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 and come into God’s presence in heaven. Most people when they die, are not so holy that they can come directly into the presence of God’s pure holiness, so they go through a state or ‘purification’, or ‘being made ready’ so that they can come into God’s presence. This is what we call purgatory and it is a mercy of God, because otherwise we would not be able to take in God’s incredible presence.
We know that we can help the souls of those who are there, by praying for them and making sacrifices for them. 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. It takes a few seconds for our eyes to adjust. Can you imagine if we had the full light of the sun at that moment? It would be unbearable and so a time of adjustment is needed. We may also need to atone for sins that we have committed, even if we have confessed them. If someone has lived a sinful life, but at the end of their life sees this and asks God for mercy, God promises his mercy. Would it make sense that that person would instantly be in heaven, if they had only just asked forgiveness before they died? That would be unjust. They would have to atone for their sins and that is what purgatory is; a time of ‘purgation’ or purification.
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), who died in 1968, said that more souls came to him from Purgatory asking for prayers, than people on earth. Another lady called Maria Simma, who died in 2004, also had the gift of the Holy Souls coming to her to ask for prayers. She was born in Austria and in an interview this is how she describes the first encounter she had:
|Maria Simma (1915-2004)|
Well, I saw a complete stranger. He walked back and forth slowly. I said to him severely: “How did you get in here? Go away!” But he continued to walk impatiently around the bedroom, as if he hadn’t heard. So I asked him again; “What are you doing?” but as he still didn’t answer, I jumped out of the bed and tried to grab him, but I grasped only air. There was nothing there, So I went back to bed, but again I heard him pacing back and forth. I wondered how I could see this man, but I couldn’t grab him. I rose again to hold onto him and stop him walking around; again, I grasped only emptiness. Puzzled, I went back to bed. He didn’t come back, but I couldn’t get back to sleep. The next day, after Mass, I went to see my spiritual director and told him everything. He told me that if this should happen, I shouldn’t ask, “Who are you?: but “What do you want from me?” The following night, the man returned, definitely the same man. I asked him, “What do you want from me?” He replied: “Have three Masses celebrated for me and I will be delivered.” So I understood that it was a soul in Purgatory. My spiritual father confirmed this. He also advised me never to turn away the poor souls, but to accept with generosity whatever they asked of me.
After this, more and more souls began to appear to her asking for prayer. She described purgatory this way:
Suppose that one day a door opens, and a splendid being appears, extremely beautiful, of a beauty that has never been seen on earth. You are fascinated, overwhelmed by this being of light and beauty, even more so that this being shows that he is madly in love with you — you have never dreamed of being loved so much. You sense too that he has a great desire to draw you to him, to be one with you. And the fire of love which burns in your heart impels you to throw yourself into his arms. But wait — you realize at this moment that you haven’t washed for months and months, that you smell bad; you nose is running, your hair is greasy and matted, there are big dirty stains on your clothes, etc. So you say to yourself, “No, I just can’t present myself in this state. First I must go and wash: a good shower, then straight away I’ll come back.”
But the love which has been born in your heart is so intense, so burning, so strong, that this delay for the shower is absolutely unbearable. And the pain of the absence, even if it only lasts for a couple of minutes, is an atrocious wound in the heart, proportional to the intensity of the revelation of the love — it is a “love-wound”.
That is why 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 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. God is merciful, but God is not a fool and God will not be mocked.
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 on earth and God respects that choice. If we reject God by the way we live, then we will get the fruits of that choice. 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. It is to lose all this and therefore we are left with the opposite: 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, or against God and we do that by the way we live.
God does not want anyone to be cut off from him. He has created us to be with him 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. When they found themselves locked out, they cried out to God, but He answered them, ‘I do not know you’.
We need not let ourselves be preoccupied with this, as God assures us 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 realize 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.