Ages ago, about this time of year, we used to go to church to pray for the poor souls in Purgatory. I can remember making multiple visits with my father. All Souls Day was a bargain day for indulgences, more opportune than a fire sale, where you could participate in the eternal liberation of some lost, perhaps totally forgotten spirit. We usually made three visits marked by five recitations of the Our Father, the Hail Mary and the Glory Be, each set interrupted by a smoke out on the steps of St. Magdalen’s.
There may be loads of theological problems with this practice, but there was something wondrous about it. Behind the ritual was a great truth waiting to be felt. It had to do, first of all, with God. God actually wanted us to be saved, even if we got into terrible straits. The church provided this baroque system of rescue to remind us that God intended our escape from dire fate. Even the fact that we might mention the “soul who has no one to pray for her,” or the “soul who has been in Purgatory for the longest time,” was a way of entering some lavish scheme of forgiveness and care.
The holy souls, all those who know need, all those who know they are lost if they rely on their own powers, all those who know they cannot count on their own righteousness, are all we might aspire to be. Saints or sinners, no one of us is a self-made man or woman. To think so is a delusion. To want it is a false and dangerous dream.
Can you imagine telling a self-made woman that she is actually a sinner in need? Can you conceive of telling a self-made man that he is loved? They are unable to hear such things. They are preoccupied with their own achievements.
What is more, their lives are spent in comparison. Who is better, who is worse, who is first? And those who do not measure up to their canons of success are deemed unworthy. It was to such people, “who believed in their own self-righteousness, while holding everyone else in contempt,” that Jesus spoke his parable.
Far behind the high and mighty man in front singing his own praises was a poor soul in the rear of the temple. He seemed to consider himself unworthy, keeping his distance. Was he a crook? An adulterer? Perhaps sad at his own failure, his eyes are lowered. The words are simple. “O God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” He is heard and he can hear. There are no comparisons in his prayer, just the simple truth. It is he who goes home, not lost in his ego, but one with God.
The great and mighty Apostle Paul must have tasted this truth. What an achiever, what a worker he was. How great his triumphs. As we read in the Second Letter to Timothy, he “fought the good fight, finished the race and kept the faith.” But the righteousness reserved for him was ultimately given by his rescuer, his savior. He did not achieve it himself.
The race run is also mentioned in the letter to the Philippians. Paul entered that race only after he realized that all his accomplishments were so much rubbish and that he could no longer aspire to perfection by his own effort. A faultless Pharisee, having given up the pretense of being a self-made man, Paul learned the freedom of the poor soul who one day, in the back of the temple, could only mutter, “Lord, have mercy.”
And the Irish immigrant who brought his son on visits to the back of a church in St. Louis was living out a parable that Christ had spoken in earlier times. Enter the lives of the poor souls. You will find not only yourself there. You will also discover the mystery of God.