Thursday, 7 May 2015
What Happens After Death? part 3. BY REV. G. J. MACGILLIVRAY, M.A
THE LIMBO OF THE INFANTS
Before we go on to consider Purgatory and Heaven, it is well to say a few words about the fate of unbaptised infants. (And with them may perhaps be classed many people who, although they grew up, yet were never sufficiently morally developed to be capable of mortal sin, for some theologians think that these share the fate of the infants.) Hitherto we have been thinking only of those who have come to the full use of reason, and the knowledge of right and wrong. To them God’s grace has been offered, and, if they have rejected it, that is entirely their own fault; for most theologians hold that somehow God offers the possibility of salvation to everyone who comes to the full use of reason. He may not lead them to a knowledge of the Catholic Church. They may even have no chance of baptism, or no knowledge of it. But, necessary as that sacrament is, its place may be taken by the “baptism of desire.” That is to say, that if a person desires baptism. and cannot obtain it, God will accept his good will and give him the gift of sanctifying grace without the sacrament. And this desire may be only an implicit desire. If a person has never heard of baptism, but loves God and desires to do whatever God wishes him to do, then he would be baptised if he knew that it was God’s will, and so he may be said to have an implicit desire of baptism. And so even the heathen are not left without the possibility of salvation. God offers them grace, and, if they use the grace that He offers, He will give them more grace, and so in some way or another He will provide all that is necessary for their salvation.
But the case of unbaptised infants is different. They have not received the normal baptism of water, and they cannot have the baptism of desire. Therefore there is no way in which they can receive the gift of sanctifying grace. What is to become of them? They can never enter Heaven. That is certain. They are utterly unfit for it. They simply do not possess the supernatural life which alone can make a creature capable of union with God and the supernatural happiness of Heaven. But, on the other hand, they have certainly not sinned, and therefore they will certainly not suffer. Consequently it follows that they must be in some place or state of purely natural happiness, shut out from the vision of God, but not suffering. They do not even suffer from the knowledge that they are excluded from Heaven, any more than we suffer from the knowledge that we are not angels. They have a certain natural knowledge and love of God, and therefore a real natural happiness, with which they are quite contented. To this place of natural happiness is given the name of the Limbo of the Infants. It is to be carefully distinguished from the Limbo of the Patriarchs, that place of rest where the just who died before the coming of our Lord awaited His coming, and to which He Himself went, when He “descended into Hell.” That Limbo no longer exists.
Before leaving the subject of Limbo, let us note carefully that in this exclusion of the unbaptised infants from Heaven there is no injustice. They are not deprived of anything to which they have a right. The supernatural happiness of Heaven is a purely gratuitous gift of God, to which no creature can have a right. Therefore, if God leaves the unbaptised infants without that gift, which He has bestowed on others, He does them no wrong, provided that they do not suffer and are quite contented with their state; and we have seen that is the case. And so, although we are bound in charity to secure the baptism of as many dying infants as we can, in order that they may enjoy the happiness of the Beatific Vision, we need not distress ourselves about the fate of those who unhappily die without the sacrament.
Now let us turn to a happier subject, and consider the destiny of those souls that in the moment of death are found in grace. For them Heaven is certain. Therefore the first thought of such a soul after the judgment is past must be one of intense happiness. It is flooded with thankfulness and joy. For all anxiety and uncertainty and fear are over; the certainty of Heaven lies before it. But for many that happy consummation, though certain, is not immediate. For God has revealed to us that many must first pass through that state of suffering and purification which we call Purgatory. Therefore let us consider now what we know about Purgatory.
