JMC : The Christian Mind / by Dom Anscar Vonier, O.S.B.

Chapter XIV.
The Attitude of the Christian Mind Towards Them that Fall Asleep in the Lord.

The Catholic doctrine implied in the rather vague term "Purgatory" is certainly the one tenet of our holy faith where man's imaginations have the the greatest chance of crowding out the solid and definite facts of ecclesiastical teaching.

There is the constant danger with pious people of giving too great a preponderance to what I might call the spiritistic side of this doctrine, with a tendency of laying too much stress on the state of disembodiment of the human soul, a state which results in new conditions of existence for the faithful departed of a mysterious and painful nature. The predominant idea, however, that ought to shape our whole mental outlook in this matter is the great fact that death for the Christian is essentially a falling asleep in the Lord.

No greater error could be committed than to suppose that the Christian soul from the moment of its baptismal regeneration up to the moment of being introduced to the Blessed Vision of God in Heaven is ever to pass through a phase of existence where its membership with Christ would be less accentuated, or almost suspended.

This vital force of membership with the living Son of God is the one certain spiritual fact in the history of the Christian's soul about which there can be no doubts, and all other doctrines are, so to speak, essentially subservient to that dominating factor.

To assert that in the state of the disembodiment of the soul conveyed by the term "Purgatory" the life of redeemed man is less entirely a life in Christ than it is here on earth, would be a statement as gratuitous as it is dangerous.

Nowhere in the Scriptures, nowhere in theology or tradition is there any trace of such a diminution of the soul's membership with Christ.

On the contrary, everywhere we find that the life of man in Christ and Christ's life in man are, from their very nature, not only continuous, but perfectly progressive.

Mortal sin is the only thing that interferes substantially with the flow of the great life.

It is far from my purpose to write a treatise on Purgatory. I am concerned here exclusively with the mental attitude of the Catholic, with the question how we ought to view practically the state of the Christian soul departed from the body, and not yet admitted to the fulness of God's vision because personal sin is not fully expiated.

First of all there is nothing in the Catholic doctrine on Purgatory that could make it inappropriate to apply to every dead Christian the beautiful expression that "he fell asleep in the Lord", if he died in the faith of the Son of God, and if there are the ordinary indications that he passed out of this world in the state of grace.

Though it may be presumed, according to Catholic sentiment, that many who die in the charity of Christ, have still to atone, are still slightly tarnished in beauty of soul, yet such a fear, whatever its foundations and its nature, ought in no wise to render us less eager to use the dear old phrase with regard to our departed fellow Christians:

They are asleep in the Lord, all of them.

The language of the Apostolic age and the words of the liturgy of the Church in all times are quite unhesitating in this matter.

Everywhere the dying Christian is represented as falling asleep in the Lord, and there are no other terrors for him than the evil of being separated from the Lord and thus falling a prey to the dragon.

The suffering of Purgatory is not one of the terrors of the dying Christian.

To die in the peace of Christ, in osculo Domini, with the kiss from the Lord's lips on the soul's innermost consciousness, is the one overpowering fact.

Whatever happens to the Christian soul after its departure from the body is governed by that great fact of Christ's friendship with the saved spirit.

It is of course one of the apparent anomalies of Catholic doctrine that there should be atonement or suffering of spirit for the disembodied Christian soul, on the one hand, and the peace of immutable life in Christ, on the other hand, in that mysterious state of cleansing.

Yet our knowledge as to the nature of that cleansing is very limited. We know that it exists in the case of many of the faithful departed. But we know a vast deal more as to the condition of man's incorporation in Christ.

If we open the Scriptures, this great spiritual reality is the one doctrine that has been worked out by the sacred writers with greatest completeness.

The soul's destiny is forever modified by that wonderful incorporation in Christ's living organism. To view the soul's state outside it would be a most dangerous mental attitude.

A Purgatory that is not life in Christ has nothing to do with Catholic dogma. For cautious as the Church is with regard to the nature of the cleansing process, its duration, its extent, the exhortation to pray for the departed is constantly on the lips of Holy Mother the Church.

