Fr. Michael Muller [1881]: Spiritual Work of Mercy: Praying for the Dead
Spiritual Work of Mercy: Praying for the Dead
by Fr. Michael Muller, 1881

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"It is a holy and wholesome thought to pray for the dead, that they may be loosed from sins." (II Machab., xii., 43.)

If it is an excellent spiritual work of mercy to pray for the living, it is also a most praiseworthy spiritual work of mercy to pray for the dead. Before the coming of Christ, the Jews were the chosen people of God. They looked upon prayer for the dead as a holy and laudable work. They believed that, by offering up prayers for the dead, they could free the souls of the departed from their sins. We read, in the second book of the Machabees, a striking example of their charity towards the departed souls. About two hundred years before Christ, they gained a brilliant victory over the enemies of their religion. Now, as many of the Jews had been slain in the battle, Judas Machabeus, their valiant general, took up a collection, and sent twelve thousand drachms of silver to Jerusalem for a sacrifice to be offered up in expiation of the sins of the dead. The Holy Ghost praises the Jews for their charity towards the departed, by saying: "It is a holy and wholesome thought to pray for the dead, that they may be loosed from sins." (II Machab., xii., 43.)

The souls in purgatory, those holy prisoners, and debtors to the divine justice are quite helpless. A sick man, afflicted in all his limbs, and a beggar in the most painful and destitute of conditions, has tongue left to ask relief. At least they can implore heaven--it is never deaf to their prayer. But the souls in purgatory are so poor that they cannot even do this. Those cases, in which some of them were permitted to appear to their friends and ask assistance, are but exceptions. To whom is it that they should have recourse? Is it perhaps to the mercy of God? Alas! they send forth their sighs in plaintive voices: "As the hart panteth after the fountains of water, so my soul panteth after Thee, O God. When shall I come and appear before the face of God? My tears have been my bread day and night, whilst it is said to me daily: Where is thy God." (Ps., xli., 1.) "Lord, where are thy ancient mercies." (Ps., lxxxviii., 50.) "I cry to thee, and thou hearest me not; I stand up, and thou dost not regard me. Thou art changed to be cruel toward me." (Job, xxx., 20–21.) But the Lord does not regard their tears, nor heed their moans and cries, but answers them that His justice must be satisfied to the last farthing. Are they to endeavor to acquire new merits, and thereby purify themselves more and more? Ah! they know that their time for meriting is passed away, that their earthly pilgrimage is over, and that upon them is come that fatal night in which no one can work. (John, ix., 4.)

They know that by all their sufferings they can gain no new merit, no higher glory in heaven--they know, it is through their own fault that they are condemned to this state of suffering; they see clearly, how many admonitions, exhortations, inspirations and divine lights they have rejected, how many prayers, opportunities to receive the sacraments and to profit by the means of grace they have neglected through mere caprice, carelessness and indolence; they see their ingratitude towards God, and the deep wounds they made in the Sacred Heart of Jesus--and their extreme grief and sorrow for all this is a worm never ceasing to gnaw at them. It is a heart-rending pain, it is a killing torment for them, to know that they have put themselves wilfully and wantonly into this state of the most cruel and most lacerating pains! "O cruel comforts! O accursed ease!" they cry out, "it is on your account that we are deprived of the enjoyment of God, our only happiness for all eternity!"

Shall they console themselves by the thought that their sufferings will soon be over? But they are ignorant of the duration of their sufferings unless it be revealed to them by God. Hence it is that they sigh day and night, that they weep constantly and cry unceasingly : "Wo is to us, that our sojourn is prolonged."

Shall these poor, helpless souls seek relief from their fellow-sufferers--all utterly incapable of procuring mutual relief? Lamenting, sobbing and sighing, shedding torrents of tears, and crying aloud, these poor souls stretch out their hands for one to help, console and relieve them. We are the only ones who have it in our power to assist them in their sufferings.

