Tag Archives: purification

Making Sense of Suffering

By guest writer Sarah Coffey.

Why do we suffer?

I’ve wrestled with this question and with God for a long, long time. It’s still a struggle sometimes, more often than I’d like to admit.

If God is so good, and if God loves me like He says He does, then WHY do I have to fight a chronic illness? Why do I have to watch my family members suffer? Why did my grandfather have to die a slow death from cancer? Why did my grandmother have to suffer so much with loneliness and illness? Why did her death have to be slow and painful, too?

I’ve never understood suffering. The first time I came face to face with people telling me that suffering is redemptive is when my husband (who was at that time my boyfriend) lost his mother unexpectedly. I read things about suffering. Catholic things. Things written by literal saints.  They told me that suffering — the pain of losing someone, the pain of seeing someone else hurt, and your own hurt be it physical or emotional — can bring you closer to God. It’s redemptive and salvific.

But suffering didn’t do that for me — it didn’t bring me closer to God. Instead, it made me quite frustrated, and even mad at Him.

This was not just a battle I faced every so often, when a big life event like someone becoming sick, hurt, or dying occurred. No, this was something I faced every month for the past several years as I battled the effects of endometriosis and severe PMS (medically diagnosed as PMDD, which goes WAY beyond typical premenstrual mood swings) plaguing me every four weeks and many, many days in between.

Relentless pain, emotional turmoil, and at times, the feeling of being incredibly depressed for days that interrupted almost every facet of my life and relationships. It made me constantly say WHY, God, WHY do I have to deal with this, when you could so easily will it away? Is this fun to you? Am I just not faithful enough, tough enough, strong enough to deal with this, because this sucks so much?

My dislike — no, loathing — of suffering went on until a few months ago when after it looked like just about every feasible medical option for treating the ridiculous effects of this awful illness had been tried and found wanting. That’s when, by God’s grace, I finally relented in my anger and took this struggle to the foot of the Cross. I prayed that if this was a struggle I had to deal with, that God would give me the grace to carry it better. That He would help me understand this Cross and have peace with why I had to carry it. Just as with St. Paul wrote, that God won’t take away the thorn in our side, but He’ll give us the grace to deal with it: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”

My answer, my help in understanding this suffering and all others came in the form of a talk by none other than Fulton Sheen.

I watched a clip of him giving a talk, in his lofty, articulate, awesome voice about a time he had a toothache as a child. To paraphrase, he was a young boy and he HATED going to the dentist. But he developed a severe toothache — an abscess, even. He hid it from his father as long as he possibly could to put off going to the dentist, which he HATED and wanted to avoid at all costs. But his father eventually found out. And took him to the dentist.

Now, mind you, this was the dentist’s office in like the early 1900s. So you can imagine the kind of suffering that went on in there when you came in with an abscessed tooth. Fulton Sheen talked about how, as the dentist began to work on fixing his tooth, Sheen became so upset at his father, wondering why he wasn’t helping him, protecting him, sheltering him from this immense suffering of the dentist treating his tooth.

At the time, as a child, it didn’t make sense to him. But his father knew that ultimately, even if he protected his son from this momentary suffering of going to the dentist, which he really hated and didn’t want to do, it would be very bad, would result in even more suffering, and at that point in time could eventually have caused serious illness or death if left untreated.

Fulton Sheen’s father allowed him temporary suffering for his ultimate good.

And it sort of clicked after I listened to this story. God doesn’t enjoy watching us suffer no more than Fulton Sheen’s father enjoyed watching his little boy writhe in pain in the dentist’s chair. For Fulton Sheen, his father allowed suffering because it was for the good of his ultimate health. For us, God allows suffering because it’s for the good of our souls.

When I heard suffering presented in this way, I was able to finally pray, Lord I don’t like this suffering. In fact, I HATE IT. But if this is for the betterment of my soul, I trust in you, I trust that you, the loving Father that you are, know what is best for me, and that you’ll give me the grace to bear it.

It became so much easier to carry that cross.

Peter Kreeft wrote, in Spiritual Direction from St. Thomas Aquinas, that “Nothing more powerfully helps us to bear pain than the realization that God wills it.” And I can say that in my own life I have experienced that this is true.

Not more fun — as the struggle was and still is definitely there. And I. don’t. like. it. But seeing it as something God allows for my ultimate good — something that can help me grow in faith for the sake of my eternal salvation — helped make me less bitter and more at peace.

