At the gates of November …
The darkness advances and overtakes the sun earlier each day. The nights are long and in the darkness, the wind howls to cause crisp leaves to collide with the ground and one another. The sound is stirring. The exodus of freshly fallen leaves causes the forest silhouette to reveal something of a skeleton. Here, at the gate of November, nature weaves a tapestry of Sister Death and the world beyond her.
Each year, attentive to nature and supernature, we remember. We remember that we will all die as we hear, “Sic transit gloria mundi,” (thus passes the glory of the world) in the scraping of the leaves. All things pass away, and so will we—as have generation after generation. Such a macabre realization, rather than inducing fear and fright, can stir in us the urgency of hope. Hope for ourselves and hope for the dead.
We raise a question and mount a response.
What lies beyond the veil?
A Map of Things Visible and Invisible
I have found myself drawing something of a diagram for my students over the past few weeks. It is my attempt at a map of existence—of things seen and unseen. A big part of this is helping students to consider the existence of the human person after death. The map depicts heaven, hell, and purgatory. The simple exercise of drawing this out and opening a bigger conversation is to, in union with the sermon of nature and the Church’s liturgical feasts, help students to consider that our destiny is greater than Friday afternoon when the school or workday ends. This world, in its fallen and broken state, will pass away and our destiny is something greater.
Our Catholic Faith causes us to both consider this reality and act accordingly. While this is true throughout the liturgical year, it is a particular emphasis during November. We begin with All Saints Day, move immediately to All Souls Day, and will build toward the feast of Christ the King, which is a thoroughly eschatological celebration, lifting our gaze to Christ’s reign and return. The Sunday Gospels over the next few weeks will emphasize the end of things as we know them and orient us toward the reign of Christ, the Kingdom of God. Already though, in these first days of November, All Saints Day and All Souls Day draw us into the mystery.
On All Saints Day—drawing on Scripture and the Tradition guaranteed by Peter’s keys—the Church sets our gaze on the great multitude who have washed their robes white in the blood of the Lamb. These are the saints of God who behold His face forever in heaven. (Revelation 7:9). On November 1 we celebrate the reality of the Church Triumphant, the ones who have entered into the fullness of God’s glory. We consider the many who are named—the canonized saints—and most particularly on All Saints Day, the many who are unnamed. Their uncountable number stokes a fire of hope that we too, through God’s grace and their intercession, will one day find the fullness of our humanity in the great wedding feast of the Lamb—heaven. We do not worship saints, we worship God with the saints. We look to their example and we ask for their intercession and help. On November 1 we set our sites on heaven as our goal. All Saints Day is an opportunity to grow in our heavenly imagination.
For many, the vision of heaven is stunted. We imagined as children, but perhaps hardly think of it as adults. We know heaven is to see God face to face (1 John 3:2). I suspect though, that for many, this sounds boring. All Saints Day is a good opportunity to consider what this might fully mean: not a staring match with an old bearded man in the clouds, but an eternal and immediate intimacy with the source of goodness, beauty, and truth. Everything good, beautiful, or true that we encounter in this life is but a shadow of the full glory into which we are destined to enter. All Saints Day is a wonderful invitation to ponder and wonder and hope over the real goal of human life.
Double Hockey Sticks
Then there is hell. It is worth bringing up in this discussion because Jesus does. While there appropriately is no liturgical feast for hell—the secular world has turned the anticipation of All Saints and All Souls into something of an anti-liturgy. Signs of hell are set up as lawn decorations for the span of a whole month. (We have all just witnessed this.) Without fasciniation and certainly without entertaining or participating in the glorification of evil, we should wisely be mindful of the lake of fire that is heaven’s opposite. Hell is real (see CCC 1035). Jesus is never shy about warning us of the place where the worm does not die and the fire burns unquenchably (Mark 9:48).
Hell should not be a focus, but a healthy fear and awareness of hell is unequivocally and undeniably preached by Jesus himself—and consistently throughout all four Gospels. God has destined us for himself, but if we demand to be like God apart from God—to have it our way—if we prefer our attachments and idols to God, then hell is a real danger. Eternal frustration is a real possibility and the sights and sounds that surrounded us in the month of October can shake us into a healthy fear of hell.
There is a third possibility. It is not one of the last things (heaven, hell, death, and judgment), but rather an intermediate thing. We call this state purgatory and it is the reason for the commemoration of All Souls that we celebrate on November 2. Purgatory is not simply an in-between state that could result in heaven or hell. Neither is it an arbitrary waiting room outside of heaven. Rather, it is a purifying fire (see Zechariah 13:9). Purgatory describes the process of preparing a soul for heaven. It is painful and difficult, but it is a place of hope. The pain of purgatory is productive pain, like surgery or even the pain of a training or competing athlete. Through this productive suffering the souls in purgatory suffer and need our prayers. All Souls Day should renew an ongoing commitment to pray for those who suffer the purifying fire.
Specifics about purgatory are difficult, but analogy is helpful. In C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce, we meet many souls who are in the painful process of reorienting their interior script, of letting go of something that prevents them from continuing their pilgrimage toward the throne of God. Theologically we talk about temporal punishment, time and space consequences of sin that are not remitted directly through absolution. Lewis’ way of describing this seems helpful. When we turn away from sin, there is still a fuller healing and reorientation that must take place. God’s mercy is complete and so must be our repentance and detachment from sin. Prayer and sacrifice for souls, both on earth and in purgatory, are part of a mysterious and powerful economy that helps to join souls to Christ and free them from sin and its consequences.
Aware of this, we remember our loved ones and pray. We resist the urge to instantly canonize our beloved dead and pray with sober hope, knowing that our prayers for the dead are never wasted. It is never to the shame of a deceased loved one that we pray for them. It is simply an act of love and honor.
Thinking about all of this should change the way we pray, but also the way we prioritize our time and the way we live overall. Remembering death and mapping out the grander scale of reality can be revolutionary. I asked one group of students how many of them had thought about death, heaven, hell, or judgment at all in the past week. Not a single hand was raised. A culture aware of death, with a proper perspective rooted in hope, is a culture of life.
As the nights get longer and nature enters into winter’s deathly sleep—remember that you will die. Remember, hope, and pray.
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Colin MacIver teaches theology and has served as the religion department chair and campus ministry coordinator at St. Scholastica Academy in Covington, Louisiana. He is the author of the guide to Quick Catholic Lessons with Fr. Mike. He and his wife, Aimee, are co-authors and presenters of Theology of the Body for Teens Middle School Edition. They are also co-authors of the Power and Grace Guidebook, and the Chosen Parent’s and Sponsor’s Guides.
Featured image by Nasir Khan on flickr