Something similar happens to our souls.
When we commit a sin, it's like a nail being driven into our soul. It wounds and weakens us. Thankfully, through the sacrament of Confession, God forgives us of our sin.
But that's not the end of the story.
Just like the wood, sin leaves a sort of hole in our soul. The sin may be gone, but there is still work that needs to be done. For one thing, there may still remain the tendency or desire to commit the same sinful act.
Secondly, the spiritual "holes" represent that the soul is lacking in love. There is a lack of full love for God, a love that would prevent the soul from succumbing to sin again.
Finally, there is a need for correction. Think for a moment of a child. Let's say the child smashes his mother's antique vase. Well, his mother will forgive him, of course, out of love. But there must be some recompense: the child must repair the vase or replace it. This is just and it is also love. Loving discipline directs one to what is good.
Similarly, while Confession removes our sin, it doesn't remove the punishment due to those sins. This is a very key point! Just like a child, we also need to be corrected through punishment when we willingly and knowingly disobey our Father.
So, evil dispositions, lack of love, need for temporal punishment: these are the holes that remain in our soul once a sin is forgiven.
We must be purified. The question put forward to us is: when?
You see, it is our choice.
We may be purified now or later.
This year on All Saint's Day I found myself involved in a very timely project. I've volunteered to decorate our parish's bulletin board each month, which has been enjoyable albeit a bit challenging, as I don't really consider myself a very crafty person.
Anyhow, in honor of All Saint's Day, I decided to fill the board with every saint card we owned, which, over the years, has amounted to a substantial number. Some collect baseball cards; I guess we collect saint cards. Amidst the cards, I added quotes from the saints themselves, since they obviously have a great deal to teach us.
Well, as I typed up the quotes, I noted to myself that there was a general theme running through the messages. Whether the saint be a martyr from the fourth century, a wife and mother, or a prisoner at Auschwitz, they all agreed upon one thing: suffering.
Here are just two examples:
"When you are ill, offer up your sufferings with love, and they will turn into incense rising up in God’s honour, and making you holy." ~ St. Josemaria Escriva
"The cross is the greatest gift God could bestow on His Elect on earth. There is nothing so necessary, so beneficial, so sweet, or so glorious as to suffer something for Jesus. If you suffer as you ought, the cross will become a precious yoke that Jesus will carry with you." ~ St. Louis Marie de Montfort
More than miracles or mystical prayer experiences, the common bond of these souls in heaven was that they all suffered. It wasn't something they had to unfortunately "deal with" during their day, an untimely obstacle along the rosy path of life.
No, they embraced the suffering. They united their suffering with the suffering of Christ on the cross--some, like St. Padre Pio, to the point of even bearing Christ's wounds. They allowed that suffering to purify them. It was what made them saints!
They chose to be purified now, here, on earth. Through suffering they became detached from all sin and made reparation for any damage caused by their previous sins. Thus their love for God was so pure that, at the moment of their death, they entered directly into heaven.
These are the souls in Purgatory, a word that itself means "purified." As St. Catherine of Genoa writes:
"The Almighty is so pure, however, that if a person is conscious of the least trace of imperfection and at the same time understands that Purgatory is ordained to do away with such impediments, the soul enters this place of purification glad to accept so great a mercy of God. The worst suffering of these suffering souls is to have sinned against divine Goodness and not to have been purified in this life."
Purgatory is God's hospital for souls. It functions just like a hospital here on earth. The inpatients realize fully that they are sick and need a cure. They additionally recognize that a cure will come only through suffering--surgery or medical procedure of some sort. Yet, they willingly proceed with the suffering, knowing that it is for their ultimate good and in hope for full health one day.
The souls in Purgatory await the ultimate cure: the bliss that is the Beatific Vision.
Joyfully, there is only one door out of Purgatory and that is the door to heaven. But until the purification is complete, the soul will experience a suffering "more painful than anything a man can suffer in this life" (St. Augustine). They suffer because they see so clearly the evil of their sins and sin's effects.
They seek the peak of the mountain, but must make the painful ascent, shedding their sins and sinful desires as they rise to the top.
While being purified, these holy souls in Purgatory cannot earn merit for good works. They cannot hasten their ascent to the top.
This is a teaching we affirm at every Mass when, following the consecration, the priest prays, "Remember our brothers and sisters who have gone to their rest in the hope of rising again; bring them and all the departed into the light of your presence."
Who are these "brothers and sisters" from whom we pray?
Not the saints in heaven--prayers will not help them, as they have reached eternal happiness.
Not the souls in hell--prayer will not help them, as they have been damned to eternal punishment.
We pray for the souls in Purgatory, who were not purified now on earth and must therefore be purified later.
Then we come to a realization. We are each given suffering, every day, in a myriad of shapes and sizes.
|Crucifixion of St. Peter by Caravaggio|
That's what we can do now. I believe it was C.S. Lewis who said that we begin to choose--today!--our eternal destination. Heaven and hell begin on earth, through the decisions we make about how to live our life.
Right now we can allow our suffering to purify us.
And right now we can help those in Purgatory.
Remember, they cannot help themselves: they cannot hasten their ascent to the heavenly mountain. But we can! Through our prayers and by offering up our sufferings, we can hasten their way to heaven.
We all have loved ones who have died. Don't assume that they are in heaven because, if they are in Purgatory, they need your help. Offering our suffering, our prayers, our work, any difficulties in this life is the best way to show these departed ones our love.
We can (and should) remember the souls in Purgatory every day, but most especially now, in the days following All Soul's Day.
Each day from November 1 until November 9 we can gain a plenary indulgence (removes all punishment due to sin) for a soul in Purgatory. Of course, this is following the various requirements of a plenary indulgence, including detachment from all sin, which is quite difficult to achieve.
But we should still try!
Here is what you need to do:
1. Visit a cemetery--any cemetery will do; it need not be the one where your loved one is buried.
2. Say a prayer for the particular soul for whom you wish to gain the indulgence.
3. Attend Mass the same day.
4. Go to confession within 20 days of the cemetery visit.
5. Have a spirit of detachment from all sin.
6. Pray an Our Father, Hail Mary, and Glory Be for the intentions of Pope Benedict.
Now, through God's grace, we can atone for our sins and heal those holes in our soul, thus increasing and perfecting our love for God.
Now we can aid the suffering souls in Purgatory and, by assisting them, we also will be further purified.
Now we can try to bypass Purgatory and aim for heaven, where we will see God face-to-face.
Holy Mary, Refuge of Sinners, grant us the strength and grace of God to act "now" so that "later" will find us adoring God in heaven, in the company of all the angels and saints!