And this is the will of the one who sent me, that I should not lose anything of what he gave me, but that I should raise it on the last day.
John 6: 39
In The Spiritual Espousals (II,ii,B), Jan van Ruusbroec writes of how the “enlightened person,” the person who is living in the life and grace of God, at times experiences the impulse of grace to pray for someone in purgatory.
You should also know that it can sometimes happen that an enlightened person will be inspired in a special way by the Spirit of God to pray for a particular thing, a particular sinner or soul in purgatory, or some spiritual good, in such a way that the person knows for certain that this is a work of the Holy Spirit not the result of human stubbornness or self-will. This person may even be so fervently enflamed in his prayer that he receives spiritually the response that his prayer has been heard, and with this the Spirit stops urging him to pray.
At some point or other in our lives, most of us have wondered about intercessory prayer. If God is God, as we describe God, then what is the meaning of our asking the “unchangeable” to change. If our life task is to know God’s will and do it, what are we doing when we ask God’s will to bend in a certain direction? Yet, despite our questions, we recognize the truth of Ruusbroec’s description. We have known the somewhat “mysterious” experience of being “inspired” to pray for a particular person, including those we have loved who have died. Even in the midst of the duties of a quite ordinary and unspectacular day, we experience unbidden the summons to raise our heart in love and prayer for a particular person who has not been on our mind in some time.
This common enough experience is, says Ruusbroec, the “work of the Holy Spirit” calling us to be with and pray for this person. It is not, perhaps, a summons to attempt to change God’s will but rather a summons to acknowledge and enter deeply into the communion with this particular person at this particular time that we might “help, encourage, and edify” each other as we seek together as one to respond to God’s will, to grow together in God’s love.
Today is the Commemoration of All the Faithful Departed. While each of us is unique we are not separate. As we age, we experience that much of who we are, of the life we have had and shared with others, seems to be transitioning more and more to “the other side.” Many whom we have loved, many who have loved us, many with whom we have struggled and been conflicted, and many whom we have hurt and failed have now passed on. With that, we realize that not only their lives with us but also our lives with them continue on both sides of the divide of death. This is what Ruusbroec describes in the following way: “This person (who has been inspired by the Holy Spirit to pray for a particular thing or person) will also come to himself and to all persons of good will, savoring and observing the unity and harmony which they have in love.”
When we lose one we love in death, our hearts are broken. This is an experience we know well; the pain is not merely metaphorical but physical. Yet, perhaps that breaking of the heart is also a breaking open. So often in this life, we suffer the limits of love. It seems that what our hearts long for, and what they long to give to the beloved, is so often met with frustration, with the limits of our physical, emotional, and spiritual capacities. For us, “the unity and harmony . . . [we] have in love” is far more an aspiration than a full experience. Is, perhaps, purgatory the experience by which we come, by little and by little, “to learn,” as William Blake says, “to bear the beams of love”? For, what we so long and strive for with each other and with God is already the case. When the Holy Spirit, who is love, “inspires” us to pray for and to know our communion with one who has passed, is it not a gift to us, a moment for us to enter into “the unity and harmony which . . . [we] have in love”?
As we pray for one “in purgatory,” a purgation in which we are called to share, are we perhaps not only praying but being prayed for? We mourn the loss of our loved ones because we feel that we are now separated. Today’s feast calls us both to remember them but also to realize that we are remembered by them. It is only in our own minds that we are dismembered. The truth is that we are all one Body and one Spirit. “Not only that, but we also boast of God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation” (Romans 5: 11). In Christ we have received and learned that our true life is one of unity and harmony, with each other and with God. We live often far removed from the truth that “nothing can separate us from the love of God” (Romans 8:35), yet the Spirit can inspire in us the realization of this truth when we are summoned to presence and prayer with one who has died. We continue to walk together because “of the unity and harmony we have in love.”
I had a dream in the day:
I laid my father’s body down in a narrow boat
and sent him off along the riverbank with its cattails and grasses.
And the boat—it was made of bark and wood bent when it was wet—
took him to his burial finally.
But a day or two later I realized it was my self I wanted
to lay down, hands crossed, eyes closed. . . .
Oh, the light coming up from down there,
the sweet smell of the water—and finally, the sense of being carried
by a current I could not name or change.
Marie Howe, The Dream