May They Rest In Peace. This is a very common and familiar statement uttered referring to those who have passed on. Upon reflection, we realize that it is a simple, direct prayer to the Lord asking that the souls of our loved ones pass into God’s presence,into his light, into his peace, that they enter into his Joy. I think you will find few Christians, be they Catholic or Protestant that take issue with this prayer, “Rest In Peace”. And yet few topics of conversation in the Christian theological realm elicit such a range of reactions as that of Purgatory.
It might seem to you I just abruptly changed the subject, but I did not. To even pray the prayer “May They Rest In Peace” implies that the souls of our loved ones that have crossed the veil of Death can be benefited by our prayers. It is often widely held by many Christians that at the point of Death we pass immediately either into the eternal life of Heaven with the Beatific face to face vision of God as the primary source of everlasting joy or fall into the eternal damnation of Hell, which is above all else, everlasting separation from and the absence of God who alone can fill the emptiness of immortal created souls.
Enter the reality of Purgatory. While few Catholic beliefs have been so conflated and distorted by non-Catholics, the media, and Hollywood over the years, a cursory overview of Purgatory, I believe, would for many, be all that it takes (with God’s grace) to accept this Dogma of the Catholic Faith and fact of the life to come. On the most basic, essential level what is Purgatory? And what is it not? To begin with, the precise nature and duration of Purgatory have not been specified by the Church.
Purgatory is not an everlasting abode for souls not good enough for Heaven and not bad enough for Hell. Purgatory is a temporary place of purification, “Heaven’s Hot Bath” so to speak where the Lord purifies or “purges” souls of their imperfections and impurities leftover from the Earthly life. Purgatory is not a second chance. In a sense, we can even consider Purgatory the entry way to Heaven. Purgatory is the abode of those that are saved, but that the Lord has not yet allowed to see his unveiled, face to face Glory. Purgatory is thus a place of great happiness, those there can no longer sin, they can no longer have their salvation lost. Purgatory is also a place of excruciating suffering for the soul, for the one thing that it above all else longs for, the face to face vision of the Triune God, is denied it pending its full cleansings.
While in this life the soul, united to the body is distracted in a myriad of ways, by a plentitude of pleasures and delights, the separation of the soul from the body at death leaves the human person keenly, acutely aware of its absolute dependence upon and absolute need for God. Those that thus die in the friendship with God, but tarnished by this life, not having fully been purified (some souls are fully purified and thus in a sense go through Purgatory’s fires right on Earth and consequently enter directly into Heaven’s Joys after their personal judgement. )must await their full entry into the joy of Heaven and their full communion with God and his angels and saints. This is the greatest source of affliction and suffering for the purgatorial soul, a pain unmatched by any misery of soul or body on Earth. And so more happy and yet more pained is each soul in Purgatory than any on Earth.
As members of the Body of Christ, we the Church Militant are capable of praying for the Church Suffering in Purgatory, praying that the Lord would bring them quickly into the joy of the Church triumphant in Heaven. Even simple prayers like “May They Rest In Peace” become important moments of our beseeching God the Father of mercies to pour forth his Mercy upon the Holy Souls.
And Holy Souls they are indeed, for remember Purgatory is not a second chance to make up for this life nor a second risk of going to Hell. Their fate is decided. They have made their final choice and it is for God. They are friends of God forevermore. No chance of becoming enemies of God remains.They have chosen God, God has embraced them, yet He makes them wait as punishment and remedy for their poor choices, for their sins on Earth. A sobering fact it is too that the pains of Purgatory may involve not only recognizing with full bitterness drank and drained to the dregs, the terrible reality of turning from God in past sins committed, but also how their sins, including sins of omission, acted to steer others away from God, perhaps including some who are in Hell or are in danger of eternal damnation. The Holy Souls in union with God, and as should we, desire the salvation of one and all, yearning for all to die in friendship with the Creator. Purgatory is a stunning, sobering, yet ultimately consoling confluence of Mercy and Justice of the Omnipotent, Omniscient God who knows us so much better than we know ourselves.
