Friday, October 28, 2016

31st Sunday Yr C (Luke 19:1-10) Remembering the dead

There is a lady called Maria Simma (1915-2004) who became famous because the Holy Souls apparently used to appear to her and ask her for prayers for them. She lived in Austria as a peasant for most of her life. She tried religious life but was unable to continue because she was too weak physically. She actually tried three different convents but had to leave each in turn. She ended up doing simple work and living on her own. She only received education to the age of 12, but her mother had great devotion to praying for the souls in Purgatory and she seems to have inherited this too. 

The first time a soul appeared to her she was 25 years old (1940) and for the following several years only two or three souls appeared to her over the course of a year, but then from 1954 onward they continually appeared to her. In reading about her I found it very interesting to learn what some of the souls said to her. One case in particular is as follows. She recalls how a young man appeared to her asking her to pray for him. He told her the circumstances of his death. He lived in a mountain village somewhere in the Alps. He wasn’t a very religious man and in fact lived a pretty wild lifestyle. One year there were a series of avalanches. 

One night while he was asleep there was another avalanche and he woke up to hear the screams of people nearby who were trapped. He jumped up and rushed out to help them. His mother tried to stop him screaming, ‘Don’t go out, you will be killed too!’ However, he went anyway and he was killed. But he explained to Maria Simma that God in his mercy had allowed him to die at a time when he was being most giving, most self-less. This action had redeemed so much of what he had done wrong in his life. 

That story has always stayed with me since I read it. God in his mercy gives us the benefit of the doubt. He goes out of his way to make allowances for us, even excuses for us, you might say, because that is when all that we have believed in and struggled to be faithful to, will make sense.

When my Grandmother used to hear people using the expression, ‘rest in peace,’ she would sometimes say, ‘I don’t want to “rest in peace” I want to be alive and active!’ I think she had the right idea. What God has created us for in the world to come is something unimaginably wonderful and that is why God goes to such lengths to make sure we get there. The greatest thing God has done for us after giving us the gift of life, is making sure that we can reach that happiness and that is only possible through the death and resurrection of Jesus. God will do everything to make sure we reach that happiness, but God cannot force us because of the free will He has given us, so we must be careful to make the right choices ourselves.

November is the month where we traditionally remember those who have died and it is good that we do. Starting with the feast of All Saints on Nov 1st we celebrate all those who are in heaven; probably many if not all of our family members who are now saints. Anyone who is in heaven is a saint. Even though we officially recognize just a few of them, everyone there is a saint. Then on Nov 2nd we have the feast of All Souls where we pray for all who have died.

Why do we need to pray for the dead? Aren’t they all in heaven? Hopefully most of them are, but if you think about yourself for a moment, if you died today, do you think that you would be ready to enter the presence of the all holy God straight away? I doubt if I would. Most of us probably need a little refining, or being purified before we are ready for that. A good analogy is of someone waking up in the morning and being faced with the blinding light of the sun. Initially even the bedroom light is too much and we have to slowly wait until our eyes adjust; the light of the sun would be absolutely unbearable at first. The funny thing is that we want to see the sun in the morning because it is beautiful, but at the same time we are not able for it straight away.

Traditionally the Church teaches us about Purgatory, which is the last stage of getting ready to be in God’s presence when we die. This is not a punishment; rather it is a purification to make us ready for the wonderful presence of God, which we will enjoy for all eternity. So in fact it is a great gift from God and not something we should be afraid of. The Church also teaches us that we can help those who are still at that stage of Purgatory by praying for them. That is why we pray for the dead in every mass we offer throughout the whole year and we remember them especially during the month of November.

In St.Paul’s first letter to the Christians in Corinth, he says the following: ‘If our hope in Christ has been for this life only, we are of all people the most to be pitied’ (1 Cor 15:19). In other words if we think that this life is what it’s all about, we have completely missed the point of our faith. What God teaches us is that we are all the time preparing for the world to come. This life is a kind of school or training ground, where we are free to love or not, to choose for God or not and the choices we make have consequences. If we keep in mind that something wonderful awaits us, which is what we will experience sooner or later, that helps us not to get too immersed in the world. We all get distracted and bogged down with the worries of this life, but we need to keep reminding ourselves of what our life is about, so that we don’t waste it. If we keep in mind the thought and hope of the world to come, where we will experience life in a way we can never experience it here, it helps us to keep the right focus. Death is not something for us to be afraid of; rather it will be the beginning of something unimaginably wonderful.

I leave you with this thought: Why do those who have died not come back to tell us what it is like? I’m sure it is because they know that it is not necessary for us to know. The ‘not knowing’ is part of the struggle of faith. For now we try to believe and trust in what the Lord has taught us: ‘Do not let your hearts be troubled or afraid. There are many rooms in my Father’s house. If there were not would I have told you that I am going to prepare a place for you?’ (John 14:1).

Eternal rest grant to them O Lord and may perpetual light shine upon them.  May they enjoy the happiness that awaits us all.

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