Those of you who connect with the Café through Facebook, Linked In, or Twitter have already seen my mildly irreverent cover picture of Frosty the Snowman’s cremation. No sacrilege intended—just a touch of humor to bring us to the most serious question we face, what happens to us when we “shake off our mortal coil,” as Shakespeare put it five centuries ago [Hamlet, Act 3, Scene 1.] We are now a week into November, a month Catholics devote to the souls in Purgatory, and as the end of the Catholic Church calendar is just two weeks away, the Sunday Gospels focus on what theologians call the four last things: death, judgment, heaven, hell. [The technical term for this science of theology is Eschatology, from the Greek for “last or farthest,” per Webster.] These are among the most difficult faith issues we face, and I fear that present day Catholic catechetics and preaching does not give us better insights into addressing preparations for our own death aside from “call a priest.”
I am in my mid-70’s, and death takes on a much more concrete existence as more of my friends die and I myself will follow in the not-so-distant future. There is a lot of practical business in the preparation of death. My will is filed. The funeral is prepaid. My bookies are paid except for over/under waging on the age of my death. I have not yet prepared a funeral Mass because I need to research better hymns than “On Eagles Wings;” I can’t stand that song.
I had always envisioned myself interred in a nice, wooded cemetery, preferably a Catholic one. This romantic vision dulled a bit after I had to manage a parish cemetery for several years. So, I left my burial decision up in the air for the indeterminate future and moved on to a new career and marriage. When I received my laicization and permission to marry from Pope John Paul II in 1998, our pastor told my fiancé and I, as two fifty-year-old Church professionals, that we did not need to take the Diocesan pre-Cana program. Instead, he recommended that we take several days of spiritual retreat at the Trappists’ Mepkin Abbey near Charleston, S.C. We did, and we both fell in love with the monks, the worship, and the retreat setting overlooking the Cooper River. I took particular note of the fact that Henry and Clare Boothe Luce, America’s power couple in the twentieth century, were buried on monastery grounds by the Cooper River. Henry, among other things, was the founder of Time Magazine and Sports Illustrated. I make it a point to put a new issue of SI on his grave at our annual retreat.
Meanwhile, after our marriage our pastor let it be known that he was planning to build a columbarium on our parish grounds here in Central Florida in conjunction with a new church and other additions. This was the first time I gave thoughtful consideration to cremation, and interment on the parish grounds seemed like a very good option for us, but the columbarium could not be built, possibly due to city ordinances. However, not so long ago, Mepkin Abbey announced its plans to construct a columbarium next to the Luce burial site on abbey grounds on the river.
This immediately appealed to us; the two biggest reasons were the opportunity to assist the monks financially into perpetuity and in return, to receive the prayers of the monastic community, which prays seven times daily and remembers those buried on its land. I believe I will need those prayers.
One of the doctrines of the Catholic faith which gets lost in the shuffle is Purgatory. Very simply, when we die, we are not ready to see God. We acknowledge that Mary, the Mother of Jesus, is the only sinless being by virtue of God’s intervention for her unique role in history. The rest of us cannot make that claim, and no matter how good we think ourselves to be, we are in no shape to behold the glory of God, face to face. This is counter to the “funeral parlor conversation” you so often hear at wakes. “Old Joe, he’s up there now teeing it up with St. Peter on the eighteenth fairway.” It is comforting talk for the survivors, but it doesn’t square with centuries of Christian tradition.
Admittedly the language of the Catechism of the Catholic Church on such matters is archaic, borrowed from prior catechisms centuries old, which can be misunderstood as portraying Purgatory as “hell, but with an end date.” That said, it is true that we die with unfinished business. Certainly, one roadblock to postmortem encounter with God is the sin of pride, i.e., that we are ready to see God just as we have lived all our lives, and that all we need do is pick up our suite key from St. Peter. No responsible saint or Church doctor ever described death in such a pedestrian fashion. Certainly, the Scriptures suggest nothing of the kind.