No, Purgatory is not a suggestion that Man can somehow save himself from his sins or save himself apart from God’s grace and mercy. God makes us good. God has saved us from our sins, but the consequences and grime of ours sins remains. In virtue of Christ’s once for all Sacrifice on the Cross are the Holy Souls thus cleansed, transformed and finally brought to Heaven’s Shores. Our prayers united with Christ, our petitions to the Blessed Mother, to Saint Joseph and all the Angels and Saints are lifted up that they too might offer their intercession to Christ. Above all the offering of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass which really is the re-presentation of this once for all Sacrifice thus does great good in hastening the entry of the faithful departed souls into Heaven.
But is any of this biblical you ask? Afterall, the word Purgatory is not in the Bible. Of course, neither is the phrase Holy Trinity describing our Triune God. From Sacred Scripture we come to know that God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. And from Scripture we can glean the reality of Purgatory. We glimpse what Purgatory is like unto in Matthew 5:26 where we see a prison in which the incarcerated are not freed from until they have paid the last penny. We must be Holy to enter Heaven. God makes us Holy. Without this holiness we cannot see God as Hebrews 12:14 tells us. In the Beatitudes, Christ Jesus reminds us that the pure in Heart shall see God (Mt 5:8). Heaven is all about seeing God and being like him. Since he is Holy, he makes us Holy in order to enjoy this vision of Him which is the most foundational reality of Heaven. God has so made our hearts restless until they rest in Him in this vision to paraphrase Saint Augustine. Saint John goes on to tell us in First John 3:3 that each soul who hopes in the Father that so loves us makes himself pure as God is pure, a cleansing that begins in this life, though for many of us it won’t end until Purgatory. This transformation is not sudden and momentary, but is painful, joyful, and gradual.
The joy of being saved, the pain of waiting, of being separated from our earthly attachments and pleasures that distracted us from God, the ache of longing to see God face to face but being denied temporarily the privilege, yet knowing it will eventually come, this then is Purgatory. Imagine the longing of a child in Advent waiting for Christmas to come. Purgatory is this yearning magnified exponentially. First Corinthians 3:11-15 tells us of souls saved, yet only as through fire. In our lives, the work we do, good and bad will be tested by the flames of God’s love. Those sins, attachments and imperfections in our lives are like wood, like hay, like the stubble that Saint Paul speaks of while our good works done for the glory of God, out of love for him and our neighbor are like gold, like silver, like precious stones. Our works of hay, wood and stubble shall burn up and no longer remain. This is indeed a painful process, yet those dying in friendship with God shall remain and be saved, though in Purgatory we shall indeed feel the pain of the loss of these works as God transforms our hearts.
Yes indeed, God is love. God is a fire that consumes (Heb 12:29). The fire that God is does not totally destroy or annihilate us. No, we live on in Christ Jesus. But it does consume something or some things about us: God’s fire of love will burn up all that diverts, distracts, and defies his full and complete hold on our hearts that likewise in their deepest recesses long to burn only for him though along the pilgrim journey they became bogged down with the cares of this world. As we know from the Old Testament, Our God is a jealous God that loves us fiercely. He is also both rich in kindness and slow to anger. He is the divine physician with remedies that cause us anguish and great suffering, medicines for eternal life that do indeed bring about the cure of all cures, healing us of all affliction and sorrow. Purgatory is a hospital for God’s dearly beloved. The final place of transformation of our souls where God makes our own hearts like his meek and humble one, Mercy himself enflaming us until we too are consumed with his Mercy and live only for Christ Jesus the King of Mercy. Let us remember too, to strive to be as open to God’s transformative Grace and Mercy in this life, allowing him to purify us here and now, that we might all the more speedily enter into the Joy of Heaven. Ours should never be a bare minimalist attitude of “If I can just scrape by enough to get to Purgatory” or the expectation that “I am going to spend a long time in Purgatory.” Trust in God’s Mercy and let your thoughts, words, and deeds, and life of prayer be transformed by Divine Mercy.
Therefore, when we speak thus, praying the words “May They Rest In Peace” let us appreciate their deep meaning. The souls in Heaven need no prayers. They have achieved full glory in Communion with the Holy Trinity, seeing God face to face. The souls in Hell have forever abandoned and rejected God, and our prayers cannot help them. Only the souls of our fellow Church members on Earth and those suffering in Purgatory can be helped by our prayers. When we love our neighbors that have passed on, and pray for these Holy Souls, we thus indeed are praying for those in Purgatory, for those immersed in the fires of God’s Love that await their entrance into the fullness of God’s Kingdom.