In practice it is the only view of Purgatory that appeals to the Church, that makes the Church class it amongst her lifegiving doctrines. She wants the faithful here on earth to realise that in virtue of the great incorporation in Christ we all, living and dead, can contribute towards the increase of the divine life, and through our own sanctity here on earth, our prayers, our charity, our good works we have it in our power to bring the divine life of the departed Christian soul to its full development of joy and glory.

As to what I called a moment ago the spiritistic side of Purgatory, the state of the soul in Purgatory, the Church never professed to hold any explicit revelation.

Purgatory is to her essentially part of the mystery of the Incarnation; it is the body of Christ, with its variety of functions and affections.

One of the scriptural utterances of which Catholic theologians make use in order to establish dogmatically the existence of a purifying process for certain souls, though the souls be founded in grace, is from the first Epistle to the Corinthians.

"According to the grace of God that is given to me, as a wise architect I have laid the foundation: and another buildeth thereon. But let every man take heed how he buildeth thereupon.

For other foundation no man can lay, but that which is laid which is Christ Jesus. Now, if any man build upon this foundation gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, stubble, every man's work shall be manifest; for the day of the Lord shall declare it, because it shall be revealed in fire; and the fire shall try every man's work, of what sort it is. If any man's work abide, which he hath built thereupon, he shall receive a reward. If any man's work burn, he shall suffer loss; but he himself shall be saved, yet so as by fire. Know you not that you are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwelleth in you?" (i. Cor, iii. 10-16.)

The main idea of St. Paul is very clear. He admits that the teachers of the New Testament may be found to do bad work on a very good foundation, Christ. Yet it is not such bad work as to be a cause of eternal loss. On the other hand, the judgment of Christ will be as keen as fire. It will burn the bad work, but will leave the foundation, Christ.

It is essentially a rectifying of an imperfection, not a destruction of a sinner.

The metaphors then of St. Paul convey a clear spiritual principle, the principle that God's judgments act as fire even on the just. And as the expression "the day of the Lord" implies a judgment that is beyond the present state of mortality, theologians are justified in seeing here a general principle of which Purgatory is one of the applications.

I need not tarry in showing how far it is legitimate for the theologian to deduce from the above text the doctrine of a purifying process for departed Christians.

The inference is fully justified. But my concern is with the broader issue stated by St, Paul, that through all the fire and loss, there is one thing that remains unmoved and untouched, the foundation that was laid, Christ Himself "For other foundation no man can lay, but that which is laid, which is Christ Jesus."

My conclusion then is that the one classical text in favour of the purifying process for souls lays the greatest stress on the permanency of Christ's abiding presence through all the imperfections of spiritual work, and the subsequent trial by fire.

More than any other province of reality, this great reality, the state of the disembodied Christian soul, is to be approached through Christ, and in Christ.

If we walk into it regardless of the grace of the Incarnation that broods over it all, we turn a mystery of mercy into a vague shadow of horror.

In strict dogmatic language there are three states of existence for the Christian.

First there is the state of mortality, here on earth, with its struggles and sufferings. It is for the Christian essentially a knowledge of, and participation in, Christ's sufferings.

Then there is the state of glory, which is indissolubly combined with the resurrection of the body, as an outcome of Christ's resurrection. It is the true Ecclesia triumphans.

Between those two states, there is the transient, accidental, and less universal state of those that fell asleep in the Lord, a state that means happiness and gain, as according to the language of St. Paul it is better to be absent from the body, and to be present to the Lord.

"But we are confident, and have a good will to be absent rather from the body, and to be present with the Lord" (ii. Cor. v. 8).

This intermediary state is less clearly described to us than the two other states. Its psychological conditions are a mystery to us. It caused the first practical perplexity to the early Christians, the converts of the Apostles.

The Apostolic preaching was all about the great triumph of Christ coming in glory, with the concomitant glorification of the elect, completely transformed in soul and body. But when the number of those Christians who died before the great manifestation of Christ increased in the churches, the question began to be asked what became of them, what hopes they had of seeing Christ on the day of His power.

