Praying for the Dead

On August 9 of this year, I lost my father, who died suddenly and peacefully at the age of 92. I did not cease praying for him, of course. His death simply meant that instead of praying for his health I now pray for his repose, singing “Memory eternal” instead of “Many years”. That is what the resurrection of Christ accomplished: by trampling down death by death, He abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel (2 Timothy 1:10). Death no longer separates us from one another if we remain together in Christ, for death cannot separate us from Him. Death in the Church simply means that a loved one’s name is moved a few inches over on the church’s intercession sheet of paper, from the “Living” column to the “Departed” one.

The Church has always prayed for its dead. Such prayers do not loom large on the pages of the New Testament, but that is to be expected of a document written in the first years of the Church’s life when only few Christians had died. Even so we are told that our departed loved ones are with the Lord (1 Thessalonians 4:13f), and we have a brief prayer of St. Paul for one who had died—Onesiphorus, to whom Paul refers in the past tense and for whose surviving household he prays. Paul prays that he may “find mercy from the Lord on that day” of judgment (2 Timothy 1:16-18). Such prayer for the dead is not surprising, for the Judaism out of which Christianity arose knew of prayer for the dead. In 2 Maccabees 12:41f we read of pious Jews offering of prayer for the forgiveness of those fellow Jews who had died, and there is no reason why Christians would have rejected such a practice. Indeed, the history of the Church proves that they did not, for intercession for the dead has always formed a part of the Church’s liturgical life.

It is here however that our curiosity about the dead receives a rebuke. Naturally we want to know all about their present state after death. Where are they? In Hades, the land of the dead? In paradise? In heaven? Is paradise the same as heaven? Is it part of Hades, where Lazarus feasted in joy across the abyss from the wicked rich man who was suffering in flame as mentioned in Christ’s parable in Luke 16? Do Christians go straight to heaven upon death? Do they rest in paradise instead? Or perhaps they rest in paradise first before going to be with Christ in heaven? The truth, frustrating as it may be for our curiosity, is that we do not know. Or anyway, I do not know. We are told all that we need to know to do our duty and to live well, but not all that we would like to know. And, generally speaking, we have our hands full enough doing our duty here in this world without the knowledge of what is transpiring on the other side. And if we knew the answers to all these questions, how would it change how we lived? We already know we should live righteously, loving God and our neighbour, praying for everyone, both living and dead—how would knowledge of the fine details improve our lives? “The hidden things belong to the Lord our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever that we may do all the words of this Law” (Deuteronomy 29:29).

What we do know is little enough, but still of immense importance. We know that the souls of the dead dwell in Hades (Hebrew “Sheol”, the land of the dead), and that they can be helped by the intercessions of the Church, especially when offered as part of the Eucharist. (Hence the third prayer of Pentecost Vespers: “You deign to receive the offerings and supplications for those bound in Hades and grant to us the great hope that respite and comfort will be sent down from You to the departed from the grief that binds them”.) We know that the souls of Christians who have lived in piety and true discipleship, through the mercy of Christ and the prayers of His Church, will come to dwell “in a place of brightness, a place of refreshment, a place of repose, where all sickness, sorrow and sighing have fled away”. We know that for the faithful to depart this life is to be at home with Christ (Philippians 1:23, 2 Corinthians 5:8). What we do not know are the mechanics, the details of the journey, the process of self-knowledge and purification that occurs on the other side, and the map of celestial geography. But fear not: life is short, and we shall all find out soon enough.

Meanwhile, we may hazard a few educated guesses and make some observations. The Orthodox are clear that there is no such place as Purgatory, at least as classically defined by our Roman Catholic friends at the Council of Florence. According to the 1951 Catholic Dictionary, Purgatory is “The place and state in which souls suffer for a while and are purged after death, before they go to Heaven, on account of their sins. Venial sins, which have never in life been remitted by an act of repentance or love or by good deeds, and grave sins, the guilt of which with its eternal punishment has indeed been removed by God after an act of repentance but for which there is still left a debt of temporal punishment due to His justice on account of the imperfection of that repentance, must be purged away after death by the pain of intense longing for God, whose blissful vision is delayed, and also, as is commonly taught, by some pain of sense inflicted probably by material fire.”

There are several problems with this definition. One is the idea that Purgatory is a place, a kind of terrible waiting room, suffering in which must be endured prior to entering Heaven. Another problem is the juridical approach to sin taken throughout. This definition is all about guilt and debt and justice and punishment, so that divine justice is satisfied by a sufficient amount of suffering. The reference to longing for God ameliorates the juridicism of the concept somewhat, but the entire approach is one of justice, and savours of a court-room, not a hospital, of the payment of a debt, not the healing of the heart.

