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.