Where Do the Dead Go?

Back in the days when I first became a school teacher, right here in Tampa, actually, back in 1970, I often had kids asking questions not to find out an answer, but to demonstrate their intelligence or my lack of intelligence.  All teachers get this.  A wise guy raises his hand and asks, ďIs the United States one country or 50 independent countries?Ē  And then has an argument to counter whatever the teacher says.  A good teacher, instead of being intimidated by the student, uses the question as an opportunity to build on the lesson.

Jesus was confronted the same way by the Sadducees in todayís gospel.  They didnít believe in life after death.  Jesus, and the Pharisees, by the way, preached about preparing for the Kingdom of Heaven and eternal life.  The Sadduceesí question about whose wife would a woman who had been widowed seven times be was disingenuous; they wanted to show Jesus up, not learn from him.  Still, Jesus recognized that they were asking questions that all people have.  His answer was more directed to teach us about heaven than to deal with the not so subtle attack of the Sadducees.

All of us want to know what happens to our loved ones when they pass away.  If they go to heaven, what is heaven like?  Do they miss us as much as we miss them?  Does everyone go to heaven?  What is purgatory, anyway?  Are the people there sad or happy?  How about that other place?  Why would a loving God send people to a place of eternal pain?

 I think it is worthwhile to consider some of these questions during the month of November, the month of All Souls.  Like the Sadducees, we would be off course if we tried to understand heaven in human terms.  We certainly wonít be sitting around on clouds playing harps and eating popcorn.  Boring.  Nor would heaven be a place where our baseball team always go to the World Series.  That would be New York City (most of the time).  We would not have families as we understand families, but we would have each other in the way that matters most, we would experience the love that others have for us and our love for them in, well, a divine way.

ďGod is love,Ē Scripture tells us.  Heaven is being caught up in the love of God, in the continual action that is loving.  The third book of Dante Alighieriís Divine Comedy, The Paradisio, presents heaven as a place of continual motion as the souls of the saved whirl about the throne of God merged with the Divine yet still their own individual selves.  Dante was a poet, only using his imagination, and should not be taken literally; yet, the concept of the Divine Love saturating a human being is not imagination as much as a description of the Love of God.  Caught up in love, we can understand how those who have gone before us into Godís Eternity continue to love us and care for us by extending Godís love to us.
Therefore, those in heaven, are, in fact, the saints, both the ones officially recognized by the Church, the canonized saints, and those whose holiness was known to only a few but embraced by God who knows all.
 Well, then, does everyone go to heaven?  If they do, then why would be pray for the dead?  Sadly, most people at the time of a funeral are convinced that their husband, wife, brother, sister, loved one, is already in heaven.  I say, sadly, because, we can and should pray for the dead.  Those in heaven donít need our prayers.  Those in purgatory do.  I donít know about you, but when I die, I want people praying to God for me, not assuming that I donít need their prayers.

What, then, is purgatory?  There is no space or time with the Spiritual so we cannot locate purgatory, nor can we speak about years of time off of purgatory in any way other than as a figurative way to set some sort of standard for measuring the importance of various prayers.  That is really what the concept of indulgences is all about.

People in purgatory are not yet ready to be caught up in the fire of Godís love.  Again, going back to Dante, this time his second book, the Purgatorio, Dante presents the souls in purgatory as holding themselves back until the grace of God has prepared them to receive the fire of his love in heaven.  Our prayers for the dead are asking God to advance them into his love.  That is the whole reason why we have funeral masses, Masses for dead, the whole reason why we teach our children to pray for Grandma and Grandpa that they may be fully united to Jesus in heaven.  The First Book of Maccabees reminds us that it is a good thing to pray for the dead, and so we do.

It is certainly beyond our understanding to imagine how anyone could be so turned away from Godís love as to never merit entrance into his love, and thus be condemned to lovelessness forever.  It is hard for us to understand this, until we witness the evil of people encouraging their countrymen to kill innocent people on September 11th or to kill children in Russia.   It is hard for us to understand the power evil has over people until we visit the concentration camps of Europe and realize that this was the will not of one insane dictator but of thousands of his followers willing to sacrifice all principles, all virtues, for their own selfish goals.   It is hard for us to understand how anyone would rather have eternal hatred then allow any love in his or her life, until we witness the overpowering influence of sin, of the Evil One, in the bowels of our cities, nation and world.

God is loving and merciful, but he also respects free will and allows people to totally reject every aspect of his existence, every aspect of love.  He is loving and merciful, he is also just.  He is the Hound of Heaven of Francis Thompsonís famous poem, braying  at the heals of those who run from him throughout the corridors of their lives, but he seeks an openness to his love, his presence,
before he enters into a life in any way whatsoever.  Essentially, God condemns people to the hell that they have made for themselves.

Deep subjects today, but this is the month of All Souls.  It is also the end of the Church year.  This is an excellent time to consider the last things. Difficult though it is, it still is good for us to focus on the realities of life and death.  There is so much more to life than the physical.  There is the love of God in its fullness.  We pray this morning for those who have gone before us.  We commend our dead to the Lord.  We trust in his mercy to fan into the flame of his love that tiny spark of love that we have brought to the earth.

And so we pray with the Church today: May the souls of the Faithful Departed, through the Mercy of God, rest in peace.