St. Paul answers the difficulty in his first Epistle to the Thessalonians, fourth chapter:

"And we will not have you ignorant, brethren, concerning them that are asleep, that you be not sorrowful, even as others who have no hope. For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again: even so them who have slept through Jesus will God bring with him. For this we say unto you in the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who remain unto the coming of the Lord, shall not prevent them who have slept. For the Lord Himself shall come down from Heaven with commandment, and with the voice of an Archangel, and with the trumpet of God: and the dead who arc in Christ shall rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, shall be taken up together with them in the clouds to meet Christ, into the air, and so shall we be always with the Lord. Wherefore comfort ye one another with these words" (i. Thess. iv. 12-17).

Yet with all that consoling message as to the share the dead Christian will have one day in Christ's resurrection, the Apostle refrains from saying anything concerning the life of those souls in their present slate of disembodiment.

With St. Paul, the mystery of the resurrection is, so to speak, the only thing that matters. What is of importance, is to establish the fact that God will give the dead Christian the full privilege of the final resurrection.

Whatever may be the intermediate mode of life for the soul, all due guarantee as to its happiness is given us through the assertion that such a state, as all other concerns of the baptised soul, is a thing in the Lord.

In the Epistle to the Philippians St. Paul declares most emphatically that death means life with the Lord: "But I am straitened between two: having a desire to be dissolved and to be with Christ, a thing by far the better. But to abide still in the flesh, is needful for you" (Phil, i. 23 24).

No more satisfactory formula could be found for our own minds in which to express the state and conditions of life of the faithful departed, of whatever rank of sanctity they may be, than the old expression "asleep in the Lord".

The subdivision of this middle state into souls perfect in bliss, and souls in need of prayer and suffrages is, I might almost say, a minor distinction. It does not bring about distinct kinds of existence.

We might call it two unequal conditions inside the same state of existence. And it is my conviction that a very great service would be rendered to the Christian Mind if it could be brought to think of all departed Christian souls in that truly divinised fashion.

Our concern with the spirits of the just departed is a practical one, praying for them, or even praying to them. Both these functions of spiritual life are unthinkable unless they be part of our life in Christ.

It is true that in common Catholic parlance the Church is divided into Ecclesia militans, Ecclesia patiens, and Ecclesia triumphans, which division comprises the Christian here on earth fighting the battles of God, the souls in Purgatory atoning for the negligences of life, and the assembly of the saved souls in the bliss of Heaven.

Such a division is quite legitimate, as it is concerned not so much with different kinds of existence, as with different conditions of happiness. The older division however gives greater satisfaction to the intellect. It means three totally different states of existence, mortal life, the disembodied life, and the risen life of the Christian.

The more modern division has reference chiefly to the order of things that obtains at present, leaving out of sight that totally new mode of existence that will come to man on the day when he will rise in his flesh endowed with incorruption.

If pressed too much, the modern division might create the impression that there is as real a difference in the mode of existence between the soul that is still kept from the clear Vision of God, and the soul admitted to that Vision, as there is between the struggling Christian here on earth, still exposed to all the perils of the trial, and the disembodied soul of the Christian who passed out of this world in the charity of Christ.

Yet it is evident the two differences have nothing in common. The soul in Purgatory is forever established in grace; sin has become quite impossible.

The Church in her official capacity pronounces on the sanctity of a Christian's earthly life; she has the right to declare that the soul is in the glory of Heaven.

But at no time could the Church pronounce in an individual case whether or not a soul passes, or has passed, through the cleansing fire. The possible delays that keep the saved soul from the full enjoyment of beatific bliss do not really constitute an essentially different state, as all souls that are saved live in Christ unto God. I feel sure that the reader will pardon this insistence on a view which to-day perhaps is getting less common. Yet if anything is precious to the Christian Mind, it is the consideration that life in Christ is one continuous, uninterrupted flow, from baptism on till the glorious resurrection of the last day.

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