This month begins with All Souls Day and includes Remembrance Sunday. It is a time of the year when the liturgy and prayer of the church meets the reality of physical death with the Gospel hope of resurrection and eternal communion with God. The church militant on earth joins its prayers with the church triumphant in heaven in order that the whole mystical Body of Christ should seek the perfect will of God in those who have died. It was to the penitent thief, as he died on the cross, that Jesus promised ‘today you will be with me in paradise’ (Luke 23.43). It is only by penitence, and by a fellowship with Jesus in whatever suffering we experience, that we can come to paradise. Physical death is one stop on the journey of the soul, there are many other dwelling places or mansions (mansions – from the Latin mansere to rest or to dwell) in our Father’s house (John 14.2). It is a journey we must all undertake and we all need the prayers of the church to aid us on our way.
Beyond death we are outside the material world and therefore time ceases to exist. It is therefore difficult to describe or understand any kind of process or sequence, or stages in the purification necessary to come into full communion with God. It will be a spiritual encounter, it will be entirely the work of the Holy Spirit, which is a transforming and consuming fire, and this fire is the fire of Love. In his famous poem ‘The Dream of Gerontius’ St John Henry Newman imagined a lake into which the soul is immersed to be cleansed and he writes words of encouragement to the soul beginning this baptism: ‘masses on earth and prayers in heaven, shall aid thee at the Throne of the Most Highest.’ It is indeed a great and awesome work we do when we pray for the souls of the departed.
As I grow older, and I share the spiritual journey with others in the autumn and winter of life, I have come to understand that the process of purgation begins in this life. It is often said by the elderly that their past becomes increasingly vivid in the memory. Often the memory is reawakened to remind a person of events and relationships long buried in the mind, and with this can come a regret and shame. I have come to understand this to be, for the Christian, a work of God’s grace. God in his mercy is beginning the process of leading a person into penitence in order that the image and likeness of God in them can begin its renewal and restoration. This is why the practice of prayerful examination of conscience and confession is so vital. It has consequences for our eternal destiny.
In our prayers for the departed we are caught up in the work of the Christ, which is to reconcile all things to himself (Colossians 1:19). In such prayer, we touch the edge of a great mystery for, as St Paul writes, quoting Isaiah; ‘eye has not seen nor ear heard, nor the heart of man conceived what God has prepared for those who love him.’ (1 Corinthians 2:9)
Canon Hawes writes a blog at https://canonhawes.wordpress.com