Sunday, May 31, 2009

11-2-2008: All Souls' Day

Wisdom 3:1-9/Psalm 23/Romans 5:5-11/John 6:37-40
The dead are always making their way into the lives of the living, whether through prayer or veneration of ancestors, belief in ghosts or acts of memory. Death and the after-life are usually subjects found within the domain of religion but even atheists sometimes pay attention. This year there’s close proximity between All Souls’ Day (November 2nd) and Election Day (November 4th); and if this election year is anything like previous ones, the reality of life-after-death might once again be proved true as hardened politicians acknowledge that in certain quarters of the body politic, the dead actually vote – and, sometimes, more than once.

The Feast of All Souls, together with its pagan antecedents like Halloween, focus our attention on the fascinating and disturbing subject of death and our imaginings of what ensues afterward. For Catholics, that imagining has morphed into a phenomenon called Purgatory. Most non-Catholics, and even many Catholics, aren’t too convinced about Purgatory (especially after the pope put the kibosh on Limbo). Everyone, though, seems intrigued by death and what might or might not lie beyond. For me the best argument for the premise of Purgatory has not been any learned treatise from some notable theologian but, oddly, two films: the little known 1998 film by Kore-eda Hirokazu, After Life and M. Night Shyamalan‘s 1999 The Sixth Sense – both definite worth-sees in any movie aficionado’s repertoire. Without giving away too much, let’s just say the underlying theme of both films is one of unfinished business. And unfinished business is precisely what’s at the heart of the doctrine of Purgatory.

Unfortunately the popular imagination has focused on Purgatory as a “place of punishment” for past sins which we must suffer before entering the divine presence. Overlooked, in this focus on sin, is the most important premise that belies Purgatory – that it is inhabited by the already-redeemed; and the suffering they endure is not a punishment per se, but a purification for glory and a preparation for joy. In The Sixth Sense, Bruce Willis’ suffering doesn’t come from any personal moral failure but, rather, from his inability to perceive the truth. When he finally comes to his senses, and can accept the truth, his unfinished business is resolved and he can move on to where he is meant to be.

The idea that Purgatory and its inhabitants are good (holy) and not evil (gravely sinful) first came to me years ago when I went searching for my birthmother. When I discovered her surname was the most common name of all -- Jones, I despaired of ever finding her. The only lead I had was that she had been baptized in a Catholic church with the unusual name: the Church of the Holy Souls in Purgatory. Because the name was so unique it did not take me long to obtain her baptismal certificate with the record of where she had married. I found her in two days.

Because I had long been attuned to think of the souls in purgatory as sinners, the fact that they should be designated as holy was confusing at first. But, of course, they must be holy because they are already saved – they simply haven’t realized it yet, they still need to come to their senses. Our prayers, we believe, help them do just that. And they in turn can intercede for us, offering up their “suffering” for us. Perhaps some of them were doing just that for me as I searched to find out where I came from – a journey I think which mirrors Purgatory itself, where coming to your senses means discovering who you are, where you came from and, most importantly, where you are meant to be.

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