I was challenged again by this as I watched my grandmother suffer in her last few weeks of life. And in watching my family members suffer, too, as they experienced her suffering at her side. Those questions crept back: Why, God, why do you allow her to suffer so much? Why can’t you just take the pain away?

But I am not God. So I don’t know why these things happen. But He does know why. And His ways are higher than mine. And just as Christ’s suffering led to the resurrection and the promise of eternal life, God allows our suffering to bear the fruit of our redemption — even though we probably can’t see it now or even until after our own death.

Our sufferings here on Earth make sense if we trust that there is something after this earthly life. If there’s nothing after that, then suffering means nothing. It is just endless pain and sadness and sorrow and heartbreak. But if there is something beyond this, as Jesus promised and as the Church teaches, then our suffering has so much meaning. Because God wills it for sake of our eternal salvation.

Peter Kreeft also wrote, “… God in His wisdom wills that we suffer because He sees that we need it for our own deepest, truest, most lasting good, or the good of someone else.” For our own deepest, truest, and most lasting good. May this truth help us to take suffering to the cross, and say Lord, use this to mold my heart even more into Yours so that I may spend eternity with You.

_____

Originally published at Sarah Coffey.

Sarah Coffey is a convert to Catholicism who enjoys delving into Church history and the Theology of the Body. She is blessed with a wonderful family, husband, and a cat named Stella (as in “Ave Maris Stella”, of course).

God as Poet

By guest writer LeighAnna Schesser.

Recently, a friend wrote to me saying, “I’m skimming Jesus of Nazareth and Pope Benedict XVI mentions all the mountains in Jesus’ life (temptation, teaching, prayer, transfiguration,) and it just struck me as, well, really poetic. Do you have any thoughts regarding God as a Poet or something similar?”

Perhaps because I am a writer myself, the idea of God as a poet delights me. My first articulate thought was that, of course God is a poet; He is a craftsman and an artist, and we and the universe we inhabit are His great work. But something else came immediately to mind as well, and it was only in writing a response to my friend that I began to elucidate the connections:

Let me begin to reply to that question with another question: have you read the last paragraph of G.K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy lately? Allow me to refresh your memory; it’s one of my all-time favorite passages:

“Joy, which was the small publicity of the pagan, is the gigantic secret of the Christian. And as I close this chaotic volume I open again the strange small book from which all Christianity came; and I am again haunted by a kind of confirmation. The tremendous figure which fills the Gospels towers in this respect, as in every other, above all the thinkers whoever thought themselves tall. His pathos was natural, almost casual. The Stoics, ancient and modern, were proud of concealing their tears. He never concealed His tears; He showed them plainly on His open face at any daily sight, such as the far sight of His native city. Yet He concealed something. Solemn supermen and imperial diplomats are proud of restraining their anger. He never restrained His anger. He flung furniture down the front steps of the Temple, and asked men how they expected to escape the damnation of Hell. Yet He restrained something. I say it with reverence; there was in that shattering personality a thread that must be called shyness. There was something that He hid from all men when He went up a mountain to pray. There was something that He covered constantly by abrupt silence or impetuous isolation. There was some one thing that was too great for God to show us when He walked upon our earth; and I have sometimes fancied that it was His mirth.”

If God is a poet – and of course He is, as He is all good things – then this is the best encapsulation of how and why that I can think of.

Jesus, the first and final Word, is the foundation and fulfillment of all communication. The universe and everything in it was spoken into being through and by the Word of God. The Source of all poetry and all that with which poetry concerns itself is both Poet and Poem – and reader/audience. 

Poetry is distilled, refined, artful communication. Even if the poet, speaker, message, and audience are a single person, the author, it is genuine communication between parts of the self, ideas, and (usually) an imagined audience. (If that sounds trinitarian, it absolutely should.) All that poets do, in their minds and in their output, is a dim reflection of the self-contained communion of the Triune God, and His awesome creative process recorded in the first chapters of Genesis and the Gospel of John. Thus Tolkien’s word for the artist’s labor: subcreation. Like a nesting doll, our efforts to create – in our souls and in action – are within and depend on the Creation.

Creation of Adam

There are few more potent landscapes within that Creation for encountering sublimity than the mountaintop and the desert. The mountaintop and the desert are archetypical locations, liminal places in reality and imagination, intimately familiar to two very similar types of people: the artist and the mystic. Those who seek Art, find God; those who seek God, find Art. Art, perhaps especially poetry, is – metaphorically – a kind of alchemy. At one time alchemy was understood to be primarily a spiritual process: what one did with metals and physical transformations was only an aid to, and a sign of, the purification of the soul. That’s an apt image for how art works, especially when one understands that the essence of art, especially poetry, is refining: as Chesterton put it, the essence of every painting is the frame – the limitation – where one draws the line. It’s the cutting away and the framing that makes the art. Just so, the mountaintop and the desert are places where the world is refined, reduced, delineated: the extraneous is stripped away in the landscape, and so, in a kind of alchemy, that landscape helps strip away the extraneous in our outer and inner selves, leaving us primed, open, and ready to encounter the elusive Divine. 

