From All Eternity Invisible But Now Visible

At Our Lady of Perpetual Help Minor Seminary in Sriracha, Thailand

I think God must have said to himself: Man does not love me because he does not see me; I will show myself to him and thus give him such cause to love me. God’s love for man was very great, and had been great from all eternity, but this love had not yet become visible… Then, it really appeared. The Son of God let himself be seen as a tiny Babe in a stable, lying on a little straw.
Saint Alphonsus Liguori

The Church of Purgatory: Reposted and Revised

I originally wrote this post about three years ago and posted it in its first version last year for All Souls Day. The truth is, this is my favourite post on this blog, so I’m reworking it for All Souls Day again this year. ^_^

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Today is All Souls Day and so we think of any souls went before us and have entered, not only into heaven, but also into purgatory.

When we say purgatory, we’re really saying the Church of Purgatory. Purgatory is, under several aspects, more Church than the pilgrim Church here-below (Church Militant). Indeed, the Church of Purgatory, like the Church of Heaven, is all one Church with us here on earth: one Church, one Communion of Saints, one People of God, one Body of Christ, one Bride of Christ, one Kingdom and City of God. When we say purgatory, all this is implicit. We are talking about people into one Communion of Saints with us and forming part of one Body of Christ with us. The connection is real, and we should let it come to mind.

VanThinking of the Church of Purgatory makes me think of Marcel Văn. His older brother died young, even before Marcel himself, who died at 31 years old. When his brother died, Little Văn gave precious insights to his sister, and his main testimony is towards the unity of the Church under its three states (Earth, Purgatory, Heaven):

Meanwhile, God can give to him a clear understanding of the sufferings we’re enduring right now… that his still-living soul remains strictly united to God for all eternity.

Whether his soul is in purgatory or in heaven, this is true. It would, of course, be difficult for God to grant such “clear understanding” if the wills of the souls in Purgatory were not already fixed on God. In other words, Marcel’s emphasis is: he is also a member of the Church, and, unlike us, if he’s in Purgatory or in Heaven, his will is already definitely locked onto God. Not just the Church of Heaven, whose sins have been cleansed away, is locked onto God. It is also true of the Church of Purgatory; souls in purgatory have their itinerary set for all of eternity, and it is an itinerary that reads “Trinity.” In fact, that’s the fundamental meaning of Purgatory: dead but not damned: certain to always be alive in Christ, with the Father and the Spirit also.

Marcel continues the point by referencing his theme of changing sadness into joy; in fact,

The sadnesses of this world are changed into a life in eternity happiness, in Love.

This is the goal, and his brother is part of it, too. The path begins here on earth, for changing sadness into joy is the “dark night” of John of the Cross; and the purpose of these desolations and purgations is to bring us home, by the route that Jesus himself took on the Cross.

And Marcel offers another thought, echoing his father Saint Alphonsus: it won’t do to become sad about the dead. His brother’s journey is to change sadness into joy. Why be sad? We ought to turn the sadness into joy also. That’s what purgatory is: it’s a process of changing sadness into joy, just as that’s what we should be doing now, on earth. Why? Because we ought to end in Heaven. To get there, we’ll have to follow the Paschal itinerary: Cross and Resurrection. This is what the Church of Jesus Christ is. The unity of the Church, under three states, again becomes apparent in Marcel’s theme of changing sadness into joy.

Of course, the theme of the month of November, in the Western Church, is to pray for the souls of the dead. We will pray. But how will we pray? We can pray in petition: “Lord, by the merits of us poor sinners here-below, please release souls from purgatory.” Prayer of petition is one option. We can beg. We can ask. We can offer sacrifices, including the sacrifice of the Mass, for the souls in purgatory. But… that’s not all we can do. Even in purgatory, even in the Church of Purgatory, the possibilities are greater than this! In another, later letter, Marcel gives an inversion of the idea held by many as to our relationship to the Church of Purgatory:

All the while, we have an invisible army of heroic force, in the person of the souls of purgatory. And from time to time, these souls remind us to pray for them.

