest, eternal rest, and justice bars the way. Therefore He turns to us, and placing in our hands the boundless treasures of His atonement, He begs us, out of love for Him and pity for those souls, to pay their many debts. That is our share in the beautiful Communion of Saints, and its reward is something hard to put in words, though faith can well imagine it, the unending gratitude of a ransomed soul. Hush for a while the many noises and distractions of a sinful, disappointing world, and with ears quickened by faith, listen to the grand harmonious song for ever going up before the throne of God from all His children, the hymn of the Communion of Saints: the voice of the Church Suffering, patient and pleading:
Have pity on me, have pity on me, at least you my friends, for the hand of the Lord hath touched me.
The voice of the Church Militant, tender and compassionate:
Eternal rest give unto them, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them.
The voice of the Church Triumphant, ringing with gratitude and conscious power:
Vouchsafe, Lord, for Thy name's sake, to reward with eternal life all them that have done us good.