"Have pity on me, have pity on me, at least, you, my
friends, for the hand of the Lord hath touched me."
Have pity on me, have pity on me, at least, you, my friends, for the hand of the Lord hath touched me.
There is just one thing on earth that is absolutely universal, and that one thing is death. There is one sorrow that finds a home, at some time or other, in every human bosom, and that one sorrow is, sorrow for the dead. Yes, "it has been appointed unto all men once to die," and, neither human prudence nor human power can stay the execution of that dread decree. Our path through life may be a pleasant one; it may be strewn with every flower which a fallen world has ever yet preserved, but, at some place upon that road, a grave is dug by the decree of God, and that grave shall one day claim us. Who of us, looking round, can fail to perceive the awful universality of death? The throne is not hedged round so securely, but that death at the appointed time breaks through and leaves it vacant. Riches cannot bribe it, poverty is no too lowly to claim its notice, and so it comes that all men died. But by some strange perversity, the very commonness of death makes its awful significance less heeded. It is only when it touches us closely; it is only when it lays its hand on lives that had been closely bound up with our own; it is only when the near and dear have been its victims; it is only then, we feel the awful reality of death, and then the common sorrow comes to us and makes our houses desolate.
But when those we loved have come to die; when the parting has taken place that gives to death a bitterness which else it would not have; when we long in vain for the well-remembered greeting of the now cold hand, and the music of a voice that has gone silent, can we bring ourselves to believe that all is over between our dead and us. Can we bury our dead out of our sight; stand sorrow-stricken beside the lifeless form; wait till the last sod has been heaped upon the grave; shed one, the saddest tear of final parting; and then, go back to mix again with the busy world, and believe that we have no more to do with the departed?
Oh! surely not. There is something in our hears that protests against such a conclusion. It would be doing violence to the very nature that God has given us, to believe that human friendship and human love reach only to the grave, and cannot pass beyond its shadow; that they are flowers so frail that death's cold touch can wither them forever; to believe that even the mysterious power of death can break the mystic bond that, in the first and greatest of the commandments, binds the love of our fellow-creatures with the love of God Himself. Our very instincts - and after all these are but din fore-shadowings of mighty truths - our very instincts compel us to look beyond the grave, to see through all its shadows the traces of another world, and to brighten by the hope of a future meeting, the gloom which the death of those we loved had flung upon our hearts. Nor could we feel even this to be enough. It would be but poor consolation, after all, to live through the weary years upon a hope, and to feel that all the while, until the future actually came, our connection with our departed brethren had absolutely ceased; to feel that, though love and friendship might bloom again in a brighter land, yet, that for the present they were dead, and could make no sign.
The heart would look for more than this. Its very affection would prompt it to seek a means to bind together the world in which it still remains, and that mysterious world beyond the grave, whether the dead have gone, and to which the living are truly speeding.
It seeks to be assured that love and friendship can reach beyond the grave and do good service; that kindly offices of charity need not cease because one soul still remains in the flesh, and the other has departed to the unseen land. And lo! faith has made these wishes a living reality. The loftiest intellect could only conjecture, the fondest heart could only wish, that these things were so, but the Church of God, drawing forth from the treasury of faith the sublime dogma of the Communion of Saints, has revealed these wonders to the simplest intellects.
She tells us that there are two worlds – the world of matter and of sense – and the world of spirits. The world around us which we see, and feel, and hear, and the world to come which can be reached only by the gate of death. She tells us, too, that as in this our world there are different states, so, there are different states in that other world as well. She tells us that the state of any individual in the world to come, depends precisely on the condition of his soul when death has summoned him before the judgment seat of God. If the soul, at death, be in the state of mortal sin, it is lost for ever! Of such as these we need not speak. They have fought and lost, and their loss is irreparable and eternal. They have passed for ever from the Communion of Saints. For the, for evermore, no hope may spring in any heart; for them, for evermore, no prayer may go before the throne of God.
