A further point must be mentioned here, because it is important for the practice of Christian hope. Early Jewish thought includes the idea that one can help the deceased in their intermediate state through prayer (see for example 2 Macc 12:38-45; first century BC). The equivalent practice was readily adopted by Christians and is common to the Eastern and Western Church. The East does not recognize the purifying and expiatory suffering of souls in the afterlife, but it does acknowledge various levels of beatitude and of suffering in the intermediate state. The souls of the departed can, however, receive “solace and refreshment” through the Eucharist, prayer and almsgiving.
The belief that love can reach into the afterlife, that reciprocal giving and receiving is possible, in which our affection for one another continues beyond the limits of death—this has been a fundamental conviction of Christianity throughout the ages and it remains a source of comfort today. Who would not feel the need to convey to their departed loved ones a sign of kindness, a gesture of gratitude or even a request for pardon?
Spe Salvi 48
Reflection – Well, it’s the month of November. Are you praying for the holy souls? ‘Bring out your dead’, as the old Monty Python line has it. November is the month to bring out the dead before the face of God and the face of our own hearts, to remember them and lift them up before God for his blessing and mercy.
Suitable, that is should be November, a month of death and dying in the order of nature. It is a typical cold grey day here in Combermere, and the whole earth is looking positively sepulchral in its drapings, droopings, and droppings of all its finery. As so much around us dies or appears to die (we know that with spring comes resurrection for much of it), it is not hard to meditate on the temporary and provisional nature of all life on earth, on the inevitability of death, and on the needs of our brothers and sisters who have already passed through their own final November and await the coming Spring.
The ancient Christian practice of praying for the dead, especially by offering Masses, but by all sorts of devotional and ascetical means, is such a beautiful one. Pope Benedict here connects it with the mystery of love, that our love is not limited to this life and the people immediately within reach of us.
Love reaches even beyond the threshold of death, that doorway that leads us to we know not where and that is so shrouded in fear and darkness even for the faithful. Our minds cannot go there—we really know very little indeed about the afterlife in any detail—but our hearts can. We can love, and loving, do what we can do for our dead, which is to pray for those among them who are in need still of our help.
We call this state of need ‘Purgatory’ and leave the details of that to God. It is my personal opinion that the curiosity about exactly what goes on in Purgatory and what it feels like and how awful it is or how not awful it is (depending on which writer you consult) has done more harm than good in the history of the Church. Our brothers and sisters who have died, it has been our ancient conviction of faith, are at least some of them in need of our prayers for their help in entering glory. If they were in the fullness of heaven, they would have no need of prayer; if condemned to hell, they would have no use for our prayers.
So there must be a temporary intermediate state where there is both need and hope, and this we call Purgatory. I think that’s all we need to know, honestly, on the subject, and curiosity about the gory (?) details is not particularly spiritually beneficial. It is November, and it is time to pray especially for our brothers and sisters there, that God may bring them to the final state of being where they can see Him face to face and be filled with light and glory forever.