First, then, we know that there is a Purgatory, for that has been clearly defined by the Church as a fact revealed by God. That is to say, that there is a place or state in which souls that are saved indeed, but not yet fit for perfect union with God, are purified by suffering. So, for example, the Council of Florence says. . “As to those who have died in the charity of God truly penitent, but before having satisfied for all their sins of commission and omission by worthy fruits of penance, they are purified by purgatorial (or purificatory) pains after death.” The reason is obvious. For the man who has sinned, even after he has repented and his sin is forgiven, must still suffer something in order to make satisfaction for his sins. Or, to put it another Way, although the sin is forgiven, there remain stains, or what St. Catherine of Genoa describes as “a sort of rust” upon the soul. And therefore, before the soul is fit to enter the presence of God, these stains of rust must be purged away by willingly accepted suffering. That may, of course, be done partly, or even completely, in this world, by “bringing forth fruits of penance,” by good works, or by the willing acceptance of such suffering as comes upon us by the Providence of God. But, if the process is not complete when death comes, then it must be completed in the next world in Purgatory.
So much we know for certain. But what of the nature of that suffering? Of that we know less. It is a common opinion that, in part at least, the instrument of it is some kind of fire. This has been gathered from the words of St. Paul, that some “shall be saved, yet so as by fire.” But this is not certain, for it has never been defined. And, if there is some kind of fire in Purgatory, we certainly know nothing of the nature or the effects of it. But, in any case, there is no doubt that the chief cause of suffering in Purgatory must be the intense unsatisfied longing of those poor souls to see God and to be united to Him. For in the moment after death the soul, as we have seen, is vividly conscious of God. It receives a knowledge of Him far clearer than anyone can have in this world. It realises His infinite goodness and beauty and lovableness as it has never done before. And therefore, if it is in grace, its love of God and desire for God becomes far more intense, beyond all that we can imagine now.
And then the soul looks at itself, and looks back over its past. It remembers all that it has done to offend this infinitely loving and lovable God. It realises the horribleness and vileness of those sins as never before. It sees how it has stained and defiled itself with them, and how utterly unworthy it is to enter into that glorious presence, and how therefore it must be shut out for a time, until those stains have been completely purged away. And so it remains mourning and sorrowing, waiting for the barrier to be removed, which shuts it out from the presence of Him whom it loves. It is difficult for us to realise how intense that suffering is. That is because our love for God is so faint and feeble. We cannot understand the minds of those poor souls in Purgatory, who love Him so intensely that to be shut out from His presence even for a time causes the acutest mental anguish. Moreover, they have nothing to distract them. Here in this world, even if we have some faint desire and longing for God at times, we have all kinds of other things to occupy our thoughts, to satisfy us partly, and to distract us from that desire. There they have nothing to distract them. The soul’s whole thought is concentrated on God alone, in an intense longing for Him. It has only one desire, and that desire unsatisfied. “My soul hath thirsted after the strong living God; when shall I come and appear before the presence of God?” That is its one continual thought, “When shall I come and appear before the presence of God?”
But another fact about Purgatory is also certain that in the midst of all their suffering, deep down, underlying it all, those holy souls have an intense happiness. That seems paradoxical, but it is true. They are suffering intensely, but they have also a profound joy in their suffering. That is why Cardinal Newman in the Dream of Gerontius makes the Angel Guardian speak of the soul, as it sinks into Purgatory, as “happy suffering soul.” St. Catherine of Genoa says that, although the suffering of the poor souls in Purgatory is more intense than anything that we can suffer in this world, yet at the same time their happiness is greater than any that we can know here. And after all this is not so difficult to understand, if you have ever seen some really holy person suffering from a long and painful illness. You know how much he is suffering. And yet you have seen, and wondered to see, how happy he is through it all. He suffers happily, because he is so filled with the love of God, so conscious of God’s love through it all. He unites his sufferings with those of Our Lord in His Passion, and rejoices to be able thus to accomplish His will. So, then, the Holy Souls in Purgatory are happy in their suffering. They are happy, first of all, because their salvation is assured. They are free for ever from all anxiety, all fear, all temptation, all those unruly desires which torment us in this life, all possibility of sin. Their future is certain, that glorious future of union with God. And that is a far greater joy to them than it could be to us now, even if we were certain of it, which we can never be in this world, because they know so much better what it means; knowing God as they do, they have a far more intense realisation of the meaning of the joy to come.
