Instead of a cleansing fire, this saint presents us with a lake as we're enfolded in angel arms.
We do not want you to be unaware, brothers and sisters, about those who have fallen asleep, so that you may not grieve like the rest, who have no hope. For if we believe that Jesus died and rose, so too will God, through Jesus, bring with him those who have fallen asleep.
St. John Henry Newman, the Anglican convert to Catholicism and master of the spiritual life, wrote a staggering number of brilliant theological works. One edition of Newman’s collected works spans 31 volumes! His preaching and theological insight are extraordinary rich and are evidence of a man who spent his life in search of wisdom.
Today’s first reading tells us that wisdom is “Resplendent and unfading” and that wisdom “is readily perceived by those who love her, and found by those who seek her” (Wis. 6:12). Newman pursued wisdom, seeking to plumb the depths of mystery, looking to know God and to perceive his designs in all things.
The Christian pursuit of wisdom is not like trying to win Jeopardy. Wisdom is not simply knowing an assortment of facts, however astonishing in its breadth such knowledge might be. Wisdom is about the integration of all things into the plan of God. For the Christian, wisdom means to understand how Christ is at work, redeeming and loving.
Not merely a master of theology, Newman was also a gifted poet. My favorite of Newman’s poems, “The Dream of Gerontius,” tells the story of a soul’s journey after death. The poem opens with Gerontius’ death, then narrates his experience of appearing before the judgment seat of Christ. Guided by his guardian angel, throughout the poem Gerontius is fortified by the prayers of a priest (who ministered to him at his deathbed) and his friends.
The poem succeeds because it grapples with the question every person must ask: What will become of me when I die? For Newman, the answer is guided by wisdom: All things are brought to their perfection in Christ.
Not everyone sees it this way of course. Newman’s Victorian age was haunted by nihilism and darkness. It was not so different from our own. In his poem, Newman places demons in a courtroom. As Gerontius passes, he hears them mocking Christ. The demons say,
Virtue and vice,
A knave’s pretence,
‘Tis all the same;
Dread of hell-fire,
Of the venomous flame,
A coward’s plea.
Why live well? Why strive for a holy life? According to the demons, people of faith comfort themselves with tales of the afterlife because they are too afraid to face anything else. They call the Christian account of life after death, “a coward’s plea.” Gerontius’ guardian angel comforts him, offering a soothing word against the demons’ howl.
The poem brings to light the tension of life on this side of eternity. As St. Paul says, “we see now dimly as in a mirror” (1 Cor. 13:12). We do not see all things clearly now. We will, though. This is the Christian teaching. In the life to come, in the life of the heavenly host, we will rejoice seeing God face-to-face. Our vision will be complete.
To be prepared for such a vision, however, our souls must be cleansed. This is the Catholic teaching of purgatory. In order to be made ready, the lingering effects of our sins must be washed away. The Catechism puts it this way, saying, “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” (CCC, 1030).
While some have speculated that the cleansing action of purgatory will be like a cleansing by fire, Newman preferred baptismal, that is, washing imagery. In the final stanzas of the poem, Gerontius arrives at the edge of a lake, which is Newman’s vision of purgatory. Gerontius’ Guardian Angel tells him,
Softly and gently, dearly-ransom’d soul,
In my most loving arms I now enfold thee,
And, o’er the penal waters, as they roll,
I poise thee, and I lower thee, and hold thee.
For the souls in purgatory, this time is a time of hope. They eagerly await the morning, when washed clean of the stains of sin, they will be welcomed into heaven. Their song is marked by confidence in God’s mercy and a longing to enter “the courts of light.” Again, the Guardian Angel assures Gerontius,
Angels, to whom the willing task is given,
Shall tend, and nurse, and lull thee, as thou liest;
And masses on the earth, and prayers in heaven,
Shall aid thee at the Throne of the Most Highest.
Gerontius is not alone! The fellowship of the Christians on their earthly pilgrimage and the prayers of the saints in heaven above sustain him, as he is washed and prepared to pass through heaven’s gate.
Though this talk may seem folly to some, it is the heart of Christian wisdom. By his suffering and death, Jesus has accomplished the work of our redemption. The glory of the cross is that in the here and now, and in the life to come, every pain and sorrow can be changed. We will be healed by conforming ourselves to the cross of Jesus.
We Christians do not grieve like others. Filled with the hope that wisdom offers, we look forward to the day when Christ will raise up our loved ones who have fallen asleep. Let this hope animate our prayers for the dead, and help us live here and now for what is to come.