The souls in purgatory are holy souls. They are confirmed in grace and no longer in a condition to offend God or to forfeit heaven. They love God above every thing; all their disorderly affections and passions have died away, and as they love God, so are they loved by Him in an unutterable manner. For this reason, our Lord wishes that they should be united to him as soon as possible; but as He is a God most holy and most just, His holiness and justice forbid him to admit them into the city of the heavenly Jerusalem before their indebtedness to His divine justice has been fully discharged, either by their own sufferings or by the prayers and good works of their brethren on earth. To remove, then, by our charity this bar to the divine goodness, and to assist these souls in being sooner united to the angelic choirs and the number of the blessed in heaven, there to love, praise and glorify God in a most perfect manner, cannot but be a work most pleasing and most acceptable to the Almighty. "I was hungry," He will say to the elect on the day of judgment, "and you gave me to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave me a drink; I was a stranger and you took me in ; naked, and you clothed me: sick, and you visited me; I was in prison, and you came to me." And when the just will ask the Lord upon what occasion they acted thus toward Him, He will answer: "Amen, I say to you: so long as you did it to one of these, my least brethren. you did it to me." (Matt.., xxv., 34–40.)

Truly, if our Lord so highly values the least act of charity, what value will he not set on that charity which freed from their expiatory place such souls as were already espoused to Him for all eternity. We read in the life and revelations of St. Gertrude, that she one day inquired of our Lord why the recital of the Psalter for the souls of the departed was so agreeable to him, and why it obtained so great a relief for them, since the immense number of psalms and the long prayers after each, caused more weariness than devotion. Our Lord replied: "The desire which I have for the deliverance of the souls of the departed, makes it acceptable to me; even as a prince who had been obliged to imprison one of his nobles, to whom he was much attached, and was compelled by his justice to refuse him pardon, would most thankfully avail himself of the intercession and satisfaction of others to release his friend. Thus do I act towards those whom I have redeemed by my death and precious blood, rejoicing in the opportunity of releasing them from their pains and bringing them to eternal joy." "But," continued the Saint, "is the labor of those who recite this Psalter acceptable to thee?" He replied: "My love makes it most agreeable to me; and if a soul is released thereby, I accept it as if I had been myself delivered from captivity and I will assuredly reward at it a fitting time, according to the abundance of my mercy."--(Chap., xvi.) St. Gertrude never felt happier than on the days on which she had prayed much for the relief of the souls in Purgatory. One day she asked our Saviour why it was that she felt so happy on those days. "It is," He replied, "because it would not be right for me to refuse the fervent prayers which you on these days pour out to me for the relief of my suffering spouses in purgatory." "It is not right for me," says Jesus Christ, "to refuse the prayers which you address to me in behalf of my captive spouses." How consoling, then, and at the same time, how encouraging must it be to remember in our prayers the poor sufferers of purgatory!

Dinocrates, the brother of St. Perpetua, died at the age of seven years. Now, one day when St. Perpetua was in prison for the sake of faith, she had the following vision: "I saw Dinocrates," she says, "coming out of a dark place, where there were many others exceedingly hot and thirsty; his face was dirty, his complexion pale, with the ulcer in his face of which he died; and it was for him that I prayed. There seemed a great distance between him and me, so that it was impossible for us to meet each other. Near him stood a vessel full of water, whose brim was higher than the stature of an infant. He attempted to drink, but though he had water, he could not reach it. This mightly grieved me, and I awoke. By this I knew my brother was in pain, but I trusted I could, by prayer, relieve him; so I began to pray for him, beseeching God, with tears, day and night, that He would grant me my request, as I continued to do till we were removed to the camp-prison. The day we were in the stocks, I had this vision: I saw the place, which I had beheld dark before, now luminous; and Dinocrates, with his body very clean and well clad, refreshing himself, and, instead of his wound, a scar only. I awoke and I knew he was relieved from his pains."--(Butler's Lives of the Saints, March 7.)