Again, they are happy, because they suffer willingly for the love of God. They love God so much that they are necessarily happy in doing His will, however painful it may be to themselves. And they rejoice to see the effects of that cleansing process. The soul in Purgatory is like a sick man who feels himself daily growing stronger and returning to health. It sees those stains of rust being gradually cleansed away. And, as the cleansing goes on, so their union with God grows daily more and more intimate, and nearer and nearer they see the day approaching, when at last their longing will be fulfilled, and they will see God face to face.
Yet another fact about Purgatory we know, and it is one that is a source of consolation to us. That is, that we can help the poor souls who are there by our prayers, by our good works offered to God for them, by trying to gain indulgences for them, and especially by having Masses said and joining in the offering of Masses for them. By all these means we can help them, console them, and shorten the time of their waiting. And there is no more charitable work that we can do than that. Think of all those poor souls, suffering, longing for God. What a joy to them to know that someone on earth has prayed for them, or a Mass has been said for them, and thereby the time of suffering is shortened, and the blessed vision of God is so much nearer. Let us always pray, then, and join in the offering of Masses for the Holy Souls; for our own friends, for those we have known and loved on earth, and for the millions unknown, especially for those that are most neglected, who have no friends on earth to pray for them.
And let us never be so foolish as to conclude that any friend of ours, however good he may have been, has no need of prayers and Masses, under the impression that he must have gone straight to Heaven. It may be so, and it is no doubt very charitable to think it must be so. But we must remember that we never know, and it is no real kindness to our friend to jump to that conclusion. No one but God knows of any soul what further need it had of purification when death came, for God alone can see into the hearts of men. Let us put the matter in this way. Suppose you were to die tonight. Would you like us all to say, “Oh, he was so good, that he must have gone straight to Heaven; so we need not bother to pray or to have Masses said for him?” No you would not. Then do not treat your friends like that. It may be very flattering to say that about them, but they do not care about flattery in the next world. And you will look rather foolish if, when you meet them in the next world, they tell you that because of your flattering opinion of them they have had to suffer much longer than they might have done if only you had prayed and had Masses said for them.
But now another question arises. We cannot help asking it. Do the souls in Purgatory know what passes on earth? Do our friends there know what is happening to us? And can they help us by their prayers? Now, this is a question on which nothing has ever been defined by the Church, and therefore we cannot be quite certain about the answer. There is no doubt, of course, about the souls in Heaven, for they can see all things in God. But so long as they are still in Purgatory it is not absolutely certain. But all theologians are agreed that it is most probable. And so practically we can feel sure that the Holy Souls in Purgatory do pray for us, and that they do know even now what goes on earth, so far as it concerns them; and that therefore they do know what happens to their friends, can follow our lives with loving interest, and help us by their prayers.
There, then, in outline, is what we know of Purgatory. And what a beautiful and consoling doctrine it is that God has thus given us! For, if there were no Purgatory, how many of us could have any hope of Heaven? Suppose you were to die tomorrow. You may have a reasonable hope that you will die in the grace of God with your sins forgiven. But have you lived so pure and holy a life, or have you already made such complete satisfaction for your sins, that you are fit to go straight to Heaven? Not one of us would dare to say so.
Then, if there were no Purgatory, what would become of us? How could we ever get to Heaven? So indeed it is a great consolation to know that God in His mercy has made that provision for our purification. And, again, what a comfort it is to know that we can still do something for our friends who are gone. How inexpressibly dreary is the Protestant doctrine that they are absolutely cut off from us, that we can do nothing for them, and they can do nothing for us! Oh, no, God is kinder than that! We all want to do something for those whom we love, and who are gone before us. And God in His goodness gives us the power. We can still help them, and they are grateful for our help and help us in return.