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A Great Divine Courtesy

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Commemoration of all the Faithful Departed. In praying for the dead, fr Euan Marley becomes an instrument of the Resurrection. 

After the Falklands War, there was a service held in St Paul's Cathedral. The Anglican archbishop, Runcie, has been remembered as criticizing Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher for the war. This is rather an exaggeration. What he did do was refer to the tragedy of war and he made a point of praying for the Argentinians.

As a Protestant, Runcie knew where to stop though. He didn't pray for anybody who actually died during the conflict, neither the Argentinian soldiers nor the British soldiers. As I recall, he edged towards praying for the dead; he prayed for their families and friends, but never quite crossed the line, by praying for the dead themselves.

Before the Reformation, only a few heretical sects would have opposed prayers for the dead. The life of the Church, east and west, was a life of prayer to which death was no barrier. We pray for each other, living and dead. Christ died and rose again that he might become the Lord of the living and the dead, as St Paul tells us (Romans 14:9).

It is from this practice that the doctrine of Purgatory was formed. Purgatory is implied by the practice of prayer for the dead, but the reverse is not the case. There could be a Purgatory without there being prayers for the dead.

Prayer for the dead is something which should be considered in itself. For all the iron logic of the Reformation, there remains an instinct to pray for those we have lost. The acronym R.I.P. stands for requiescat in pace, may he (or she) rest in peace, which is undoubtedly a prayer.

Ghost stories, perhaps taking their cue from Hamlet's father, speak of unquiet spirits who have to be laid to rest. The ghost isn't prayed for in these stories, but usually demands that some task be completed, like the body being discovered, or its murderer being brought to book. That is a superstitious attitude, which takes us away from the real meaning of the prayer we are called to share in. It is not absent from Catholic circles. I have heard the story of a dead priest whose voice was heard warning about a mass stipend taken without the mass being offered in three different Orders. A classic urban myth, which could do with being updated: perhaps a priest who leaves behind a message about an unsigned gift aid form!

Those who are in Purgatory do not lack peace. They are perfectly at peace, perfectly sure of their salvation and perfectly beyond sin, even though they are themselves not perfect. Dante brings this out in the early stages of his Purgatorio, by portraying two bitter enemies in life, who sit comforting one another as they wait to make the great journey to heaven. The souls in Purgatory are in love with each other and with God. Purgatory is not a place where bad people become good people, but where good people become perfected in love. How that works is open to speculation, which is why there is a great and legitimate variety of speculation about its nature, among mystics and visionaries, as well as theologians.

We would do better to concentrate on the fact of prayer. This is where the doctrine has its life. We pray for the dead, and we do this, not because they need our prayers but because this is what the Holy Spirit has taught us to do. It is a gift of God, to allow us to share in his work in bringing his people to perfection. It is a special gift of hope from God, a great divine courtesy, but it is also a great responsibility on our part.

We need to pray for the dead, because this is a task put into our hands. It is why cemeteries should be happy places for us, as they were in the early church; places to celebrate the power of God, places to live in God. The dead, unlike stocks and shares, can only go in one direction, upwards. Either they are not changing at all, or they are improving.

In the horror film Poltergeist a housing scheme was built on top of a Native American burial site. This led to great evils coming upon the inhabitants of these houses. This is completely wrong. If anything, the presence of a burial site should lead to a premium on the houses value. The dead are blessed, and their life is a blessing for us, because they have no life but the life of God, and he is the God of the living.

In praying for the dead, we are not merely witnessing to the Resurrection, we are instruments of the Resurrection.

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Readings

Isaiah 25:6-9
Romans 5:5-11
John 6:37-40

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