There is nothing inherently wrong with the concept that a soul must be purified after death if this purification divorced from the forensic demands of justice and tied more closely to therapeutic healing. Our passions impede us from fully experiencing the presence and power of God, which alone bring joy. If we are to experience joy to the full—what St. Paul refers to as “a weight of glory”—it makes sense that an inner transformation will be necessary, removing all the inner barriers to God’s presence which we have foolishly erected. Seen like this, unacknowledged impatience, anger, lust, resentment, or other sins lurking within us need to be acknowledged and removed before we can experience joy to the full. These sins are not so much debts which we must pay off by suffering before God can bless us and admit us to Heaven, as dark spots on the windows of our soul which must be removed before the divine light can fully flood into us. No doubt seeing our sins in all their ugliness and consenting to the removal of things which have become so much a part of us may be painful. No one likes to hear unpleasant things about themselves, even in this life. The process of purification and of spiritual surgery therefore may be accompanied by some pain. But the pain is not the point, and it does not somehow serve to pay off our debt. It is incidental to the real point, which is ridding ourselves of the cancer growing within us, so that we can experience God in freedom and joy.

It is perhaps here that our prayers on earth for the departed can be of some help. To fully dwell in a place of brightness, a place of refreshment, a place of repose depends upon the state of the heart. It is a matter of the departed obtaining spiritual health, not of finding their way to a particular celestial real estate. In the words of C.S. Lewis, we go further up and further in, journeying eternally onward (if St. Gregory of Nyssa is to be believed) in an endless ascent of joy. Our prayers for the departed cannot take the place of their repentance in this life if they entered the next life entirely unrepentant. The Fathers are clear enough about that. But they can perhaps help those who do enter the next life repentant, and ready to further repent if shown the truth about themselves. To be completely and peacefully at home in a place of brightness, refreshment, and repose, the soul must have some inner brightness, freshness, and rest within itself.

Complicating the matter somewhat is added question of fervency. In the early centuries of the Church’s life, pretty much all her members were fervent, for membership in the Church in those times of persecution could cost one’s life. The prayers and references to the departed Christians in those days were appropriately full of confidence and boldness. After the persecution died down, the Church contained many members who were rather less fervent—people who were born and raised in the Church and in a Christian culture and who took Christianity more or less for granted. They weren’t particularly pious, but they were impious either. The question of faith was more assumed than received. There were many moral people in the churches with a veneer of Christianity thinly painted over them by the Christian culture in which they lived. They accepted and worshipped Christ, even if they lacked the fervency required of all Christians in the early days. What about them after they died?

Our present liturgical prayers were written to be used indiscriminately, a kind of “one size fits all”. The prayers therefore contain a mixture of bold confidence regarding the state of the Christian dead and of trembling supplication. Do the references to those in Hades being bound by grief refer to all Christians? Were the authors thinking mostly of the nominal and non-fervent church member? It is difficult to know—and, ultimately, I suppose, none of our business.

Meanwhile, we must live in such a way as will best prepare ourselves for that journey to the undiscovered country and as men and women who will one day stand before Christ’s dread judgment seat and give an account. We pray for the Christians we have known and loved, confident that our prayers will do them good. I am happy to also pray for anyone who has died, since I have no accurate knowledge of the condition of their hearts and their consequent state on the other side. I am content with my inevitable ignorance, and will faithfully commend them to the mercy of God. God loves them even more than I do, and I trust both His love and His justice. At best my prayers will do them some good. At worst I am wasting my breath. But that’s okay: I usually waste it on things even less worthy.

One last thing: if you have time, please say a little prayer for my father, who died a Christian. His name is Rheal.


  1. Memory Eternal, Father. I offer my condolences to you and yours, and prayers for Rheal.

    Thank you for the thoughtful article. I agree with you about the “unknowns” and was especially glad to know you pray for all who die, as it is in my heart to do so too for the same reason you give.

  2. Eternal memory to your father! I lost mine this year as well.

    I would not take the 1951 Catholic Dictionary as definitive Catholic teaching on purgatory (for one, it is not a magisterial source in the proper sense). The current Catechism notes the following:

    “1030 All who die in God’s grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified, are indeed assured of their eternal salvation; but after death they undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven.

    1031 The Church gives the name Purgatory to this final purification of the elect, which is entirely different from the punishment of the damned. The Church formulated her doctrine of faith on Purgatory especially at the Councils of Florence and Trent. The tradition of the Church, by reference to certain texts of Scripture, speaks of a cleansing fire.”

    What is this fire? Debates have raged about whether or not it is material or spiritual (sometimes, even the same thinker took different positions at different times of his life); the Catholic Church has never dogmatically defined it. Pope Benedict XVI in Spe Salvi, however, speaks about it thus (paragraph #47), and his words of quote-worthy because he really gets at the heart about what post-mortem purification is about; namely, a being-purified by Christ and for Christ, to enjoy eternal Life in Him and thus in the Father. It also helps to navigate the waters of how to talk about God’s justice and mercy: God is just, but his justice is always a merciful justice.