On the mountaintop or in the desert, we leave behind the company of the world for the privacy of an intimate relationship with the ultimate Other. But the thing about the poet, often more so than the mystic (though not always), is that urge to communicate which prompted going out and up to begin with, is also the desire to return to the rest of the world – to bring back what one has learned and experienced and sing it out. (In the mystic, this is primarily an evangelistic urge, though art can be its fruit – St. John of the Cross comes to mind – whereas for the poet that is reversed.) Yet even in that return and openness, there is something personal, something private, something kept to oneself, that belongs only to and within that Divine relationship. Chesterton sees that private element of the relationship between the Son and the Father as mirth.

The best poetry is, as Robert Frost so famously said, the kind where the poet learns something by writing the poem; there must be surprise. Whether a new insight, the revelation of something we didn’t know we knew, or the fresh perspective offered by juxtaposition, this surprise is, I believe, the same kind of surprise that is the essence of mirth. When you examine what makes something funny, one or more of those three ways of surprise are usually at the heart of it. 

We have an unfortunate cultural preconception that poets must be black-clad, brooding, and Always Very Serious; it’s tied into the sharply mistaken notion that angst, unhappiness, and suffering are the only worthwhile fuel of art. The concept of the funny in poetry is almost completely restricted these days to “light verse” and doggerel. We similarly conceive of the truly religious person and the mystic as grave. In secular parlance, that would be conflated with joyless and mirthless, solemn. Yet as the world mischaracterizes happiness, so too it does not understand what lies in the depths of “solemnity.”

Here we really come down to it: joy can be painful. Joy and happiness are separate from pleasure. (Whereas the world says only pleasure is happiness.) What should be equally yoked to this concept of “Catholic joy” but is often forgotten, is this: mirth can be solemn. Something serious can be very, very funny, and something that causes laughter can be weighty and awe-full.1

Jesus is the God who weeps, who rages, who suffers. Emmanuel, God-with-us, means not just that he walked the earth but that he shares fully in the human condition (save sin, of course.) In Chesterton’s image of His hidden mirth, I see the sharp outline of His humanity, and, veiled from our weak sight, His Godhead – the surprise of divinity, the divine surprise, the final, satisfying twist and fitting conclusion at the end of the poem. The Triune God, revealed in the person of Jesus, is and delivers the surprise, the whole picture, the final punchline, the definitive communication; the part that takes our breath away, moves us to tears, and delights us. 

Is God a poet? He is the Word who comes to us and goes from us, in continuous dialogue; the Word that seeks the mountaintop and the desert and then returns, to bring us to them, and them to us; He is the Word that absolutely reveals, yet remains mysterious in His essence; the Word that is so beautiful it wounds us,2 and yet, in the wounding, makes us whole.

1 It is important to distinguish this idea from the way it’s appropriated by some comedians. There’s a world of difference between the breathtaking union of the mirthful and the solemn, and laughing at something tragic or making a joke of – stripping the dignity from – something that should not be made light of.
2 Pope Benedict XVI elaborates in several places on the concept of God as the beauty that wounds in order to heal, including in an address at Rimini in 2002, and in his 2009 address to artists from the Sistine Chapel.
Image: PD/US

____

LeighAnna Schesser is the author of Heartland, a poetry collection exploring identity, love, and faith through place and landscape. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Virga, Kindred, Peacock Journal, and elsewhere. She holds a B.A. in Theology from Benedictine College and an MFA from North Carolina State University. LeighAnna lives in Kansas with her husband, three children, half-wild garden, and many overstuffed bookshelves. Find her at leighannaschesser.wordpress.com.

