Only when I came back to the Church a few years ago did I hear the phrase, “Eternal Rest grant unto them, O Lord; and, may Your Perpetual Light shine upon them.” It was a confusing prayer and I wasn’t quite sure why it was used. However, in the past few years, I have learned a little more about the teaching of the Church, and spent time pondering this short prayer.
The first year after reverting back to the Catholic Church, November came and went and I didn’t think too much as I celebrated the obligatory Holy Day of Obligation on November 1st, the Solemnity of the Feast of All Saints. I didn’t bat an eyelash the first couple years about the day after–November 2nd, the Feast of All Souls. However, as I sat with the Diary of St. Faustina, a tome I have yet to complete, the realization of the prayer mentioned earlier struck me. Since then the Feast of All Souls has become permanently embedded in my brain. In fact, I must confess, I actually prefer the Feast of All Souls over the day preceding it.
The word purgatory will never be found in the Bible. Because of that, many Protestant denominations will give that as evidence it does not exist. While the name may not be there, however, the theology is loudly and clearly written in several places. Few know that the biblical support for purgatory is one reason Martin Luther removed the book of Maccabees from the Bible. In addition to other teachings, Luther disagreed with the Catholic teaching of sanctification, therefore, he wasn’t a fan of a soul having to go through a “purification” after death to enter heaven.
God is perfect. He is perfection. Through Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross, we are saved and God as present Father, Son and Holy Spirit is pristine, without blemish, and perfect. Christ himself, as he hung on the Cross, was perfection–the “unblemished lamb” required for the Passover meal (see Brant Pitre’s book, Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist, for expanded teaching on that subject).
If heaven is home to our perfect God, then heaven must be perfect, too. In Judaism, the Temple houses the Holy of Holies, which is so special that only the most select, purified rabbis are allowed to enter. In Catholicism, the tabernacle is God’s dwelling place outside the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. That gold box is adorned, beautiful, and sacred because it houses God himself, as he is present in the bread of the Eucharist!
While we approach God as stained sinners, he cleanses us of our sins! Through Baptism and Confirmation, we are cleansed and draw strength to undergo sanctification. Through Reconciliation, we can be continuously cleansed of sins. Before receiving Jesus in the Eucharist, we should not have sinned mortally and we confess our venial sins at the beginning of Mass. In 1 Corinthians 11:27, St. Paul was clear we must receive the Eucharist in a worthy state. The rest of that chapter then details how to ensure we are worthily receiving Christ in the Eucharist.
But what happens when death is sudden? When we have received Jesus “unworthily” or failed to make amends for my massive slip-ups? How can our dirty soul enter perfection and embrace an unblemished Lamb without leaving him dirty?!
ENTER THE TEACHING OF PURGATORY!
Simply, purgatory is God’s final act of mercy for repentant sinners. If we die before cleansing ourselves entirely of sin through the sacraments, then God mercifully allows us to undergo purification so we may dwell with him forever.
To me, that teaching is exquisite!
Yes, Jesus died for our sins and paid the eternal price for our offenses against an infinite God. But we will still be accountable for the earthly effects of our sins, for which we can make amends in this life and in purgatory. We are all sinners, yet we fail in faith or in good works, so we are given one final opportunity for spiritual cleansing. Scripture compares purgatory to a cleansing “fire” (1 Corinthians 3:12-15).
We are called to pray for those who are undergoing this merciful spiritual cleansing. We know from 2 Maccabees 12:46 that the Jews “made atonement for the dead that they might be absolved from their sin.” This leads to the Catholic teaching that we can be absolved of our sins after death. Those still on the journey here on earth have an obligation to “make atonement” for those who are suffering this final purification. This is why praying for the dead is a spiritual work of mercy for Catholics.
The universal Church recognizes this every November, through All Souls Day. Through dedicating the entire month to Holy Souls, the Church actually asks us to focus specifically on those in Purgatory. We pray for them, add Mass intentions, fast, and perform other good works that we offer up for them. We also can offer our struggles on behalf of the holy souls in purgatory. But our attention to these souls should not wane come December.
This October, I was in daily Mass and thought about an inspirational, holy man who, like my grandparents in the image attached to this post, had passed away. Without knowing it, this man significantly impacted my spiritual life. I expect he will be a saint–not canonized, but still a member of the Church Triumphant in heaven. Yet, because I cannot presume to know God’s plans for this man, I offered that Mass for him in my heart.
As I glanced around the chapel that day, I began to worry for the holy souls in purgatory who do not have anyone praying for them. My works can contribute to absolving souls of their sins, but how many are left begging us to make atonement so their soul can taste the relief only found within the Celestial Kingdom? I have names I can pray for, but how many souls are not remembered explicitly by name because their families do not pray for them?
I left Mass that day resolute, determined to double my efforts to remember the holy souls throughout the year and I have added Stories About Purgatory and What They Reveal to my reading list. As members the Church Militant, we are all called to this. Many people fear death and I admit that I squirm at the thought of my own purgatory. Yet I expect some slight relief from God’s final act of mercy, which will lead my soul to be able to fully embrace the unblemished Lamb.
And nothing could be more beautiful!
So, will you please join me this month in praying for, fasting for, and sacrificing for the holy souls of purgatory? Is there a soul in your life you would like me to pray for? I would be honored to add their name to my list! And will you join me in reciting the prayer that confused me just a few years ago, but brings me much comfort today?
ETERNAL REST GRANT UNTO THEM, O LORD; AND MAY THE LORD’S PERPETUAL LIGHT SHINE UPON THEM.