§ 54. Motives Relating to the Suffering Souls.
338. On the 30th of May, 1889, I was about to start for the East to visit a friend, and to prepare a class of first Communicants for the reception of the Blessed Eucharist. I felt an inexplicable oppression of mind, an apprehensive fear of starting on my journey, so that I had to be reminded repeatedly that there was . no time to lose. During the following night on the train, between the 30th and 31st of May, I was very restless. The next morning, however, on leaving Pittsburgh, I became calmer. Resigned to the will of ~ God, I was prepared for the worst. Before evening my unusual disquietude was explained: I became a witness of one of the greatest calamities of modern times, the Johnstown flood. After the bursting of the reservoir the river Conemaugh continued to rise with appalling rapidity, until the angry waters had torn away bridges, out-houses and telegraph poles, undermined the railroad tracks and threatened destruction to the main part of the town. The flood struck Johnstown towards five in the evening; and the inhabitants had been warned to fly to the hills for their lives. Thousands were intercepted in their flight and found a watery grave.
339. No pen can describe the heart-rending scenes that followed. The masses of water destroyed everything in their way. Thousands had sought safety in their houses; but the raging waters surrounded them, undermined the foundations, swept away the buildings together with their unfortunate inmates, men, women and children, till the great stone piers of the railroad bridge impeded their progress. Here they stuck fast and were exposed to the fury of the destructive element, until they fell to pieces and spilled their inmates into the yawning gulf. Hundreds sank to rise no more; and still the mass of wreck and ruin continued to increase, until it was three quarters of a mile long and between thirty and sixty feet wide, rising high out of the water. About fifteen hundred people were imprisoned here, some caught between the ruins, others free and able to move about in the debris.
340. To add to the horrors of the situation, fire broke out among the ruins. At first it burned slowly, the curling smoke apprising the dazed spectators on the shore of the new danger threatening their parents, brothers, sisters, relatives and fellow citizens. Soon the lurid flames greedily devoured whatever was in their reach, and lighted up the darkness in ghastly splendor. Horror of horrors ! They attack the mass of living, moving, writhing humanity. Cries for help rend the air. Helpless misery everywhere—on the burning ruins the terrified victims of water and fire, on the shore a mass of people frantic because there is no way to aid the sufferers. Some of the latter escaped the flames to find death in the water, or were crushed in the debris; and thus the sad spectacle continued until the seething mass was engulfed in darkness beneath the bridge.
341. An adequate description of these horrors cannot be given. And now, O Christian soul, consider: if the Suffering Souls in Purgatory were to appear before us on such a burning pile to move us to mercy; if they were to appear in their bodies, as they once lived here on earth, and if we saw them surrounded by flames, themselves one seething mass of fire—who amongst us could repress his tears on witnessing their sad condition, on hearing their lamentations ?—As the helpless victims of the Johnstown disaster called for help, thus also do the Suffering Souls implore our aid. "To you we have recourse" they call, "on you, fathers, mothers, sons, daughters, relatives, friends, neighbors, on you we call for aid, and for the sake of a vain pleasure you forget our torments! Remember, we are in a place where we have to atone for every evil thought, for every idle word, in a fire which, though not everlasting, in every other respect resembles that of hell."
342. The disaster of Johnstown was appalling. But, oh, how would the souls in Purgatory congratulate themselves if divine justice would not demand more of them than what the victims of that calamity had to undergo. The difference between suffering in this and the next world is great. Here on earth God punishes us as our Father, even when He fulfils the word of the royal prophet, "I will visit their iniquities with a rod, and their sins with stripes. ,, (Ps. i,xxxviii. 33.) But in the next world God punishes us as our Judge. "For He will render to a man his work, and according to the ways of every one He will reward them. For in very deed God will not condemn without cause; neither will the Almighty pervert judgment." (Job xxxiv. 11, 12.) In this world we can satisfy the justice of God as it were by way of compromise ; in the next world we must atone according to the rigor of His judgment. In the world beyond we must suffer not only what all sinners have to suffer in this world, but also the punishment that sin deserves in its aspect as a rebellion against God. We must suffer punishment not only for sin, but we must also atone for all the graces which sin prevented us from receiving. We must moreover suffer not only for all the injustice and malice towards others, with which sin is so often fraught, but also for the offense and insult thereby offered to God.