Purgatory: The Antechamber of Heaven

Our souls demand Purgatory, don’t they? Would it not break the heart if God said to us, ‘It is true, my son, that your breath smells and your rags drip with mud and slime, but we are charitable here and no one will upbraid you with these things, nor draw away from you. Enter into the joy’? Should we not reply, ‘With submission, sir, and if there is no objection, I’d rather be cleaned first.’ ‘It may hurt, you know” — ‘Even so, sir.’”
C.S. Lewis, Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer

Indeed, the most terrible thing for the soul is the inner tear produced by a love that, because of these still not completely annihilated impediments, sees his perfect possession of God delayed…
Purgatory is a crescendo of love and pain that leads to heaven, the perfect happiness. The souls in purgatory do experience great joy, similar to that of the Heavens, and also experience an immense pain, similar to that of Hell; and one does not remove the other.”
St. Catherine of Genoa1

My sister, if you desire God’s justice, you will have God’s justice. The soul receives exactly what she looks for from God… You do a great injury to God in believing you’re going to go to Purgatory. When we love, we can’t go there.”
St. Thérèse of Lisieux2

Purgatory, as the name suggests, is a state of purgation, a purification of the soul.3 From the earliest days of the Catholic Church, Christians prayed for the dead – we know this from inscriptions in the catacombs of Rome.4 There is no need to pray for those in Heaven, and there is no point in praying for those in Hell. The belief in a state of purification after death comes from the Jewish tradition: 2 Maccabees 12:46 says: “It is therefore a holy and wholesome thought to pray for the dead, that they may be loosed from sins.”5

Sometimes people have the misconception that Purgatory is equidistant between Heaven and Hell. Hell is the state of eternal separation from God, the source of all life and love. Those in Purgatory are united to Christ, as the Church Suffering – that’s why they are the Holy Souls. They are infinitely closer to Heaven and the Church Triumphant than those in Hell could ever be; they rejoice, for they have been saved. Their pain is like the pain of being almost with the person you love more than anything in the world; it is the pain of deep longing for perfect bliss.6

Souls in Purgatory rely on our loving prayers to enter into the presence of God. The Museum of Purgatory in Rome houses artifacts of purgatorial visitors pleading for the intercession of the Church Militant;7 the booklet Read Me or Rue It by Fr Paul O’Sullivan records similar visitations.

“Halloween” is short for “All Hallows’ Eve”, the night before All Saints Day. It was an old English custom that people would beg from door to door for a “soul cake” and in return, pray for the family’s dearly departed – the origin of today’s “Trick or Treat” (and possibly donuts). Today, faithful Catholics continue the beautiful tradition of a novena for the souls in Purgatory, praying in cemeteries during the month of November, which is dedicated to the Holy Souls. By this, we may gain indulgences for them. We also cultivate the habit of praying the short Eternal Rest prayer each time we pass a cemetery.8

One may even perform the Heroic Act of Charity and dedicate everything to the Holy Souls.

In the communion of saints, “a perennial link of charity exists between the faithful who have already reached their heavenly home, those who are expiating their sins in purgatory and those who are still pilgrims on earth. Between them there is, too, an abundant exchange of all good things.” (CCC 1475)

In a vision, St. Gertrude the Great was told by Our Lord that reciting the following prayer with love and devotion will release 1,000 souls from Purgatory:

Eternal Father, I offer Thee the Most Precious Blood of Thy Divine Son, Jesus,

in union with the Masses said throughout the world today,

for all the holy souls in Purgatory, for sinners everywhere,

for sinners in the Universal Church,

those in my own home and within my family. Amen.

Holy Mass

Now, many Catholics think that we have to go through Purgatory, but St. Thérèse, a Doctor of the Church, said that it is not mandatory.

Do not be afraid of going to purgatory because of its pain, but rather long not to go there because this pleases God who imposes this expiation so regretfully. From the moment that you try to please Him in all things, if you have the unshakable confidence that He will purify you at every instant in His love and will leave in you no trace of sin, be very sure that you will not go to purgatory.”
St. Thérèse of Lisieux

God is purifying us throughout our lives by the crosses He gives us,9 the crosses which divest us of self-love, attachment to worldly goods, or sin – the crosses which open us to receive His salvific grace, the gift of Himself. Of course, it is very difficult to die in a state of perfection unless you are martyred, but as the saying goes: if you aim for the moon, you’ll land among the stars. Don’t aim for Purgatory – aim for Heaven!10 For Heaven is perfect union with God.

