8th November 2021
During the month of November, as with other months in the liturgical year, a particular focus is put before us for our prayer. The liturgical year already has its own internal logic, which crystallised over the first centuries of Christianity. But over and above the yearly cycle, the Church has seen the practical wisdom of placing special emphases on different aspects of our prayer. The benefit of doing so is always twofold: not only does it develop our own prayer life, but in doing so, it helps us work towards our salvation as well as towards the salvation of other members of Christ’s Body, the Church.
As we come to the close of the liturgical year, the commercial world is already reminding us of the approach of Christmas. However, before we begin the new liturgical year once again with the Advent preparation for the coming of our Saviour, the Church celebrates the feast of Christ the King with its strongly eschatological overtones. The liturgical cycle thus logically concludes by pointing us forward to the renewal of all things in Christ (cf. Rev. 21:5), to the end of this world and the resurrection of the dead.
In the light of this chronology, it makes sense that in November we should be reminded to particularly pray for the souls of the dead: specifically those in purgatory. Our prayers are offered to assist them on their way to the Beatific Vision of God Himself; and in doing so, we are implicitly reminded of our own earthly end and of the need to live our lives in view of our ultimate objective: God Himself.
This tradition of praying for the souls of the departed rests on the notion of purgatory as an intermediate state, between the moment of one’s death and the attainment of heaven. This concept is already traceable in early Judaism, and was manifested early on in the Christian tradition of commemorating and praying for the deceased. Although purgatory has been depicted in many and various ways, the basic principle is clear: the soul, with its impurities of sin and the attachments to that it has developed to these over its earthly life, must be cleansed before entering wholly into the presence of the Sinless One.
It is impossible for us on earth to know the state of any given person’s soul before God (unless of course the Church has been able to declare them a saint!). So we continue to pray for the souls of our dearly departed, often in the hope that they are resting before God, but always in the knowledge that our prayers are never wasted. Should our intercessions to God for a particular person find them already in heaven, the Good Father can never turn a “dear ear” to our prayers: we remain confident that they will nonetheless be accepted for the good of another soul who is in purgatory.
It should come as no surprise then, that the Church includes the act of praying for the dead as one of the seven, spiritual works of mercy. Together with the seven, corporal works of mercy, these sum up the most important charitable actions that the Christian can perform for his neighbour’s spiritual and bodily needs, respectively. In finding a special effort to prayer for the dead this month, we therefore not only perform a charitable action for our dear ones as well as for unknown “neighbours”, but we also strengthen our own faith in the heavenly reality of the Church and our preparedness for our own departure from this earth.