Having lived many years in the Franciscan tradition, I was always intrigued that as St. Francis grew older and more fervent in his life of faith—his very hands and feet were marked with the wounds of Christ—he came to understand the gulf between himself and God. In his last years he would privately throw himself on the ground and exclaim, “Depart from me, O Lord, for I am a worm, and not a man.” This is a pattern of the holy saints—the closer they imitated Christ and reflected upon their own reality, the greater they realized the gulf between God’s perfect love and being, on the one hand, and their own wounded humanity on the other. It is this profound awareness of God’s love versus my lukewarm response that makes the beholding of God a possibility and points us toward the direction of heaven.
Part of our Catholic heritage, drawn from the Gospels, is the reality of a final judgment. The Gospels are united in this reality, whether it be Matthew 25, Mark 13, Luke 21, or John 8: 12-58. In a variety of ways, the Gospels speak of a climactic moment of judgment, a determination of the life of every human being. If one does not believe in life after death, the discussion of post-mortem destiny is hardly a pressing concern. But the heart of Christian living is Christ’s conquering of death. Every Sunday is a memorial of Easter, when we celebrate Christ’s Resurrection not just as his own triumph over death but as the promise that we, too, may one day share in his eternal glory.
The popular Catholic wisdom of life after death is optimistic, perhaps too optimistic, as many believe that the reward of eternal life is an automatic progression. Generally, present day catechetics and preaching does not clarify the picture with significant depth. Pastorally and popularly, we live with several “avoidance” factors in play. The first is a studied avoidance of judgment narratives in the Gospels as cited above. Human nature tends to cherry pick; we gravitate toward the biblical texts where God rewards gratuitously with no questions asked. We identify with the surprised recipients of God’s mercy in the Bible and assume that, to paraphrase Woody Allen, “90% of redemption is just showing up.”
The second “avoidance” is the mistaken notion that the end time judgment narratives of the Gospels are mythic, time-conditioned visions with no historical basis or predictive value. It is true that several narratives cited above were written after the destruction of Jerusalem, and probably influenced by what was known of the horrors of that event in 70 A.D. But in truth one of the most common literary forms in the Gospel is allegory, a type of language that Jesus uses frequently. For example, ““The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field. Though it is the smallest of all seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds come and perch in its branches.” On the matter of judgment at the end times, Jesus uses several analogies [see above] to drive home a single point: there will be a measure of personal accountability for what we have been given, i.e., God’s grace. Of course, if analogies are not your thing, you still must contend with John 8, which carries the directness of a hard-boiled county sheriff.
The third “avoidance” is the oft heard belief that God is too merciful to send anyone to hell, or to any measure of afterlife punishment, for that matter. God is indeed infinitely merciful. But, as baptized Christians, we are called to “be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” [Matthew 5: 48] In other words, we are to be the merciful ones, the donors and not just the recipients. One of the most powerful of Jesus’ parables is the tale of the unforgiving servant [Matthew 18: 21-35], sentenced to indeterminate torture “until he paid back the last bit” of the mercy he had received. Chew on that.
As a graduate student a half-century ago, I did not sleep through every class despite what my report card says, and I remember a lecture that made a great deal of sense at the time, and even more so in my seniority today. I was taking an elective in eschatology, and our professor explained that as we age, we begin to see our lives with a growing wisdom of the totality. As I recall, he quoted a famous theologian “that we have the full picture of our lives at the moment of our death.” At that moment the judgment of God and our own assessment of our lives jell in an instant of clarity in which our post-mortem future becomes as clear as the sun.
Call this a psychological analogy, if you will, but what an image to carry forth as we reflect upon life after death. I am not aware of any theological formula that better summarizes for this century the meaning of Biblical judgment. If life is about meaning, what a terrible suffering to realize that one has squandered countless opportunities to extend God’s love, or even worse, to understand that our conduct has led others to despair of it. Those late medieval theologians who formulated the language of Purgatory as “this final purification of the elect” [Catechism, para. 1031] were struggling to describe the pain of awareness of the personal gulf between the goodness and wholeness of God and the brokenness that mars our personal histories. The awareness is the pain of healing. At that final moment of life, we all sing the same dirge as St. Francis, “depart from me, O Lord, for I am a worm, and not a man.”
Somewhere on your Catholic calendars is the reminder that November is the special month for prayer for the “poor souls in Purgatory.” We are those poor souls.