Getting Ready For God: Thoughts On Purgatory

Status

I was in my room in Dublin one bitterly cold January day, getting ready to fly to South Africa to give a retreat to the Pallottine Seminarians there. Travelling light had become second nature to me and the case on my bed was fairly small but while I was packing it a voice inside me said, “you don’t need all this stuff.” But I ignored it because anything in it was actually essential – my bible, notes, just enough clothes.

And I arrived at Heathrow for the flight to Johannesburg, checked in my little suitcase and boarded the flight. By now the temperature had dropped to minus 7 and we were left sitting a long time in the plane while they made up their minds to fly or not. When they decided they would fly they discovered that there were no baggage handlers to put our luggage on the plane and after another long wait the pilot announced that we would fly without the luggage. There was a discontent murmur among the passengers but I just smiled as I thought of the voice I heard back in Dublin.

In Johannesburg they took our details and promised to send on our bags. My destination was a farm out in the country a good distance away. The temperature was thirty degrees and by the third day my bag had not arrived and I was in a bad way. My clothes reeked!

On that third day one of the students, Cosmas, came to me to say he would give me some of his clothes to wear. He is much taller and bigger than me and I thought I’m going to look ridiculous but there was no other option. So, he gave me his clothes and took away my own to wash them. Every second day he did the same. He was an angel of mercy and I looked ridiculous! And my bag never arrived!

This journey has become a parable for me of my journey home to eternal life, a symbol of what might happen to me in death when I pass from this world into the next. It is a process of being carried, an experience of letting go of the unnecessary aspects of my life, a stripping away of the old clothes, the washing away of the sweat and grime of the journey and being clothed with something new.

Purgatory is the name given by the Church to the stage in between death and our arrival into the fullness of life in heaven, an experience of purification in the fire of Divine Love, that fire desired by the mystics which is spiritual and not a physical burning. It is the stripping and burning away of what is imperfect so that we can put on what is perfect, not a legal perfectionism but the perfection of Love, the perfection that comes from Christ that we cannot attain by our own efforts.

My sister and I were talking about purgatory and she was surprised when I said that I will spend time in that state after I die. She thinks I should go straight to heaven but I know that I am not ready and will not be ready for full communion with God because, as it stands, only a miracle would break my attachment to sin.

I will need to let go of my resistance to God himself; I will need to be stripped of my resentments and desires for revenge; I will need to divest myself of and make some recompense for the hurts I have done to others; the injustices towards others that I have tolerated; for my disregard for God’s earth, the ways in which I have participated in its destruction. These are some of the things I will need to shed and let go of and I hope too that I will be consoled for the hurts inflicted on me in life, that the wounds of life will be somehow transformed or glorified.

One of Ireland’s most demanding pilgrimages is St. Patrick’s Purgatory in Lough Derg, an island on a lake in County Donegal, a place of penance and prayer. Once you get on that island there’s no getting off and no avoiding of what must be done but at the end there is a real sense of having been purified and it serves me as a good example of what Purgatory might be like. It is devoid of pleasure and devoid of sleep for a day, a night and another day. The one moment of pleasure is getting into bed after 36 hours of wakeful penance. And then it’s done!

Getting ready for God to me is like getting ready for my wedding and I see myself as a fisherman coming home on his trawler after a long labour at sea, with salt and grease and the odour of fish embedded in my flesh. I would not go directly from this noble labour to my wedding without meticulous preparation, a deep immersion in a thorough cleansing, because I would want to look and smell and be my best for the one I love. I want at least the same and more for God.

And in order to become our best selves in the presence of God we need others to help us, the souls of our loved ones need us to help them by our prayers, especially by the Mass. That’s why we dedicate ourselves to this during the month of November.

 

Prayer to St. Anthony of Padua

Status

Dear Saint Anthony, we are all pilgrims on this earth. We came from God and we are going to Him. He who created us will welcome us at journey’s end. The Lord Jesus is preparing a place for all His brothers and sisters. Saint Anthony, Guide of Pilgrims, direct my steps in the straight path. Protect me until I am safely home in heaven. Help me in all my needs and difficulties. Amen!

KNOWN UNTO GOD: The Least Thing Has Meaning

Status

It’s the summer of ’78 when ‘Saturday Night Fever’ is in full flight and I’m a student working in Germany for the holidays.

