This week as we enter the penultimate month of the year and its focus on the “next to last,” it helps direct us to our ultimate goal in life—to be a saint—to live with God for all eternity in our heavenly home. Like the month of November itself, these days are an invitation to focus on the Last Things: Death, Heaven, Hell and Purgatory.
That focus is what the great Italian poet Dante Alighieri does in his Divine Comedy, considered one of the greatest literary masterpieces in Western literature. Divided into three parts—Inferno (Hell), Purgatorio (Purgatory) and Paradiso (Heaven)—this work, according to one interpretation, illustrates the destiny of one’s soul after death dependent on its state, that is, its relationship with God. However, the Divine Comedy is seen also as a representation of the soul’s journey to God. It begins with the recognition and rejection of sin (hell), followed by repenting of sin (purgatory) and culminating in the soul’s ascent to the beatific vision—life with the triune God—and membership in the community of love that is our God.
What is so powerful about this work is that it is still an apt representation of the spiritual journey for today’s Christian. Accompanying this timeless literature is a revival of a medieval Latin phrase, “memento mori,” which invites the believer to “remember your death.” Now, our immediate reaction might be “how morbid,” but there is a second part to this quote: “memento vivere” signifying to “remember to live as well as you can.”
Death is not a subject that is popular to talk about, but is not the month of November an invitation to renew our understanding of the Last Things of Death, Heaven, Hell and Purgatory, much as we are reminded to keep our Last Will and Testament up to date?! In our Profession of Faith each Sunday, you and I profess our belief in “the resurrection of the dead and life everlasting,” but what do those words signify actually?
The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines the Last Things in these ways:
1023 Those who die in God’s grace and friendship and are perfectly purified live forever with Christ. They are like God forever, for they “see him as he is,” face to face.
1024 This perfect life with the Most Holy Trinity—this communion of life and love with the Trinity, with the Virgin Mary, the angels and all the blessed—is called “heaven.” Heaven is the ultimate end and fulfillment of the deepest human longings, the state of supreme, definitive happiness.
1030 All who die in God’s grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified, are indeed assured of their eternal salvation; but after death they undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven.
1031 The Church gives the name Purgatory to this final purification of the elect, which is entirely different from the punishment of the damned.
1035 The teaching of the Church affirms the existence of hell and its eternity. Immediately after death the souls of those who die in a state of mortal sin descend into hell, where they suffer the punishments of hell, “eternal fire.” The chief punishment of hell is eternal separation from God, in whom alone man can possess the life and happiness for which he was created and for which he longs.
1037 God predestines no one to go to hell; for this, a willful turning away from God (a mortal sin) is necessary, and persistence in it until the end. In the Eucharistic liturgy and in the daily prayers of her faithful, the Church implores the mercy of God, who does not want “any to perish, but all to come to repentance.”
Our own acquaintance with the Church’s teaching on death and eternal life can help us remember why it is so important for us to live as best we can here and now. Our calling to mind the Church’s saints and the souls of our own faithful departed, along with Scripture readings reminding us about the Last Judgment, and our ultimate encounter with Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe, are brought to the forefront in November. They jog our memories about what is yet to come and invite us to remember death so that we will be prepared whenever it comes a-calling.
Some of the ways you and I can stay alert and be ready are daily prayer, participating in Holy Mass on Sunday (and if possible, during the week), praying the Rosary, approaching the Sacrament of Penance frequently, reading Sacred Scripture daily and paying attention to the needs of our neighbor and those we encounter along the road of life. As we fast approach the holy Season of Advent and a new year of grace, now is the perfect time to renew our spiritual practices.
Let us heed the advice of Sacred Scripture and the Church’s catechism: “Since we know neither the day nor the hour, we should follow the advice of the Lord and watch constantly so that, when the single course of our earthly life is completed, we may merit to enter with him into the marriage feast and be numbered among the blessed, and not, like the wicked and slothful servants, be ordered to depart into the eternal fire, into the outer darkness where ‘men will weep and gnash their teeth’” (Catechism, 1036).
May our November days be ones of remembrance not only of death, but even more the good things that are meant to come. “Saints of God in glory, be with us, rejoice with us, sing praise with us, and pray with us now” (Bernadette Farrell).