The image is one of inversion, deliberate or otherwise. Are the souls in purgatory weak? Is it mostly us who pull the weight in our relationship with them? Marcel says, “Eh, I don’t think of it like this.” The souls of the Church of Purgatory are already, definitely locked onto Jesus. They had heroic force! They have run the race. They are not yet clean of all the traces of sin, but their destination is decided. And so they are an invisible army for God. This invisible army comes to our aid, much like the Church of Heaven. Of course, we are all one Church. So it’s not surprising that they should help us. That is their desire. And “from time to time, these souls remind us to pray for them.” But most of the time, they intend to be our valiant army.

Does this change the emphases in our relationships with the souls in purgatory? for the better? The reality of Church is always one of communion, for the whole Church is the Communion of Saints, deepened as love is deepened; Marcel writes,

These beloved brothers seem so far away from us, but in reality they have never been so close as they are now.

And so it is. They are at our side, the invisible army, none canonized or beatified (for they are not yet in Heaven) – but fighting for us, praying for us, protecting us, all while they urge us, silently and delicately, to live in communion with them and pray for their speedy deliverance also.

Like the Face of an Angel

At the Chapel of Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Sriracha, Thailand

It’s nice to hear stories about how the saints interacted with one another. Sometimes they do so as friends, sometimes as colleagues (in agreement or in disagreement), sometimes indeed as superiors and inferiors in life or in the work of God. One example of the latter is Saint Alphonsus, founder of the Redemptorists, and Saint Gerard, one of the first lay brothers in that congregation.

While under investigation for a crime he did not commit (and while being unjustly punished for it), Saint Gerard lived in the same house as his order’s founder. When walking along the corridor, they once ran into one another. Gerard paused and then said to Saint Alphonsus, his rector: “Your face is like the face of an angel. Every time I see it, I am consoled.”

(We can smile upon hearing this, I think!)

All in all this is rather the same thing they said of Saint Stephen, the first martyr: “And all who sat in the council looked intently at him, and they saw that his face was like the face of an angel” (Acts 6:15). This inspires love in some, hatred in others. For Saint Gerard seeing Saint Alphonsus, he loved the holiness; for those who looked on Saint Stephen, they were agitated and fearful in their hearts. But no matter whether are hearts are disposed to love the good or to hate it, what we have, at the core, is the very transfiguration of the body – the taking up of the flesh deeper into the human spirit, animated more and more by the Holy Spirit.

Peace in this Valley of Tears

St Francis at Santa Cruz Church in Thonburi, Thailand

Yes, my God, I live in peace in this valley of tears, for such is Your holy will… “The good that I hope for,” says Saint Francis of Assisi, “is so great that every suffering becomes for me a joy.” Indeed, the highest degree of love that a soul can attain is an ardent desire for Heaven, to be there united to God and to possess Him forever.
Saint Alphonsus Liguori

Like Iron in the Fire

Vicious tendencies are produced only by our corrupt nature, and it is very difficult to conquer them without mental prayer; but by means of this prayer we can overcome them easily. The soul in mental prayer is like iron in the fire: when the iron is cold, it is difficult to work; but when it is put into the fire, it becomes soft and allows itself to be easily worked: so it is with the soul… When a soul comes out from mental prayer it is quite changed.
Saint Alphonsus Liguori

Intimate Aridity

At the shrine of Mary Annai Velangkanni in Medan, Sumatra, Indonesia

By means of spiritual aridity, God unites Himself intimately with the souls He loves in an especial manner… we see the milk of consolations give place to the more substantial food of afflictions; and this it is that enables them to bear the burden of the cross on their journey to Calvary’s Mount.
Saint Alphonsus Liguori

Attraction for Solitude

Souls that love God feel a strong attraction for solitude, for they know that God converses familiarly with those who shun the noise and distractions of the world… God speaks to the soul in solitude, and by his words the soul is inflamed with divine love: “My soul melted when my beloved spoke” (Sgs 5:6).
Saint Alphonsus Liguori