to those who die in the state of grace salvation is secure. Their fight has
ended in victory, and for them is an immortal crown. But knowing, as we know,
that into the unveiled presence of God nothing that is defiled can enter,
knowing that such is the Infinite Holiness of God, that the slightest stain
excludes from the enjoyment of the beatific vision, and knowing moreover that
few can hope to pass without defilement from a world where the Holy Ghost has
declared that even the “just man falls seven times,” we are naturally led to ask
what is the lot of such as these in the world of spirits. Again, we know that
though mortal sin may be remitted, as to its guilt and as to the eternal
punishment it deserved, yet there remains a temporal penalty, and we can easily
conceive a man passing from this life before complete penance has blotted out the
debt. Here, the, are two classes: what shall be the lot of those when death has
claimed them; shall they go into the glorious presence of their God? Surely
not, they are not yet purified. Shall they, then, go into everlasting fire?
No; God is faithful to His word, and only to deadly sin has He attached the
awful punishment of hell. Were, the, shall their lot be cast? The Church,
borne out by reason as well as by revelation, the Church answers at once, they
shall go into a place of temporary punishment, were they may have their sins
wiped out, and may pay the debt which they owe to the Infinite Justice of God.
Such, briefly, is the doctrine of purgatory; a doctrine full of teaching upon God’s justice and God’s mercy, a doctrine so consoling in itself, and so much in accordance with what the nature of the case might have been expected to demand, that when those who deny it, refuse to acknowledge the authority of the inspired word that declares that “it is a holy and wholesome thought to ray for the dead that they may be loosed from their sins,” I can only wonder at their blindness – not judging individuals amongst them – but leaving them to their conscience and their God.
There, in that dark prison, lie the Holy Souls, looking with patient eyes to heaven, awaiting the hour of their release, enduring a punishment so keen that some saints have not hesitated to assert that the pains of Purgatory differ from the pains of hell only in this – that they are not eternal. But yet they have not ceased to be a part of the Church. They have passed from the Church Militant upon earth – one day they shall pass to the Church Triumphant in the glory of heaven. For the present they are members of the Church Suffering in Purgatory. And precisely because they are still members of the Church, we - bound to them by the mystic bond of the Communion of Saints – can assist them by our prayers, no less than we can assist each other; nay, even more, because the efficacy of prayer for one who is still upon earth may be hindered of its effect by the perversity of that will oif his which God has left free for good or evil, but in Purgatory, that land of calm and patient suffering, the Holy Souls, confirmed in the possessions of sanctifying grace, offer absolutely no obstacle to the efficacy of any intercession that is made in their behalf.
On their bed of fire they can do no more than suffer. They are powerless for themselves. The suffering they endure is quite beyond any conception we can have of suffering. We strive, and strive in vain, to make unto ourselves the faintest image of their torment. Go down to the profoundest depth of any suffering you have ever felt; the suffering of the Holy Souls is deeper still. Sense and intellect are alike tormented. The fire is around them and about them; it pierces through the quivering soul till life itself is agony. Their intense longing for the sight of God brings with it as anguish so keen of hope deferred, that every moment seems one long age of agony till the blessed time comes. They suffer, and they make no sign. Crises are useless there; no tears can quench the fire that torments them; no cry could pierce the barrier that sunders the living from the dead, nor strike upon the heedless ears of men. Their friends on earth could help them if they only would, but their friends on earth are busy with man things. Ah! Those on earth who loved them, and whom they loved, have ceased to think of them – they have no device to stir their memory. The sympathy that was once so strong between the two has failed, and faded, and died out, and the suffering souls can make no personal appeal that might awaken it again. They plead by suffering, but too often is their pleading vain, because their suffering is forgotten;’ and the friends on earth form many a scheme of business and pleasure, no heed the moan of anguish that, through weary day and lonely night, goes up from the prison of Purgatory. “Have pity on us,”
How have we responded to their cry for help? Our sorrow for the dead is keen, but, oh! It is not lasting. Memory’s magic pictures grow fainter every day. There may have been a time when we knelt distracted by the death-bed, and deemed that because of the bereavement we were about to suffer earth could never be bright for us again. And then, in the first burst of sorrow, memory was so keen that its keenness was a pain. We seemed for some time to see the fac e of the dead, and to hear the voice that was gone silent. But it does not last. We go out into the world, and the world supplies us with new thoughts, and the dead friend is remembered but faintly – soon entirely forgotten.
