“Praying for the Dead, Spiritual Side-Effects” (2/7/2019)
Fr. Ignatius John Schweitzer, OP
“Get us out of here!” Thus is the cry of the souls in purgatory according to the title of a popular book on the need to pray for these souls. We might prefer to focus on the fire of divine love as God continues to transform these souls into his image. Yet in both cases, surely the holy souls are longing to move on to beatitude and stand in need of our prayers.
And so today the Order prays for deceased parents. Those who have helped their children so much, we now try to help in return.
Yet as we do a good bit of praying for the dead, it is worth reflecting on the practice more broadly as well. After all, we offer a weekly Mass, a weekly Rosary, a daily De Profundis, several memorials throughout the year, and more, for the dead. The primary reason we pray for the souls in purgatory is to help them, but a secondary question is how we can best enter into the spirituality of the practice.
When we pray for the dead, we in a way also face the death that we too will have to die someday (probably). We do the same when we pray the Hail Mary, “now and at the hour of our death.” Throughout the ages, it has been an important spiritual practice, to remember death. “Memento Mori.” This helps us place our present concerns and anxieties in the larger context of eternity. To see what’s most important in life. Secondary things don’t seem so crucial on one’s deathbed. It can be a rather freeing thing, at times, to remember the fact of death. Not that you avoid things, but you face them from the perspective of eternity. It can make more acute our conscious contact with God, to let all else fall away, and anticipate that final meeting with the Lord.
Hesychios of Sinai, the 5th century hesychast, is characteristic of the early Christian ascetics when he says, “Whenever possible, we should always remember death, for this displaces all cares and vanities, allowing us to guard our intellect and giving us unceasing prayer, detachment from [wayward desires of] our body and a hatred of sin. Indeed, it is a source of almost every virtue. We should therefore, if possible, use it as we use our own breathing.”
And the very next paragraph tells us of the spiritual fruits that come from this practice when united with deep prayer. Hesychios says, “A heart that has been completely emptied of mental images gives birth to divine, mysterious contemplations that play within it like fish and dolphins in a calm sea. The sea is fanned by a soft wind, the heart’s depth by the Holy Spirit” (Philokalia I, 189-90). (Like dolphins playing on the surface of the sea, enlightened contemplative thoughts rise from the depths, break into consciousness, and return into the depths, with a gentle gracefulness to it all). You see: Remember death and soon you’ll be playing with the dolphins of contemplation. So says this Saint of the Eastern Church. It’s just to say: remembering death need not be a gloomy practice.
What is more, in praying for the dead, heaven becomes a greater factor in our lives. There is a way that when we pray for something good for another person, we also desire that good ourselves. So when we pray with all our heart that others reach heaven, in that very act, we ourselves are desiring heaven. We grasp the longing of our departed loved ones and we ourselves enter into that longing for heaven.
Praying for the dead places us before the Eschaton, the Last Day when we too will leave much of this earth behind and appear before God face to face. We reach out and stretch forward toward our heavenly homeland. In praying for the dead, we ourselves are “knocking on heaven’s door.”
I know Dylan is hard to beat, but put even more eloquently, we have words from our first reading. In praying for the dead, we “have approached Mount Zion and the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and countless angels in festal gathering, and the assembly of the firstborn enrolled in heaven, and God the judge of all, and the spirits of the just made perfect, and Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant.”