We see it mostly in old movies – a shawl or a wrap pulled warmly about the shoulders. It was once as ubiquitous as a hoodie or sweater is today. But before it was packed away into fashion archives, the shawl gave us the term “shoulder season.”
We primarily know the term as adapted by the airline industry to denote cheaper fares between slow and busy fly months. But originally, it referred to those months when temperatures were transitioning from warm to cold or cold to warm. These seasons are when a touch a snugly on the shoulders is just the thing.
November, damp-to-the-bone, is a chilly month. It is also chilling because nature seems to be dying. We see the denuded branches of birch, oak, and maple, the anemic grass, and the darkness eroding the ever-shortening hours of light.
The Gospel teaches us that death actually brings life. “Unless a grain of wheat falls to the earth and dies. . .” Jesus said. And He did so. Death is not so permanent after all. Life rises again, as did He. It is good to remember this as we survey the bleak November landscape, break out those hoodies, and mark this month as the traditional time to commemorate our beloved dead – for whom “life has changed, not ended.”
It is a deep and personal kind of pain – the grief of releasing those we love to another kind of life. We know they are alive somewhere even though we can’t see or hear them. Our relationships with them have not ended. But their souls have gone “down into the silence” as the Psalmist writes.
Ah – that immense, maddening, unbreachable silence that keeps us awake at night and preoccupies our days in one-way conversations. But needs, emotions, prayers, and petitions continue from their side of the veil as well. We pray in the Liturgy of the Hours: “May our union with the dead be strengthen by the sharing of spiritual goods.” I trust that the word “sharing” indicates a two-way street.
In the Catholic Church, November begins with the Feast Days of All Saints and All Souls; commemoration of the dead continues throughout the month, especially in praying for the holy souls in purgatory. We esteem them as “holy” because they are heaven-bound after a period of purification. Whether that comes through fire or fog, isolation or encounters, light or darkness, or some mysterious non-corporal pain, souls must be cleansed of dross and stain. And we can help.
Praying for the dead to hasten their purification is a spiritual work of mercy. We do this through personal devotions, plenary indulgences, and having Masses offered for them. These prayers lead us to perform works of charity and to make sacrifices. I see the latter as especially necessary if our connection with a soul was made through sin. A reunion in purgatory with our partners in sin would be scarier than any costume that raised its hell-bound head this All Hallows Eve.
We know what we are doing in this equation. But we can’t know what is happening in purgatory – who the suffering souls are, who of our loved ones are among them, how long they will be there, and who is praying for us. I expect lovely surprises when the identities of our departed prayer warriors are revealed.
But I believe their prayers are two-fold: because they cannot pray for themselves, they plead for our prayers to bring them closer to the glorious Lord they cannot yet touch; and they pray with love and even as warnings that we would aspire to holiness and avoid the indefinite purging they are enduring. This makes the holy souls powerful allies.
So, we shouldn’t neglect them. They are no longer on the plane of corporal needs and materialistic temptations, but they are not yet in the glorious mansions Jesus has prepared for them. They are transitioning from life on earth to life in heaven.
Purgatory is their ‘shoulder season.’ Our prayers and sacrifices are their shawls.
Praying for the dead should not be limited to this one day on the liturgical calendar. The Holy Souls are praying for us always. The reciprocation of spiritual goods is up to us.
For my brother. . .
In Loving Memory of
BRIAN ROBERT LYNCH
Feb 8, 1961 – Sept 23, 2019
Be each saint in heaven,
Each sainted woman in heaven,
Each angel in heaven
Stretching their arms for you,
Smoothing the way for you,
When you go thither
Over the river hard to see;
Oh when you go thither home
Over the river hard to see.
Ancient Celtic Prayer at Death