Soon the very name of the dead is not mentioned, save at some very rare interval, and then is mentioned with but a scanty prayer not much deeper than the careless lips. Oh, shame! That it should be so. Is this our boasted friendship; is this our boasted love; is this the affection that was to survive the grave; is this the memory that was to be eternal? Our friend lies prostrate in the most intense agony: the means of help are at our hands, and yet we are too cold, too careless, too forgetful, to apply them.
God has left them utterly to themselves; He has, as it were, put it out of His own power to assist them personally. He seems to stand aloof, looking silently down upon their keen but uncomplaining agony. He has, to be sure, with that mercy that knows no limit – He has, even while seeming to exact the uttermost farthing – He has provided abundant, nay, superabundant means for their relief. But He Himself will not apply them. He has left that to us – to us who were their friends and fellows, who loved them, and whom they loved, who stood by tearful and saw them die, who knelt above their fresh graves, and almost swore by the bitterness of our sorrow that we never would forget them – to us it is that God has left the application of the infallible means which He has provided for their relief. And, surely, one would have thought that the agony would e short which kind hearts had power to shorten, and the suffering light when kind hands held the remedy. But, oh! We forget our dead. Engrossed by our own pursuits, we are unmindful of the suffering that is unseen. The world’s voices are in our ears, the world’s distractions in our hearts, and we take no notice of the ceaseless cry of anguish that comes upward from the bed of fire. “Have pity on us,”
At the time when our Blessed Lord walked upon the earth, there was in Jerusalem a certain pool, where the sick and those afflicted with bodily diseases were wont to congregate. At certain times an angel of the Lord came down and stirred the waters, and the sick man who went first into the pool after the visit of the angel, was healed of his infirmity. When Jesus came there, He found a man so inform that he could not, in the least degree, assist himself, and he had been waiting day after day, for eight-and-thirty years, while others who were stronger than he, or who had friends to help them, went down before him and were healed. Our Lord asked him why he had not availed himself of the blessing which God at times had given to the waters, and he answered in words that are full of deepest and most mournful pathos: “Lord, I have no msn who, when the water has been stirred, will cast me into the pool.” Oh! My brethren, in those few words what a story is compressed of the tedious passing of weary years. He had come there a youth, with hope in his heart that he would soon be cured of his infirmity; and many a long year seemed to spread before him, in which he might enjoy his recovered health. But the years passed by, and those who were boys along with him grew to be men, and many a change had passed upon he faces that he knew; many a sunrise did he see in hope, and many an evening closed in the disappointment of the hope deferred that makes the heart sick; and his hopes were dying out, and his hair was growing gray, when, after nearly forty years, Jesus came and cured him. Oh! My brethren, what a sorrowful story! Eight-and-thirty years of waiting, the certain remedy before his eyes, and none to help him to avail himself of its efficacy. Friends he may have had – one friend he surely dad, when his mother held him in her arms – his mother was dead, and time and the chance and change of life had dispersed his early friends, or, after the manner of the world, in the day of his distress that they had forsaken him. In that weary; march of lonely years, what want of human feeling that man had witnessed! What cool contempt, what silent carelessness! And we are tempted to exclaim against a city whose annals are disgraced by a story such as this. But pause, before one bitter thought forms itself in your minds, before one word of condemnation rushes to your indignant lips. Stay a little.
