My poor classmates. Before writing my final assignment for the online course I’m taking on ecclesiology, I decided to write a kind of summation of what I had learned. Then, too tired to hone it down into a manageable length, I decided to submit the whole thing. It did answer the assignment question, but also spoke to so much more. And now, I am sharing it with you…enjoy?
Question: Many have observed a significant decline in recent years in the practices of praying to the saints and praying for the dead. What might the presence or absence of these practices reveal about our understanding of the pilgrim Church on earth as a mystery?
When we think of the Church, we often only think of the Church on earth, and we see that it is imperfect, fairly ordinary, sometimes disappointingly ordinary, and sometimes we see that it is deeply and terribly flawed. But the deep and terrible flaws that we see are not the Church. The ordinariness, like the disappointing imperfection, is not the Church. The Church is already perfect — and also not yet perfect — because the core identity of the Church is not what is seen, but what is unseen. The Church is a mystery.
Take the Eucharistic liturgy, for example, the source and summit of the Christian life. We may come to the altar to receive Holy Communion believing that this gift from God is a way to nourish and sustain us in our earthly lives, connected to one another, until our earthly lives come to an end and we will abide eternally in His loving embrace in heaven. But it’s so much more than that. When we gather before the altar for the Eucharistic prayer, consecration, and reception of the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Christ, God is lifting us up to heaven and bringing heaven down to us.
We are present again, beyond space and time, at the moment when God Almighty, creator of heaven and earth, gives us the profound gift of Himself, becoming one of us and pouring out His life for us so that we may be truly and fully alive in His eternal love. The connection of the Eucharist is not just with those on earth, but with Christ and the whole Church — pilgrim, suffering, and triumphant — as the Eucharistic prayer bears witness. We are caught up in God’s love for us and rise with Christ from the dead to the fullness of life, the loving union of the Holy Trinity, our souls singing the euphoric song of divine union, of life fulfilled and glorified.
We do not sing this song with the choir. The song is being sung with the angels, the heavenly hosts beyond our imagining. The euphoria is not a feeling that we get in our hearts, a lofty thought that comes into our minds, or even something stored up and waiting for us in heaven. The euphoria is a sharing in that of the holy ones of God, our fellow human beings who are already embraced in the perfect beauty of God’s love in heaven as saints. We aren’t there yet with them, we are living here by God’s design, to live and love in the imperfect beauty of God’s created world, but we sing with the angels and saints as pilgrims journeying through our existence with faith and hope in its fulfillment: the glorious fulfillment which we anticipate and in which we are now participating.
We lean forward, we strain forward, we seek and we yearn, just as most of our fellow human beings who have died still lean and strain, seek and yearn, their souls afire with faith and hope as they are purified in their journey to heaven. They, like us, like the saints, are orientated toward Christ. All of us comprise and are incorporated into the Church, living different stages of the journey toward the perfectly intimate union of human and divine. We are participating in the miraculous and glorious fruition of God the Father’s plan of creation and redemption, so that we may be like the only begotten Son of God, transformed into the persons that we are created to be — persons eternally alive through, with, and in the love of God — by the unifying power of the Holy Spirit. Some of us are here on earth, kneeling with only partial knowledge of God’s loving gifts before the altar; some of us are in purgatory, reaching with burning desire for that intimacy so near; some of us are in heaven, singing in ecstatic joy with the intimate and infinite realization of divine love. We are all one humankind desiring the will of God, sharing the fruits of God’s love, conformed into Christ: the Church.
Lest We Forget
When we neglect personal relationships with our brothers and sisters in purgatory and in heaven, while concentrating only on our personal relationships with our brothers and sisters here on earth, then we miss out on the profound reality of who we are, of where we come from and where we are going. We are like part-time Christians instead of eternal Christians, because we do not strive to participate in the full Church, the eternal Church. Let us truly look around us at Mass. That old man who keeps coughing at the end of the pew is about to be a saint singing in the glory of heaven and remembering you there with love, with the love of Christ that will be known so exquisitely intimately in him. That young lady who’s failing to not be distracted by her cell phone will be pulled from her earthly life sooner than she thinks and needs your encouragement now, while she is still making choices, as well as when she is being shed of her attachments in purgatory so that she may run uninhibited to God.
Remembering that we are purposeful pilgrims walking in the path of Christ — in the path of all those who have gone before us in faith in Christ — perhaps we will remember that our glorious destinies are actively being fulfilled, that the souls of all of the living in Christ are truly living in Christ. Perhaps, then, we will be able to forgive the failings and fallings of our fellow brothers and sisters — and ourselves — with a hope that is strong and true. Our hope is Christ, so let us draw upon the gifts of love that God pours out upon us always and everywhere, sharing those spiritual goods with one another— on earth, in purgatory, and in heaven. No matter where we go God is with us, the power of God’s love is calling us into intimate relationship with Him, so that we may all be united in the eternity of God’s love and be gloriously fulfilled.
Let’s think of that the next time we receive the Most Blessed Sacrament upon our tongues and sing with the multitude of souls reaching for and being taken up into the infinite bliss of God’s immortal love.
© 2019 Christina Chase
Although crippled by disease, I am fully alive in love. I write about the profound wonder and terrible beauty of life while living with physical disability and severe dependency. Unafraid to ask life's big questions, I was briefly an atheist and considered other religions before finding, in God's choice to intimately share our humanity, what it truly means to be fully human. A revert to the Catholic Faith, I blog weekly and have written a book called It's Good to Be Here.