343. God is so great, man so insignificant; God offers us so much, sin so little; God loves us so tenderly, and we offend Him so boldly ! Considered from this view it is easy to measure the suffering of a soul in Purgatory: it is commensurate with the disparity between the infinite majesty of an offended God and the perishable trifle for which the soul offended Him; the disparity between the infinite goodness of an offended God, and the base ingratitude of a creature that once despised Him. As this disparity is inconceivable to us, the torments of Purgatory are also inconceivable; and hence we should have pity on the souls that must suffer these torments.
344. By sin God was offended, and Purgatory resulted as one of the means to satisfy divine justice. "It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God." (Hebr. x. 31.) God often punished sin in a most dreadful manner even in this world. We find a proof of this in the people of Israel, who were attacked in the desert by venomous serpents; in the boys that were torn by wild beasts because they had ridiculed the prophet Eliseus; in Ananias and Saphira, who fell dead because they had lied to the Apostle. If God punishes sin thus severely in this world, how will He punish it in the next ? And we should have no compassion, no pity, no heart for the souls in Purgatory?
345. Purgatory is moreover the place of punishment for the elect. We read in the lives of the saints how severely they punished themselves for the smallest faults. They fasted rigorously, and scourged themselves till they drew blood; they were assiduous in all kinds of austerities and never rested in their labors - and this they did not merely for a few days or weeks, but for years, and in some cases for almost a hundred years. Can we read the lives of the holy hermits Anthony, Hilarion, Pelagius and others without shuddering at the austerities they practiced? Can we remember the penitential code of the early Church without astonishment at its rigor? And yet in those days public scandals were of rare occurrence. If the Church, who is a loving Mother, imposed such severe penances on her dear children to preserve them from the torments of Purgatory—what then will God demand of a soul in the place of atonement, if despite all the opportunities and graces offered it was remiss in rendering satisfaction to divine justice ?
346. The saints chose the most excruciating pains and sufferings in this world, even praying to obtain them: but we know of no instance that a saint ever desired to undergo the sufferings of Purgatory, or viewed them with that callous indifference so often to be found among Christians of our day. They rather regarded them with dread and terror, and suffered in this world for the very purpose of escaping suffering in the next. If even the saints, who loved suffering and regarded martyrdom as a blessing, trembled at the thought of Purgatory, we may conclude how great the difference must be between the sufferings here and hereafter. Let us therefore believe the holy Fathers when they tell us that one day in Purgatory is a punishment more severe than a hundred years of the most austere penance in this world.
347. Purgatory is a middle state between heaven and hell, and the soul is affected by the proximity of both. At all events it is painfully affected by the proximity of hell. For like hell Purgatory is a state of bondage and captivity. According to many theological writers it has the darkness and desolation, the flames and fire of hell; it has everything that hell has to terrify us, except despair and everlasting duration of punishment. If we should see someone in a fiery furnace, we would do our utmost to get him out of it, even if he was our greatest enemy. This was illustrated at the horrible calamity of Johnstown. Parents, children, relatives, friends stood on the shore anxious to save whomsoever they could. Now, as regards the Suffering Souls, we can help them. What have they done to us that we do not help them, that we permit them to suffer on, though in life they were perhaps our most intimate friends ? Besides we must remember the terrible pains of sense which the souls in Purgatory suffer; also that most intense pain resulting from their deprivation of the beatific vision of God. They languish, they yearn to see their God ; and they are banished from His presence. They are near to Him, and yet so far away. They seek Him and find Him not. They are attracted to Him and feel themselves repulsed. They sigh continually for Him and are not heard. What a torment, what inexpressible suffering! And yet we have no compassion on them.
348. Alas, these Poor Souls are in the debtors' prison, and are unable to do anything for their own release. Their time of merit is over. Their day is past, the night has befallen them. Their cry for mercy is unheard, as far as they themselves are concerned. Their tears no longer blot out their misdeeds. For them there are no longer the sacraments, indulgences, means of grace. No longer can they atone for their faults by good works, prayer, fasting and alms-deeds in virtue of Christ's redeeming Blood. "For the time hath its end" (Dan. viii. 19.) ; that is, their time of merit is past. For them the time of suffering has come. And how long must they suffer? Who can know? who can tell? It is the pious custom of the Church to pray for the departed centuries after their death; by this she conclusively proves that she believes, or fears, that these souls, so long since departed, are still suffering. These souls then can not do the least for their own release. They cry to us for relief, they call on us for help. We can help them and we do not! We know that they are undergoing the punishment inflicted by divine wrath ; we know that works of atonement are necessary for their relief; we know that they suffer the most excruciating torments in their helpless condition—and yet we refuse to help them ! Have we hearts of stone ?