That same summer I went to visit the Rheinberg War Cemetery, the resting place of more than three thousand victims of World War II. I was struck by the silent stillness, the sheer beauty and peace of it and I pondered the contrasting uproar of ugliness, the unspeakable suffering that gave birth to this place. War is an awful reality that I cannot understand but I find in myself a great respect for every single person who has served in war in any capacity; the selfless generosity and courage is deserving of my honour and admiration.

And the peaceful silence that rests over such cemeteries seems to me to speak of promise – God’s promise of a lasting peace that is eternal, a peace that only Christ can give, a peace that will perhaps elude us as long as we live on earth, a peace that will find its fulfilment in heaven. Such a promise in no way is a justification for war but God has a war of turning all things to good.

Most of the headstones in Rheinberg bear the name of the one buried but there are 158 that bear no name and at the bottom of the headstone is written “Known Unto God” – this more than anything impresses itself on my heart and mind.

Known unto God is the most important knowing there is but it is part of our human makeup to ignore such knowing because we really want to be known by those around us. To be known and noticed and appreciated. Small things like someone noticing your new hairdo, the meal you cooked, the job you did in the garden and how we suffer when the ordinary things of our lives go unnoticed.

It’s a harsh reality for many people that there is no one there to notice anything about us and God is inviting us to pay attention to the fact that He takes notice of every single aspect of our lives. For sensitive souls, for the scrupulous of a certain generation this conjures up notions of God watching us in a fearsome way, ready to catch us out as soon as we make a mistake. I’m thinking about God noticing in an admiring, appreciative way. This matters when one is left feeling unimportant, insignificant in life.

When my mother died, I suddenly realized that I was no longer anybody’s son. My father was already 18 years gone and I became nobody’s child in this world. It hit home to me when someone asked, “whose are you now?” It happens to the widowed or when one’s child has died. It creates an emptiness that cannot be put into words and in some way we became nothing for a while, a long while.

I’m thinking about a book someone gave me years ago – ‘Even the Least Thing Has Meaning’ – and I’m thinking about a single leaf on top of a tree that I was admiring one day. That leaf is visible to no one except God and the birds and in that lies its meaning – that it is seen by God, known by God, admired by God who created it and that is enough. During that little meditation I was feeling very insignificant and, on the edge, and it was a grace that I could accept that it was enough for me to be seen and known by God. Ultimately, I am a son of God and that’s enough.

It’s what we come across in the gospels – the supreme importance of what is little and seemingly of no account. The child. At our family Mass on Sunday we have a rather lengthy offertory procession – someone suggested that it takes half an hour which is not true. Maybe it takes ten minutes but it is important because every single little thing presented there by the child matters to God, every single child matters as do the parents who walk with them. They represent all of us and somehow, they are making all the little offerings on behalf of the whole community. After Mass today a little girl came to me with a fallen, fading leaf which she handed to me with a smile saying, “this is for you Father.” Even the least thing has meaning!

It is one of the lovely things I liked about the offertory in Tanzania. Not just the children but every person in the congregation came forward with an offering – some with money, others with a few onions or eggs or a bag of grain – essential aspects of life, things that matter however small.

There’s an offering taking place in today’s gospel (Mark 12:38-44). People putting money into the treasury, some putting in a lot and maybe feeling important in doing so but the one who catches the attention of Jesus is the poor widow who puts in two small coins. She might have put in the least amount compared to all the others but, for Jesus, she has put in everything she had and so her offering is wholehearted, completely generous.

So, when we find in life that we have little or nothing to give, it’s important to give all the same because it matters in itself and it matters to God with whom what is insufficient becomes sufficient, more than enough.

The widow of the first reading reminds me of a little experience I had at communion time at Mass one time at a retreat I was attending.  I was given the chalice to share with the people and as soon as I saw it, I said to myself, “this is never enough for all this crowd” and I felt a bit annoyed with the priest who had put the wine in the chalice, that he hadn’t put in more.

And so the people were coming to me one by one and I kept thinking that this will never last, the Precious Blood will run out when the words of the Prophet Elijah came into my mind, words spoken in today’s first reading – “The jar of meal will not be emptied and the jug of oil will not fail” ( 1 Kings 17:10-16)– and so it was with the chalice. When Communion was finished there was actually some left over. More than enough in the end!