    “Some recent theologians are of the opinion that the fire which both burns and saves is Christ himself, the Judge and Saviour. The encounter with him is the decisive act of judgement. Before his gaze all falsehood melts away. This encounter with him, as it burns us, transforms and frees us, allowing us to become truly ourselves. All that we build during our lives can prove to be mere straw, pure bluster, and it collapses. Yet in the pain of this encounter, when the impurity and sickness of our lives become evident to us, there lies salvation. His gaze, the touch of his heart heals us through an undeniably painful transformation “as through fire”. But it is a blessed pain, in which the holy power of his love sears through us like a flame, enabling us to become totally ourselves and thus totally of God. In this way the inter-relation between justice and grace also becomes clear: the way we live our lives is not immaterial, but our defilement does not stain us for ever if we have at least continued to reach out towards Christ, towards truth and towards love. Indeed, it has already been burned away through Christ’s Passion. At the moment of judgement we experience and we absorb the overwhelming power of his love over all the evil in the world and in ourselves. The pain of love becomes our salvation and our joy.”

    1. Thank you for your kind condolences and for the final quote. I am interested in the opinion that Christ Himself is the purifying fire. That is very helpful.
      I used the Catholic Dictionary of 1951 because it seemed a good way of explicating the teaching of the Council of Florence, which was the classical doctrine of Purgatory to which I alone was referring. I note that a RC site “Catholic Essentials” also quotes from the the Catholic Dictionary when it explains RC teaching (at: Florence refers to the necessity of “making satisfaction” for sins, which is part of what I regard as problematic. The reference of the current Catechism to Florence and Trent would seem to indicate that the classical definition still holds; what is offered is a refinement and restatement of the classical statement, not rejection of it.

      1. Thank you, Father Lawrence, for your condolences and for your clarification. I should clarify my own post in turn, because I realize that I was not clear. My apologies.

        I think that the 1951 text is un-representative of Catholic teaching in the first place because it actually does not get Florence’s teaching correct. First, Florence itself does not refer purgatory as a place at all, but rather about “being purged by purgatorial penalties.” Several of the Latins at the Council did think of it as a place, but that idea did not make it into the conciliar text. (Modern Catholic teaching emphasizes the idea of purgatory as a “state” more than anything, but in either case it is not dogmatically defined as not being a place either.)

        Second, you are right to point out theological issues with (as you say) this concept that “divine justice is satisfied by a sufficient amount of suffering.” But Florence doesn’t teach that either. It does speak of satisfaction, but doesn’t define what this satisfaction is. (Interestingly too, in the first Latin text on the Last Things at Florence, the Latins did speak about justice and the post-mortem condition, but only as their 7th point for discussion. Later, in another meetings with the Greeks, they also basically said they want to focus on patristic and biblical texts instead since, in light them, they didn’t see the need to pursue the argument about justice. In any case, no argument about justice as the object of satisfaction made it into the conciliar text either.)

        On the question of satisfaction then (i.e., the question of what is being satisfied), I think that this is where the text from Pope Benedict comes in. This part of the text helps me: “the way we live our lives is not immaterial.” Pope Benedict’s point seems to be that our choices in life have real consequences, and even if and when we repent, the damage done by our sin can remain, sometimes strongly (and sometimes, can never be removed completely in this life). Thus, it requires real satisfaction of some kind, not in the sense that God just needs to see us suffer, but in the sense (as he notes here) that God takes our created human freedom seriously, such that the effects of its mis-use for the sake of sin require real purification in some way for our sake as agents.

        This seems to be more the way that the modern Catechism leans too in its discussion of satisfaction. Here is what is says about satisfaction, in the context of discussing penance. In fact, it gets precisely at this idea of therapeutic healing that you rightfully draw attention to.

        “1459 Many sins wrong our neighbor. One must do what is possible in order to repair the harm … Simple justice requires as much. But sin also injures and weakens the sinner himself, as well as his relationships with God and neighbor. Absolution takes away sin, but it does not remedy all the disorders sin has caused. Raised up from sin, the sinner must still recover his full spiritual health by doing something more to make amends for the sin: he must “make satisfaction for” or “expiate” his sins. This satisfaction is also called “penance.””

        How does this take place? Through penance, but in the Catechism’s formulation, penance = (basically) the biblical concept of metanoia as a whole way of Christian life:

        “1460 The penance the confessor imposes must take into account the penitent’s personal situation and must seek his spiritual good. It must correspond as far as possible with the gravity and nature of the sins committed. It can consist of prayer, an offering, works of mercy, service of neighbor, voluntary self-denial, sacrifices, and above all the patient acceptance of the cross we must bear. Such penances help configure us to Christ, who alone expiated our sins once for all. They allow us to become co-heirs with the risen Christ, “provided we suffer with him.””

        1. Thank you for all this. My basic point was in regard to what people like my (RC) dad and others like him understood Purgatory to be, which was more or less in line with what the Catholic Dictionary said. I wanted to differentiate Orthodox teaching from that perspective. I appreciate the clarification regarding what contemporary Roman Catholicism teaches.

  3. Evlogeite, Papa Lawrence! Eternal memory! We are being to the read your book: Unquenchable Fire. Thank you for writing this! Metropolitan Hierotheos of Nafpaktos has written, as you know, about the “purifying fire”. The discussions at Ferrara-Florence about the purifying fire…

  4. Praying for Bro. Rheal that he be drawn closer to the thrown and all his sins be forgiven as he stands healed and whole in the presence of God.

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