As a kid, I always wondered if All Souls’ Day had an inferiority complex. I mean, it’s always following its big brother, All Saints’ Day, which everybody likes (or should, since we hope that one day it will be OUR feast day); All Saints is bright and happy and glorious and filled with joy. All Souls seemed, in comparison, perhaps something of a downer, a sad and dreary counterpart to the great Solemnity always overshadowing it. And, in the Calendar before the liturgical reform coming from the Second Vatican Council, All Souls never even got to be celebrated on a Sunday; it would be moved to the next available day.
I do know now that feast days don’t really get their feelings hurt, but the child in me had to cheer a bit this year, because, as it happens, All Souls has the upper hand in my little game of imaginary ecclesiastical-festival-sibling-rivalry. All Saints was not a “day of obligation” this year because it fell on a Saturday, but everybody has to attend All Souls this Sunday!
And that’s spectacular, at least the last part, since All Souls is a grand and magnificent day – even if somber – because it reminds us of two remarkable truths which we might often overlook, especially in the glare of All Saints’ glory.
The first is that it gives us a chance to talk about Purgatory, which is a gift of tremendous proportion, a comforting sign of the unflagging mercy God has for us. And the second is that it reminds us of an almost unimaginable power we possess: that we can actually help the dead.
Purgatory, it seems, has fallen out of favor with many; some even see it as an embarrassment. For the life of me – quite literally – I can’t imagine why. It is the enduring sign of God’s tender love, His patience, His indomitable will that we should all join Him.
You don’t go to a wedding without having first showered and put on clean (at least) and dressy (hopefully) clothes. Yes, you do have an Invitation (the Bride – the Church – and the Groom – Christ Himself – love you and want you there) and you have accepted the Invitation because you love them, and because you’ve become – through grace and the Sacraments and through how you’ve lived your life – their intimate friend. But you wouldn’t show up without first being ready. If you showed up unclean and badly attired, you would insult those you love and who love you, and – since I’m sure you’re a well-mannered and self-respecting person – would make yourself feel very, very uncomfortable, painfully so.
Well, limping analogies and all, this isn’t a bad beginning of an understanding of the grace that Purgatory is. No one can enter the Wedding Feast of the Lamb without being clean (holy) and well-dressed (prepared and desirous of being there). Remember what happened to the guest in the Parable of a few Sundays ago, who did not put on the wedding garment offered to him!
This earthly life offers us many possibilities; and ranking high among them is the opportunity to do our part to get ready to be with God, to participate in the Wedding Feast of the Lamb. And not just as a guest, but as the Bride! It is not the reward for a good life (as if we’d earned it) but it is the (super)natural outflowing of a life lived in friendship with God that we are constantly being prepared – cleaned and scrubbed (by Confession, penance, virtue, prayer and the like) for our entry into the Feast.
But as we all know, if we’re ready to be completely honest, we don’t always stay clean and the garments of our deeds and choices, our memories and our desires, get soiled and rumpled. The Invitation is still in our pocket; we haven’t thrown it away (on purpose) or lost it by our inattention and self-absorption. So, what happens to us, still bedraggled by sin (but not quite the type that blots out our name on the invitation), when the great day, the day of the Wedding Feast – the day of our death, or better yet, our leaving this world – arrives?
We’re not ready to stand fully in the glory of the Presence of the Bridegroom. Shame at our own unpreparedness and unworthiness as well as the fact that only the Holy can exists in the presence of the All Holy, keeps us from entering; the pain of being unclean in His sight would be unbearable, quite literally.
Purgatory is the gift of the bath of God’s love which washes us clean (and, actually, removes the rumpled clothing, restoring instead the dignity of the garment of our human flesh, which is, after all, what the Bridegroom has chosen for Himself), so that we might enter.
Could there be suffering in this? Is the hot water painful that washes away the grime and stain that mars our beauty? Is the pulling off of the scab of selfishness that covers over our true self painful? Is birth painful? Is it also beautiful?
And so we are made new, completely new. Even though we did not always completely accept the many (and perhaps sometimes gentler) means offered us to “get dressed for the Feast” here on earth, the Lord washes us – briskly but lovingly – so that we may be born fully into the glory of His presence. That is Purgatory. That is a Gift. That is a reason to celebrate.
Even when we have not left behind all that is not worthy of Heaven, God finds a way to make us ready. Of course, if we choose not to go with Him, not to accept the Invitation – something which is within our terrible power of freedom – then He will not force us into His Feast. This we must never forget. Though we should not be afraid, we should be always aware that we could choose to say No, and in His love for us, He will bind Himself to let us go away.
The other miracle of Purgatory and of which All Souls reminds us is that we – the living, the Church Militant, the Church fighting not against the world as enemies but fighting for our friends, fighting to set them free – have the ability to help those in Purgatory, those who still need to experience the renewing bath of God’s mercy beyond death.
We do this by our prayers. I think it somewhat indelicate to ask how this works – it is a mystery of God’s own, the workings of which we may one day be allowed to see – but for the moment, it is enough to know that our assistance to them, our reaching out to embrace them in love through our prayers, our sacrifices, even our sufferings here, is real and effective. It buoys them through the waters of God’s love which will carry them, clean and new, home.
We are not left simply to mourn the dead though – together with Jesus who wept at the death of His friend Lazarus – we do that; we are not simply left to remember and cherish them, though that is most fitting. We are able to embrace them in love and aid and even accompany them on their journey home. Pray for the dead every day; this great power has been given to you.
This is (some of) why we call All Souls a Feast.
Eternal rest give unto them, O Lord.
And let perpetual light shine on them.
May they rest in peace.
May their souls, and the souls of all the faithful departed rest in peace.
Prepared for Aleteia by the Canonry of Saint Leopold. Click here to learn more about the Canons Regular of St. Augustine.