Seventh Spiritual Work of Mercy: Praying for the Living and Dead

Giovanni Battista Salvi da Sassoferrato (1609-1685), “The Virgin in Prayer”
Giovanni Battista Salvi da Sassoferrato (1609-1685), “The Virgin in Prayer” (photo: Public Domain)

The final spiritual work of mercy is surprisingly simple and accessible to all: “pray for the living and the dead.” However, at the same time it is very easy to forget in a culture where we are taught to be independent and divorced from our past.

First of all, while “praying for the living” is a practice accepted by almost all Christians, the modern world is constantly telling us to feed our own appetites before even thinking about other people. Unknowingly, we revert to a “me” centered prayer life. We ask, and ask, and ask, and ask and get annoyed with God when He does not give us what we want.

While it is appropriate to ask God for what we desire in life that should not be the center of our prayer life. This is very similar to how we teach children to not seek only what they want. For those who are parents, you know firsthand that children tend to want everything and they want it now. My own four year old daughter has a hard time understanding she can’t horde everything and keep toys away from her siblings. It is only through years of teaching and example that children learn that they are not the center of the universe. They can’t always have what they want because someone else would benefit much more.

That is why we must cultivate praying for others. This will help us acquire the virtue of charity and combat the sins of pride and greed. If we think and pray more about others, we will have a very fruitful prayer life that imitates the love and care that God has for us.

However, we must realize that praying for others does not stop once they are buried in a cemetery. The dead need our prayers as we do not know their final destination. Most likely they are in purgatory (we have no way of knowing) and our prayers do help them draw closer to Heaven. This practice is as ancient as the Jewish people and can be found in the book of Maccabees:

“[Judas Maccabeus] turned to prayer beseeching that the sin which had been committed might be wholly blotted out… He also took up a collection... and sent it to Jerusalem to provide for a sin offering. In doing this he acted very well and honorably… Therefore he made atonement for the dead, that they might be delivered from their sin” (II Maccabees 12:39-46).

The need for atonement for sins after death is again revisited in the Gospels and in the letters of the New Testament. In the Gospels Jesus makes a reference to Purgatory:

“Make friends quickly with your accuser, while you are going with him to court, lest your accuser hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you be put in prison; truly I say to you, you will never get out till you have paid the last penny” (Matthew 5:25-26).

The most obvious text in the New Testament comes from St. Paul in his letter to the Corinthians:

“For no other foundation can any one lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if any one builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, stubble—each man’s work will become manifest; for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. If the work which any man has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. If any man’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire” (I Corinthians 3:11-15).

This is the most explicit reference to Purgatory in the Bible and speaks of our final judgement and the need to be saved “through fire.” We in turn are asked to pray for our deceased family and friends in a similar way that we are asked to pray for the living. Both the living and the dead (those in Purgatory) suffer trials and both are in need of prayers to help alleviate the time and pain endured.

One particular custom that needs to be revived is the practice of visiting the graves of relatives. This is a great tradition to do each November as it is the Month of the Holy Souls in Purgatory. The most appropriate day to do this would be on November 2nd, the memorial day of All Souls, but really any day in November would suffice.

Praying for the dead is also a great work of mercy that helps shape our own souls. It reminds us of our mortality and the fact that we must work hard for our own salvation on earth. Whenever we pray for the dead, we should always seek to examine our own lives and contemplate the state of our soul.

As we conclude the seven spiritual works of mercy, let us remember that in practicing these spiritual works we too will be transformed and made into an image of Christ. For it is in giving that we receive.