There is a certain place in the Church of God, a place which you have not seen with the eye of flesh, but which faith teaches you that it exists as really as the places you have walked in, and that you know with the familiar knowledge of everyday experience. It is a land over which hangs a cloud of silent sorrow, of uncomplaining agony, that is voiceless in the intensity of its resignation. And in that silent land of pain lies many a friend of yours whom you heart cannot forget – friends whom you knew once – whose faces, whose smiles, whose voices, were familiar to you in days gone by, who were members, it may be, of the same household, who knelt with you at the same altar - who worked, and prayed, and were bound to you by every tie which the kindly charities of nature and of grace can forge. They died; and they are in Purgatory. Stricken are they by no mere earthly malady, but by an agony for which earth ha no image nor any name. Consumed are they by no mere earthly fever, but by the fever of a fire that searches their very soul. And you pass by – you, their friends – and you have at your disposal the healing flood of the precious blood of Jesus. You pass by – heedless, or forgetful, indifferent, it matters little which - you pass by and give no help. You leave the sufferers there, looking up with pain-stricken, wistful eyes to the heaven above, and saying: “O God, we have no friend who, when the healing blood of Thy Divine Son is ready in the Holy Mass to extinguish the flames of our torment, will use it for our relief.” My brethren, condemn if you will, in what sharp terms indignation may suggest, the heartlessness of the citizens of Jerusalem, but do not omit to compare it with your own, when, either through carelessness or forgetfulness, you neglect to do your part, the part of friendship, the part of charity, to assist the suffering souls in Purgatory.
There is no devotion more acceptable to God, or more conductive to His glory, than the devotion to the Holy Souls. It rests on faith, it works through hope – it is the fragrant flower, the perfect fruit of charity. There is no other devotion better adapted to secure your own salvation. Release one soul from Purgatory, and what do you do? You place I the living Presence of God in heaven a saint, who gratitude shall never weary, to supplicate in your behalf, till you yourself sit by him at the feet of God. But that is not all. The very means you must adopt to help the souls in purgatory tend, of their own nature, directly to your own salvation. You pray for them – you, too, gain merit from your prayer; you gain an indulgence for them – to do so you must be in the state of grace yourself, that is, in the way of salvation, your foot upon the very threshold of heaven; you procure a Mass to be said for them – you have, yourself, a share in the superabundant fruit of the Holy Sacrifice. Our dear mother, Mary, is, in a special manner, Queen of this realm of suffering. Do you not think she will help those most, and love them most dearly, who aid her suffering clients? So it is; in the loving economy of God’s Providence, every step we take to assist the Holy Souls, is a step further on our own way to heaven.
And, oh! My brethren, on a night like this – on the eve of the great festival which the Church has instituted for their relief – it needs no words of mine, nor any words to plead the cause of the suffering souls. To-night, they plead themselves.
There is not one amongst you whose home death has not sometime visited. Touched into reflection by an anniversary like this, you will look around and see, it may be, a vacant chair that was not vacant once. You miss an old familiar face, and have memories of a voice that mingles no more with the other voices of your home.
Can we not picture the departed, looking up tonight from their bed of anguish, with a gleam of hope in their wistful, sorrow-clouded eyes. Well may they have hope; for, surely there is no one here so heartless as to forget them. The memory of them will come back upon their friends to-night, and the echo of their half-forgotten voices will wake the hearts that loved them to sympathy for their suffering, and to an effort for their release. And surely – an earnest prayer, an indulgence, and application of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass in their behalf, will prove that they have not been forgotten, and that friendship, blessed by faith, and made strong by charity, can reach beyond the grave. And while your souls are filled with reflections such as these, I give place to them; and in the silence of your hearts it is no longer I but hey themselves that shall carry out, and shall not cry in vain: “Have pity on me, have pity on me, you, at least, my friends, for the hand of the Lord hath touched me.”