Purgatory, of course, is not someplace any of us are supposed to end up. God calls each of us to purify our lives of every sin while we are still alive here on earth. Indeed, we are called not only to purify our lives of every sin, but to purify the universe of every consequence of every sin we may have committed.
— Steve Kellmeyer, “Nailing Christ to the Cross: Explaining Purgatory and Indulgences

Purgatory was rejected by our Reformers, as undermining the sufficiency of Christ’s atonement; for it was taken to be the serving of a sentence by which the guilt of Christians was in some way worked off.
Such an objection has no force against the teaching, that we have a pain to pass through, in being reconciled to truth and love. And we may as well call this pain purgatorial, having no other name to call it. It seems strange, indeed, that so practical and pressing a truth as that of purgatory should be dismissed… Nor is it that ultimate fire is scriptural, while remedial fire is not. Remedial fire was taught plainly enough by St. Paul to his Corinthians.
Austin Farrer, Saving Belief (1964)

Purgatory is not… some kind of supra-worldly concentration camp where one is forced to undergo punishments in a more or less arbitrary fashion. Rather it is the inwardly necessary process of transformation in which a person becomes capable of Christ, capable of God [i.e., capable of full unity with Christ and God] and thus capable of unity with the whole communion of saints. Simply to look at people with any degree of realism at all is to grasp the necessity of such a process. …What actually saves is the full assent of faith. But in most of us, that basic option is buried under a great deal of wood, hay and straw. Only with difficulty can it peer out from behind the latticework of an egoism we are powerless to pull down with our own hands. Man is the recipient of the divine mercy, yet this does not exonerate him from the need to be transformed. Encounter with the Lord is this transformation. It is the fire that burns away our dross and re-forms us to be vessels of eternal joy.
— Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Eschatology: Death and Eternal Life (1988)

All Souls Day is unique among our liturgical feasts, because while all others celebrate members of the Church Triumphant, this one day of the year is dedicated to the members of the Church Suffering. It is also known as Soulmas, just as we have Christmas, Marymas, Roodmas, Michaelmas, Childermas, Candlemas, Hallowmas… it just wouldn’t be a feast without the Mass, the Heavenly Banquet where we receive the Bread of Life and the Chalice of Salvation. Remember to have Masses offered for your dearly departed! There is no greater gift on Earth or in Heaven, for this is God’s gift of Himself, His supreme act of love gathering us all into one family and one Body. Each and every Mass is a foretaste of Heaven, a cosmic outpouring of the purifying fire of Love.

Christ revealed to St. Gertrude that a single Mass offered for oneself during life may be worth more than a thousand celebrated for the same intention after death. After your death, you cannot change the conduct of your life on which your particular judgment is based (Matthew 25). You can only submit to the cleansing power of God’s love, the application of Christ’s sacrifice to your soul. That is why the dead depend on us for prayers for we as the living members of Christ’s body have been entrusted with the solemn duty of caring for our brothers, in life and in death; we have been granted the grace to participate in bringing God’s kingdom to birth throughout all Creation, visible and invisible. Eternal rest grant unto them O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them. May they rest in peace.

Of all prayers, the most meritorious, the most acceptable to God are prayers for the dead, because they imply all the works of charity, both corporal and spiritual.
— St. Thomas Aquinas

When we do ourselves up in costumes and tromp through the streets on Halloween, we are marching in a kind of Veterans’ Day Parade in honor of the sinners who went before us, not yet into glory but into the painful, therapeutic shadow it casts outside its doors.
John Zmirak, “My High Holy Day“, CatholiCity

We have loved them in life, let us not forget them in death.
St. Alphonsus Liguori (1696-1787)

_

Image: Signum-Crucis.

1 Daniel Esparza, “3 Little-known details about Purgatory”, Aleteia; cf. Fr. Stefan, “Heaven is Hotter than Hell: A Reflection on Purgatory”, Let the Fire Fall.

2 Connie Rossini, Trusting God with St. Therese.

3 Nick Rabiipour, “What Do Catholics Really Believe About Purgatory?”, The Catholic Company.

4 Hugh MacDonald, “Purgatory”, Catholic Bridge.

5 cf. Andres Ortiz, “Where is Purgatory in the Bible?”, About Catholics; Tim Staples, “Is Purgatory in the Bible?”, Catholic Answers; John Salza, “Purgatory”, Scripture Catholic; John Martignoni, “4 Biblical Principles That Show the Reality of Purgatory”, National Catholic Register; “Purgatory”, Catholic Bible 101; S. Bonney, “Abridging the Bible – Masoretic or Septuagint?

7 Diane Montagna, “Purgatory? There’s Actually a Museum for That!”, Aleteia.

8 Gretchen Filz, “20 Ways to Pray for the Holy Souls in Purgatory”, The Catholic Company.

9 Gary Ludlam, “The Devil, Purgatory, St. Thérèse of Lisieux, and Embracing the Cross”, Little Way of the Family.

10 Candida Kirkpatrick, OCDS, “St. Therese’s Teaching on Purgatory”, Carmel in the Desert.