“Remember, remember, the month of November” is a phrase that was echoed when I lived in England.
November was the month when everyone remembered the attempted plot to blow up parliament by Guy Fawkes. It was the time of Remembrance Day — the solemn Sunday to remember those who had fallen in two world wars.
For Christians, the month of November is also a time to remember.
All Saints’ Day is the celebration of God’s victory in the lives of those who have been made perfect through the grace of God, while on All Souls’ Day we remember and pray for all the baptized who we believe are still completing their pilgrimage of grace in purgatory. On All Souls’ Day, we pray for them and offer Masses for the repose of their souls.
When we pray for the “repose of the souls” of our departed loved ones, it sounds like a passive activity. It sounds like we are merely putting them to bed and praying for them to rest in peace. However, our prayers for the departed should be understood in a more active way. They are not sleeping. If they are in purgatory, they are still on their journeys.
Dante, in his Divine Comedy, portrayed purgatory as a mountain to be climbed. The dead who had escaped the punishment of hell pressed onward and upward by climbing “Mount Purgatory” together. Our prayers for the dead and our offering of Masses for them are a true help to them as they travel.
Dante makes it clear that purgatory is a place of joy and hope. The souls in purgatory know they have escaped hell and are headed to heaven. Furthermore, they are not alone in the effort.
In hell, the souls are tormented by the devils and by one another.
In purgatory, the souls are joyful because they are all helping one another climb the mountain. There are pains in purgatory, but those pains are connected with the purification that is taking place as the pains are endured. The pains in hell are punitive, but purgatory is purgative. In other words, the pain is for gain; the struggle is for sanctity. The fire is a purifier.
This is why Dante’s image of a mountain is perfect. To climb a mountain, one must endure hardship. It is no easy task. The weary legs, the shortness of breath, the back pain and toil up the trail are all part of the experience and the final reward. When those in purgatory approach the peak and gasp at the vision of the “rolling hills and the far, green country beyond,” they realize the prize was worth the pain.
The pains of purgatory are like those endured by the athlete or artist in quest of perfection. A pianist must learn to read music, practice every day, take instruction from the master and sacrifice all for musical perfection. An athlete must discipline his body, suffer defeat and failure, refine his talent, hone his skills, practice constantly, take lessons from his coach and strive against his willfulness and overcome his weaknesses to win the trophy. Furthermore, the triumph of the trophy, the joy of the masterful music, is sweet because of the effort expended.
There is no great accomplishment in taking a cable car to the mountain top. There is no great feat in watching a sport or listening to recorded music.
The joy of the summit is built into the struggle to get there.
Rooted in this vision of purgatory is an especially Catholic understanding of grace. God works within us through his grace, but he does not do all the work for us. The Protestant John Calvin said, “You cannot get to heaven by good works, but you cannot get to heaven without good works.” In other words, the work we do towards purification in this life and in purgatory on the other side is not our own work, but God’s great work within us.
We are called to cooperate with this grace, and it is in this delicate dance of cooperation that God grants us great dignity.
God takes us seriously. He gives us the grace to grow into the likeness of Christ, but he also gives us the will to engage with that grace and do the hard work of purification.
God gives us the responsibility to work with him for our soul’s perfection. Our decisions matter; our effort matters. And purgatory is a reminder that the work must be done either in this life or the next.
The work must be done because it is our destiny to “grow up into the full humanity of Christ” (Ephesians 4:13). We are to be God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works (Ephesians 2:10). We participate in this purification process in order to become unique icons of Christ — radiant in eternity.
This is why, on All Souls’ Day, we should pray not only that our loved ones might rest in peace, but that they might continue their journeys.
In C.S. Lewis’ final Narnia story, the children die in the final battle and enter the “real Narnia,” which is like the Narnia they knew, but it is a high land of mountains and lakes where they run ever faster towards their final homeland. As they go, they cry out together with great joy, “Further up, and further in!”
This is the prayer we have for our departed loved ones. Like the crowd cheering the runners in a race or the children in Narnia, we cry out for them, “Further up, and further in! Don’t be tired or discouraged! We are rooting for you here, that you might climb the mountain there. Keep going in God’s good grace! Finish the race; run the course set before you. Do not lose heart! We remember you. We remember you. Further up, and further in!”
Father Dwight Longenecker leads parish missions,
speaks at conferences, writes a blog,
has a radio show on EWTN and writes Catholic books.
Be in touch at DwightLongencker.com.