349. The Suffering Souls in Purgatory, knowing that of themselves they can not cause any change in their deplorable condition, and that we can do so much for them, continually implore us to come to their aid by applying to them the merits of the life, sufferings and death of Jesus Christ from out of the treasury of the Church. But as they cannot without God's special permission draw our attention personally to their needs, the Church does it in their place both by means of her many pious practices for their relief, as also by calling our attention to their pitiable state. Hence the Venerable Catherine Emmerich observes: "Oh, these Poor Souls have so much to suffer because of their negligence, because of their former want of piety and zeal for God and their neighbor. How shall they be aided except by atoning charity, which offers up for them those acts of virtue which they neglected during life? And how they yearn for this charity! For themselves they can no longer do anything. But they also know that no good thought, no sincere desire offered up for them by the living, is without effect. Yet how few care for them ! If anybody prays for them, suffers for them, gives alms for them, they immediately experience relief."
350. Since we know, and know by faith, how great the torments of these just souls in Purgatory are, should we not be moved to compassion for them? We cannot endure to see a living creature tormented, and can we be so insensible to the sufferings of these friends of God as to regard them with indifference, so unfeeling as to refuse to mitigate them ? When our Lord saw the sick man at Bethsaida, who suffered for thirty-eight years because he had no one to place him into the water, His Heart was moved to pity; and He passed by the other sick and healed this one, who was unable to help himself. The condition of the souls in Purgatory is similar. Will the example of our Divine Lord not impel us to help them ?
351. Grateful love for our deceased is so deeply imprinted into our hearts, that there are only few who are insensible to it. We even find that after death our love increases for those who were dear to us in life. Their loss makes us feel their worth more keenly. And those whom we neglected during life—we miss them when they are no longer among us. We have even a kindly feeling for those in their graves, of whom we had reason to complain during life. Their defects are forgotten, and we remember only their virtues. These sentiments were implanted into our hearts by our loving Creator as a connecting link between this world and the next, by means of which we remain in contact with Himself and His elect, and even with such of the latter as do not yet enjoy His beatific vision. He, the Father of mercies and God of all consolation, loves them Himself and cheers them with the hope of release and bliss after His justice shall have been satisfied and their purification attained. They are His elect, objects of His love; and hence our charity should extend to,them. "A gift hath grace in the sight of all the living, and restrain not grace from the dead." (Eccli. vii. 37.)
352. Who are the souls for whose speedy release we should offer our prayers, the Holy Sacrifice of Mass, and good works ? They are souls that once inhabited a frail human body like our own, a body created by God and now mouldering in its grave or in the bottom of the deep. Like ourselves these souls had to engage in combat against temptations of the flesh, against the evil influence, of the world and the devil. Like ourselves they feared death, and even now they are open to the influence of pain and joy. Like ourselves they are Christians, ransomed by the same Precious Blood of a dying God-Man; perhaps they dwelt with us in the same community; at all events they shared with us the same holy sacraments and means of grace; perhaps they were our best friends, to whom we are indebted for many an important service. Moreover, our faith enjoins us to extend our. charity not only to those that were dear to us in life, or to whom we are indebted for their good will towards us, but to all men; hence our charity must embrace also all souls that are in need of our prayer and help.
353. Again, gratitude and justice must impel us in a particular manner to this charity. Who are the Suffering Souls, whose pitiful condition appeals to us? Perhaps a dear father, once so solicitous for your welfare, earning bread for you in the sweat of his brow, laboring for your success in life, and perhaps suffering now for the very reason that he had too much regard for your welfare and therefore neglected his duty towards the poor. Ask him why he is thus suffering, and he will answer you with the sick man in the Gospel, "I have no one to help me!"—Perhaps the Suffering Soul is a fond mother who brought you forth to life, who loved you with her whole heart, who spent herself for you; and now perhaps she has to suffer for the very reason that she was too fond of you, and therefore neglected to correct your faults, thinking that the virtues with which she imbued you were sufficient to counteract them. And now listen to her plaintive cry, "I have no one to help me!"