Can you recall one of your most memorable vacations? Perhaps the scenery was spectacular, or you and your family had great fun bonding and being together. Now, can you recall one of your least memorable vacations? What made it forgettable? Did you get interrupted by work requests during vacation? Did you experience a loss, sadness, or anxiety right before going on a vacation, so that when you were on vacation, you were preoccupied and could not enjoy all that the vacation spot had to offer. Our state of mind will determine whether we will enjoy the vacation or not.
What do we know about life after death? The First Reading tells us that, “The souls of the just are in the hand of God, and no torment shall touch them.” The destiny of the righteous is to be with God. The suffering and affliction they experience here on earth are considered a purification that they must endure in order to be with God. The Responsorial Psalm then reminds us that we are in the care of Our Lord--our Shepherd who guards us from those who would harm our soul and whose loving guidance will remain with us forever. How is all this applicable to us? If we are honest, could we consider ourselves as ‘just souls’ who are in the hand of God? St. Paul explains that in our former lives, we lived under slavery to sin. Through baptism this old enslaved self has been crucified. Just as death had no power over the resurrected Christ, so sin now has no power over the baptized Christians. We now have the power of the resurrected Lord to withstand the assault of sin. So St. Paul says, “God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us. How much more then, since we are now justified by his Blood, will we be saved through him from the wrath.”
It's my experience that some souls are better prepared to put closure on their earthly life than others. Once when I went to visit a man whose cancer had spread through his entire body, he was in his room, a beer in his hand and was joking with friends who were visiting him. The moment I mentioned preparing for dying and receiving the anointing of the sick, he jolted and dropped his beer. I left that house thinking this man was not prepared to put closure on what remained of his very short earthly life.
So what happens to souls who are still holding on to something, perhaps unfinished business. A parishioner whose mother died a few months ago told me that she prayed for her mother everyday. Her earnest prayer was, “Mama, please let me know with some sign that you’re fine, that you are in Heaven.” One night the parishioner had a dream about her mother. In the dream, she picked up the phone and her mama was on the phone! The daughter asked her mom, “Have you met Jesus?” but her mom did not answer. Then all of of a sudden, she and her mom were in a room filled with people of all ages and she recognized some of them. Although the people looked normal, the daughter sensed that they were all deceased souls. Her mom then explained, “I have to stay here for a month”, but she added that she was happy and content. The parishioner was convinced that her mother was in purgatory.
We believe in Purgatory. All of us who die in God's grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified, are indeed assured of our eternal salvation; but after death we undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven. For the great majority of us, there remains in the depths of our being an ultimate interior openness to truth, to love, to God. In the concrete choices of life, however, this openness to truth is covered over by ever new compromises with evil. The Good News is that while we were still sinners Christ died for us and justified us by his Blood. What great mercy!
In this earthly life, the Lord promises to guide us as the Good Shepherd, but we must humble ourselves to our faults and open our hearts to His forgiveness and guidance. Let us take comfort in the Psalm 23:
The Lord guides me in right paths for his name’s sake.
Even though I walk in the dark valley I fear no evil; for you are at my side with your rod and your staff that give me courage.