November is a time when we pray especially for those who have died. We pray for them because we know it’s important to pray for the dead, that they will have their sins forgiven. When we die most people are not holy enough that they can come straight into the presence of God’s pure holiness, so they go through a state or ‘purification’, or ‘being made ready’ for God. This is what we call Purgatory and we know that we can help the souls of those who are there, by praying for them and making sacrifices for them. I often think of it this way: when we wake up in the morning and turn on the bed-side light, we have to shield our eyes because it is too bright. We have to adjust. Can you imagine if we had the full light of the sun at that moment? It would be unbearable. So a time of adjustment is needed. We may also need to atone for sins that we have committed but have not atoned for. How do we know this is true? Many of the saints have been shown Purgatory and this has been explained to them. One of the most extraordinary mystics of all time, St. Pius of Pietrelcina (better known as Padre Pio), said that more souls came to him from Purgatory asking for prayers, than people on earth did. And so we pray for those who have died and not just mourn for them. When I die, I’m sure people will mourn for me as is normal when anyone dies. I would rather that they pray for me.
Is it foolish for us to ever think that hell and purgatory are real? If it were impossible for anyone to go there, then Jesus would hardly have warned people so often to be careful as there would have been no need. But Jesus frequently warned us to be careful and to be ready and not just to presume that everything will be alright. We can always have great confidence in God’s mercy and never be afraid, but I think what Jesus is warning us of, is presumption. It would be a mistake to presume that everything will be fine, even if we have completely ignored God all our life. The attitude that you meet quite often which says, ‘I’ll be alright on the day. I’ll sort things out with God myself’, as though we were equal to God, or could manipulate God. God will of course forgive those who repent and are sincere. That is what Jesus continually assured us of. But it would be foolish of us to think that we can take advantage of his mercy. God is merciful, but God is not a fool.
But how could hell exist at all, you say? How could a loving God send anyone to hell? It’s a good question. God doesn’t send anyone to hell. We choose it for ourselves by the way we live. Think of it this way: if God is all goodness, beauty, light, love, joy and total fulfillment in a way that we never experience on this earth. Then hell is the opposite of this; evil, ugliness, darkness, hatred, isolation and the terrible pain of knowing that we have lost the chance of total fulfillment and happiness. To reject God is to reject all that God is. By rejecting God, we choose the opposite. Our life on earth is the time we have to make the choice for God or against God and we do that by the way we live.
God does not want anyone to be cut off from him. That is not what He created us for. And God continually gives each of us every opportunity to come back to him, all through our life, no matter how far we may have strayed. Think of the ‘good thief’ dying on the cross beside Jesus. When he asks Jesus to remember him, Jesus replies, ‘Truly I tell you, this day you will be with me in paradise’ (Luke 23:43). God will never give up on us, as long as we are alive, but we also have to decide for God and if we don’t, we have to face the consequences. We have free will, but our choices also have consequences.
Look at what it says in the Gospel reading about the bridesmaids who were left outside. When they said ‘Lord, Lord, let us in.’ He said, ‘I do not know you’. They had never concerned themselves with God and so they did not know God, and so God did not know them. ‘I do not know you’.
We need not let ourselves be preoccupied with this, as God assures of his infinite mercy to anyone who reaches out to him, but just as the world is full of dangers, such as drugs, violence and people with evil intentions and we always try to warn our children what they need to be careful of, so God is doing the same with us, warning us that we need to be careful.
The Lord is telling us to be wise and realise that we have to be responsible. If you say you believe in God, then do, and live as He asks you to live, and don’t be afraid. We all want to reach the happiness of heaven and there’s no reason why we shouldn’t, but we also must be wise and not take it for granted.