Thursday, November 3, 2011

Feast of All Souls: The cleansing fire


Once again, I apologize for posting late. To my embarrassment, I fell asleep in front of my computer while I was in the middle of writing this post, and woke up with just enough time to run an errand before going over to my older brother’s house to celebrate my mother’s 75th birthday. If I’d gotten it done sooner, it probably would have been shorter.

*          *          *

Today is the last day of the annual fall reminder of our mortality, a sort of Triduum for our own deaths that complements Easter.

In many countries, All Souls’ Day functions as a Memorial Day, where people go to visit, clean and maintain the graves of loved ones and have family gatherings in their memories. In Mexico and other Spanish-speaking areas, the “Day of the Dead” (El Día de los Muertos) is celebrated with altars at gravesites and at home loaded with memorial candles and ofrendas (grave offerings); images of skeletons abound, in artwork, tattoos, costumes and Catrinas (models of skeletons wearing traditional dresses), making the Goth subculture look pretty tame and Halloween absolutely pasteurized.

St. Thomas More tells his daughter Margaret, in Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons, “Death comes for us all; even at our birth, death does but stand aside a little. And every day he looks toward us and muses somewhat to himself whether that day or the next he will draw nigh. It is the law of nature, and the will of God.”[1] In the procession of the dead, as well as the old European artistic tradition of the Todtentanz or Danse Macabre, something is retained that the American celebration of All Hallows’ Eve, pounded by commercialization into something bland and uninspired, has lost: Quod fuimus, estis; quod sumus, vos eritis (What we were, you are; what we are, you will be).


The official title is The Commemoration of the Faithful Departed. And here we must delve into the realm of Catholic dogma, for the celebration involves the teaching about Purgatory.

All who die in God’s grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified, are indeed assured of their eternal salvation; but after death they undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven.
The Church gives the name Purgatory to this final purification of the elect, which is entirely different from the punishment of the damned. The Church formulated her doctrine of faith on Purgatory especially at the Councils of Florence and Trent. the tradition of the Church, by reference to certain texts of Scripture, speaks of a cleansing fire [cf. 1 Cor 3:15; 1 Pet 1:7] :
As for certain lesser faults, we must believe that, before the Final Judgment, there is a purifying fire. He who is truth says that whoever utters blasphemy against the Holy Spirit will be pardoned neither in this age nor in the age to come [Mt 12:32]. From this sentence we understand that certain offenses can be forgiven in this age, but certain others in the age to come [Gregory the Great, Dialogues 4:39].[2]

The passage from Matthew isn’t the only hint we have in Scripture. In 2 Maccabees chapter 12, after Judas Maccabee and his army put defeated Gorgias, the governor of Idumea, they spent the Sabbath in the city of Adullam; then on Sunday they went to pick up the bodies of their fallen for burial.

Then under the tunic of every one of the dead they found sacred tokens of the idols of Jamnia, which the law forbids the Jews to wear. And it became clear to all that this was why these men had fallen. So they all blessed the ways of the Lord, the righteous Judge, who reveals the things that are hidden; and they turned to prayer, beseeching that the sin which had been committed might be wholly blotted out. And the noble Judas exhorted the people to keep themselves free from sin, for they had seen with their own eyes what had happened because of the sin of those who had fallen. He also took up a collection, man by man, to the amount of two thousand drachmas of silver, and sent it to Jerusalem to provide for a sin offering (2 Mc 12:40-43).

The anonymous author of the book[*] inserts this editorial comment:

In doing this he acted very well and honorably, taking account of the resurrection. For if he were not expecting that those who had fallen would rise again, it would have been superfluous and foolish to pray for the dead. But if he was looking to the splendid reward that is laid up for those who fall asleep in godliness, it was a holy and pious thought. Therefore he made atonement for the dead, that they might be delivered from their sin (2 Mc 12:43-45).

This passage gives us clear indication that Jews believed in atonement on behalf of the dead, a belief Christians carried forward. Indeed, in the early Church at least, this manifested in a practice of being baptized on behalf of the dead, as testified to by St. Paul (1 Cor 15:29). We also have St. Paul speaking of Onesiphorus in 2 Timothy 1:16-18, asking for the Lord’s mercy on Onesiphorus’ household and praying that “the Lord [may] grant him to find mercy from the Lord on that [Judgment] Day”, a way of speaking that can’t help but lead us to believe that Onesiphorus has “fallen asleep”.

But why do we need the doctrine of Purgatory? Well, because as Revelation says, “But nothing unclean shall enter [the heavenly Jerusalem], nor anyone who practices abomination or falsehood, but only those who are written in the Lamb’s book of life” (Rev 21:27).

The author of the letter to the Hebrews enjoins us, “Strive for peace with all men, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord” (Heb 12:14). But as St. James reminds us, we all make many mistakes along the path to Heaven; as Jesus himself has warned us, “I tell you, on the day of judgment men will render account for every careless word they utter; for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned” (Mt 12:36-37).

Now, St. John wrote: “If any one sees his brother committing what is not a mortal sin, he will ask, and God will give him life for those whose sin is not mortal. There is sin which is mortal [lit. hamartia pros thanaton, “sin unto death”]; I do not say that one is to pray for that. All wrongdoing is sin, but there is sin which is not mortal” (1 Jn 5:16-17).

From this passage the Church has taken the distinction between mortal and venial sins. However, all sins frustrate the soul’s progression towards sanctification even if, in the case of venial sins, they don’t break friendship with God and merit damnation. In reference to St. Apollos’ work among the Corinthians, St. Paul wrote:

According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and another man is building upon it. Let each man take care how he builds upon it. For no other foundation can anyone lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if any one builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw — each man’s work will become manifest; for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. If the work which any man has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. If any man’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire (1 Cor 3:10-15).

Here we must not interpolate a literal fire but rather a cleansing. For as St. Paul also wrote:

Lo! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed. For this perishable nature must put on the imperishable, and this mortal nature must put on immortality. When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written: “Death is swallowed up in victory” (1 Cor 15:51-54; cf. Is 25:8).

Although Purgatory is often thought of as a physical place, it may be more helpful to think of it as the process by which our souls and bodies will be purified before we enter Heaven. For despite St. Paul’s words that the change will take place “in the blink of an eye”, Time doesn’t pertain after death or God’s actions in the same way it pertains during life or to human acts: “For a thousand years in thy sight are but as yesterday when it is past, or as a watch in the night” (Ps 90:4; cf. 2 Pt 3:8).

Even when you strip away customs that could be reasonably ascribed to pre-Christian practices, what remains in the Feast of All Souls is a very Christian hope for “those who have left this world in [God’s] friendship”. For only those who are bound for Heaven undergo the cleansing fire that is Purgatory; there is no similar purgation for those who have died with their hearts set in unrighteousness.

All our lives are spent in a dance with Death; our shaky first steps as infants lead us not just to our mothers’ arms but to that enclosing earth that waits at the end of our journey. “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” There are those who would say such a statement is unnecessarily morbid, even childish, and who look to technology as our savior from our mortality.

But the Lord is not God of the dead, but of the living (Mt 22:32). And that is what the Feast of All Souls celebrates.


[*] According to 2 Mc 2:23, the book is a one-volume condensation (or epitome) of a more thorough five-volume work by Jason of Cyrene, now lost.


[1] Bolt, R. (1962). A Man for All Seasons: A Play in Two Acts. New York City: Vintage Books, p. 94.