All Souls Day – The Mystery of Transition
According to Catholic, Orthodox, and Anglican teaching, the communion of saints is made up of the faithful on earth (the church militant), the saints in purgatory (the church penitent) and the saints in heaven (the church triumphant). November 2, All Souls day, is the day on which prayers are offered for the dead, in keeping with this belief in the communion of all Christians in the Mystical Body of Christ.
Purgatory was a belief rejected by many of the Protestant groups during the Reformation. In part, this rejection was a reaction to the sale of indulgences which induced believers to part with money in exchange for the release of their loved ones from Purgatory. The Catholic Church responded by asserting that nothing had been sold and that free will offerings and alms, along with prayer and fasting were traditional ways in which the faithful on earth interceded for the deceased in their state of transformation. Jimmy Akin, a Catholic apologist (defender) and former Protestant, presents a detailed defense of Purgatory in his paper, “How to Explain Purgatory to Protestants.”
Tertulian, in the third century, taught that Purgatory was a physical place hidden deep in the bowels of the earth. It was a place where Christians who were not martyrs went after death and waited to be released at the final judgment. This view was quickly rejected by the Church. Purgatory was seen to be a condition of the soul, not a physical place. More recently, Pope John Paul II stated that purgatory is a condition of existence outside of the passage of events we call time. According to the Pope and the Catechism of the Catholic Church, purgatory is not necessarily a place of physical suffering, but a place of transformation. Jimmy Akin, in his defense of Purgatory, says that it is implied in certain schools of Protestant belief, since man only stops sinning at the time of death and cannot sin in Heaven. Therefore, there has to be a point of purgation.
Those of us who grew up Catholic in the 1950’s remember that indulgences had certain time values assigned to them. Certain prayers or devotional acts remitted the temporal punishment of so many days or years. When I asked priests about it as a boy, they tended to roll their eyes and say that it didn’t make much sense to them – there is no time in eternity. Some tried to explain that the time was somehow equivalent to the benefit that so many days of penance would have had on the departed soul. The assignment of days and years of spiritual benefit has now been erased from our concept of prayers and devotional acts. The view today is one of solidarity with the deceased, as living members of the community. Consequently, Catholic observances tend to be less anxious and mournful than during my childhood.
The Mexican Día de Los Muertos – The Day of the Dead – a joyful celebration which actually lasts from October 31 to November 2, celebrates those in heaven and purgatory. Preparation for this celebration begins in mid-October. Death and the afterlife have a very different sensibility among less industrialized segments of Mexican society. The reality of the afterlife is not doubted but is instead celebrated. There are fewer effects of secularization in this population, so the images and concepts that result may seem bizarre to industrialized sophisticates. Pageants of saints and devils, candy in the form of skulls, and even a mock funeral procession with a live person in the casket are part and parcel of a lively festival. Altars with votive offerings bring to mind those of pre-Christian shamans and an ongoing connection with ancient indigenous traditions as well.
Life, death, and new life is also a persistent belief outside of Christianity and a mystery that can never be understood but only celebrated. What happens at that moment of transition between two worlds and modes of existence? Something terrible and something wonderful. All Souls Day is a day to stop and ponder the mystery.