Flowers for our beloved dead

One enduringly haunting scene from Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire—I watched recently the 1951 Vivien Leigh and Marlon Brando starrer— is of an old (Mexican) woman selling flowers, calling attention by chanting, “Flores, flores para los muertos” (Flowers, flowers for the dead). Apparently, in the play, Death is presented as the other side of Desire, which is the name of the streetcar—and the underlying cause, too—that brought the tragic character of Blanche DuBois into the story. Somehow, her promiscuous past is “explained” as an attempt to escape from the idea of Death. The irony, of course, is that the more one gives in to illicit desires (in order to escape the morbid), the more one kills the possibility of inner and lasting peace and happiness.

But, yes, these first days of November mean lots of flowers for our beloved dead. The month begins with the Solemnity (Great Feast) of All Saints (Nov. 1), and the Commemoration of All Souls (Nov. 2). The liturgical year is about to end; it is a good time to remember our beloved dead with special attention and to meditate on the afterlife.

Death does not sever the bonds of love among us humans, except with the damned in hell, who have, by their final, irrevocable choices, separated themselves forever from Love. We who constitute the “Church Militant” (struggling Church) or “Pilgrim Church on earth” are capable of benefiting from the intercession of the saints in heaven (the “Church Triumphant”). We could also add to their “accidental happiness”—to be distinguished from the “essential” happiness of being in heaven (i.e., the “beatific vision” of contemplating God as He Is)—as they note our progress on earth. Similarly, we could help the souls in Purgatory (the “Church Suffering”) by offering our “suffrages”—prayers, penances, and almsgiving or other good works—to hasten their entrance into heaven. We could also benefit from their intercession when they reach heaven, and even while they are in purgatory (since there is no reason why their prayers for us would not be heard).

Catholic doctrine on Purgatory is based on Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition (from the Latin, traditio, “delivery” or “handing down” from the beginning of the Church).

Our Lord said: “And whoever speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven; but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come” (Mt 12:32).

And the Church teaches: “From this sentence we understand that certain offenses can be forgiven in this age, but certain others in the age to come. This teaching is also based on the practice of prayer for the dead, already mentioned in Sacred Scripture: „Therefore [Judas Maccabeus] made atonement for the dead, that they might be delivered from their sin‟ [2 Macc 12:46].” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, Nos. 1031-1032)

Also: “Grave sin deprives us of communion with God, and therefore makes us incapable of eternal life, the privation of which is called the „eternal punishment‟ of sin. On the other hand, every sin, even venial, entails an unhealthy attachment to creatures, which must be purified either here on earth, or after death in the state called Purgatory. This purification frees one from what is called the „temporal punishment‟ of sin. These two punishments must not be conceived of as a kind of vengeance inflicted by God from without, but as following from the very nature of sin. A conversion which proceeds from a fervent charity can attain the complete purification of the sinner in such a way that no punishment would remain.” (CCC, No. 1472)

Sin is essentially a “turning away from God and turning towards creatures”, an orientation or disposition contrary to that which is required for union with God. While on earth, our dispositions—and our choices, in general—are changeable. Now is the time for meriting and repentance. After death, our crossing-over to eternity, we can no longer, by ourselves, alter the trajectory of our soul. But since it is realistic to suppose that many people die loving God (i.e., in the state of grace) yet with some “unhealthy attachment to creatures”, it is eminently reasonable that there be a state after death in which the soul is subjected to God‟s “purifying fire”, helped by the prayers, penances, and good works of the living.

An act of charity we may do often is to offer suffrages for our beloved dead, symbolized by the flowers that fill our cemeteries. To reverse the imagery, our suffrages are spiritual “flowers” to express our continuing affection; and to speed the entrance into heaven of our relatives, friends, benefactors, those whom we had injured and those who may have injured us, who might still be in purgatory.

St. Josemaria Escriva writes: “The holy souls in purgatory. Out of charity, out of justice, and out of an excusable selfishness (they have such power with God!) remember them often in your sacrifices and your prayers. Whenever you speak of them, may you be able to say, ‘My good friends, the souls in purgatory.’” (The Way, No. 571)

Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine, et lux perpetua luceat eis. (4.XI.2018)

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