After St. Ludgardis had offered up many fervent prayers for the repose of the soul of her deceased friend, Simeon, abbot of the monastery of Toniac, our Lord appeared to her saying: "Be consoled, My daughter, on account of thy prayers I will soon release this soul from purgatory." "Oh Jesus, Lord and Master of my heart," she rejoined; "I cannot feel consoled so long as I know that the soul of my friend is suffering so much in the purgatorian fire! Oh! I cannot help shedding most bitter tears until Thou hast released this soul from her sufferings." Touched and overcome by this tender prayer, our Lord released the soul of Simeon, who appeared to Ludgardis, all radiant with heavenly glory, and thanked her for the many fervent prayers which she had offered up for his delivery. He also told the saint that, had it not been for her fervent prayers, he should have been obliged to stay in purgatory for eleven years. (Life 1. i., 4) "It is, therefore, a holy and wholesome thought," says Holy Writ, "to pray for the dead that they may be loosed from their sins."--(II. Machabees, xii., 46.)

The relief, however, which the souls in purgatory receive from our prayers, is in proportion to the fervor with which we say them. This was one day expressly declared by our Lord to St. Gertrude when asking Him "How many souls were delivered from purgatory by hers and her sisters' prayers?" "The number," replied our Lord, "is proportioned to the zeal and fervor of those who pray for them." He added: "My love urges me to release a great number of souls for the prayers of each religious, and at each verse of the psalms which they recite, I release many." Although the souls of the departed are much benefited by these vigils and other prayers, nevertheless a few words, said with affection and devotion, are of far more value to them. And this may be easily explained by a familiar comparison; for it is much easier to wash away the stains of mud or dirt from the hands by rubbing them quickly in a little warm water, than by pouring a quantity of cold water on them without using any friction; thus, a single word, said with fervor and devotion, for the souls of the departed, is of far more efficacy than many vigils and prayers offered coldly and performed negligently.

What a soothing satisfaction to the heart is not prayer for the dead? It changes tears, heretofore barren, into works of piety and mercy; causes our sorrow to be a succor to the object of our love, and makes it, therefore, less bitter; it establishes and maintains, between ourselves and those who leave us, the most pleasing and salutary relations--a continual exchange of services and of precious help. Admirable relations between the living son and the departed father, between the mother and the daughter, the husband and the wife, between life and death! While I share what I have to spare with the poor, God, to recompense me, will withdraw my father, my mother, my friend, from a place of suffering. That same penny which goes to give his daily bread to a poor sufferer, will perhaps give to a delivered soul a place for all eternity at the table of the Lord. What heart does not thrill at such a thought! Who among us does not see one of those most near and dear to us in life, appear to exhort us to the work of prayer and the labors of virtue Who does not exclaim, when watering with his tears the tomb of a beloved one: "O beloved soul, whom so many virtues and good works have recommended to the clemency of the great Judge! whom so many sufferings have so long tried and purified before my eyes! whom a death, so very bitter indeed, but sanctified by religion and consoled by its hopes, has so quickly withdrawn from my embraces!--I hope for thy everlasting salvation, from the divine goodness and merits of Jesus Christ: but I know not if it is yet consummated by thy entrance into glory. In this uncertainty I pray for thee, and I unite to my prayers the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, which I daily offer upon his altar. My prayer made effectual by our Saviour's blood relieves thee if thou art still suffering; it obtains for myself the favors of heaven in greater abundance. The remembrance of thee accompanies me everywhere; the desire of hastening thy happiness urges me on, and unceasingly stimulates my zeal. I feel thee present, as it were, like a guardian angel, who at one time encourages me to prayer and good works, at another assures me of his prayers and assistance. Death has only brought our souls nearer to each other. Formerly I surrounded thee with my attentions, and was in turn the object of thy tenderest solicitude; now I still love, and still am loved, and more than ever is my love capable of helping thee, and is itself repaid by thee."

What purity is there not in this love! What holiness in the works which it imposes? What a charm in the consolations it procures! What a mysterious and holy association is that which unites in a community of mutual aid the visible and the invisible life, time and eternity: the just man who is still engaged in the combat, with him who is having his wounds healed in an exile that must soon end, and him who is already enjoying the glory and the triumph of heaven!
"So let us be confident, let us not be unprepared, let us not be outflanked, let us be wise, vigilant, fighting against those who are trying to tear the faith out of our souls and morality out of our hearts, so that we may remain Catholics, remain united to the Blessed Virgin Mary, remain united to the Roman Catholic Church, remain faithful children of the Church."- Abp. Lefebvre

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