Tuesday, December 23, 2008

A time to help those who wait in hope

Early yesterday morning, I dreamed I was in a hipster hangout, the kind I recall from my years haunting Greenwich Village—a faded old lunch-counter type place with worn linoleum-tiled floors and padded side booths.

For some reason, I was regaling the patrons—nobody in particular—with a recitation of 1 Corinthians 12, which is pretty funny because I don't have that chapter memorized in real life. But there I was, declaiming in the language of the King James (because I secretly adore the KJV despite fellow Catholics' best attempts to wean me off it) about how "ye are the body of Christ, and members in particular. And God hath set some in the church, first apostles, secondarily prophets, thirdly teachers, after that miracles, then gifts of healings, helps, governments, diversities of tongues," and so on.

When I got to the second-to-last line of the chapter—"But covet earnestly the best gifts"—a man's voice from a side booth about 20 feet away got my attention, chiming in to complete the verse: "And yet show I unto you a more excellent way ..."

I recognized the voice instantly. My eyes turned to its source, and there, at the side booth, was my old friend and colleague Greg.

Now, there were at least a couple of very strange things about this. One is that Greg would in real life have been the last person to quote the Bible. He would sooner have quoted Aleister Crowley. He was an occultist, a New Ager.

The other strange thing was that Greg has been dead for four years.

I was not on good terms with him at the time of his death. We had long before had a falling out over a business matter about which I was entirely in the wrong. Although I became conscious of my folly while he was still alive, I never apologized to him, a failure I regret to this day.

Never before had Greg appeared in any of my dreams. I had a short list of deceased friends and family for whom I would pray at Mass; his name was not on it. The last time he crossed my mind was a few weeks ago, when I turned up a letter he wrote having to do with our dispute. I threw it in the trash and mumbled a Miraculous Medal prayer for his soul. It is the quickest prayer I know.

But there he was, sitting at the cushioned wall booth, his right side facing out towards me. He looked the best I had ever seen him, only his eyes—which had always looked somewhat beatific in that Sixties-survivor kind of way—had now lost their focus. They were quite wide and bright, but gazing at some indecipherable middle distance. His face looked placid—not deadened, but with no expression to speak of. He was there and not there. I stared at him with a half-awareness I was dreaming; the fear struck me that he might disappear before I could communicate with him.

All that, I perceived in a flash. The next thing I knew, I had dropped to my knees a few feet away from him. Looking into his unblinking eyes, I said loudly, deliberately, "Greg, are you in heaven?"

He mouthed a response, but his voice was too soft and I couldn't make it out. I grew more fearful that he would disappear before I could get an answer.

"Greg," I said again, with extra emphasis, "are you in heaven?"

This time, I could hear him. He spoke simply and calmly, without emotion.

"I've seen it. Once."

I tried to process that. The best I could do, with no time to waste, was realize that he was not in heaven. Therefore, he was in purgatory. Therefore, he needed prayers. I had read many times in the writings of the saints that the souls in purgatory, whenever they appear to someone living on Earth, always seek prayers. One of my theology professors last semester had spoken of that as well. He told of a soul who appeared to a Dominican brother in a dream, letting him know that masses promised for the dead had not been said.

Once more, all that went through my mind in a split second. I sprang to his side and knelt there as St. Catherine Labouré did when she had her vision of Mary, but it was all automatic, without thinking. Clasping my hands together and resting them on his right knee, I collapsed into tears.

"I'm sorry, I'm so sorry," I said, "I'm sorry that I've only been thinking thoughts that have tied you to the Earth—:

That didn't make sense, I realized. My thinking worldly thoughts about him had no power to keep him in purgatory. The wrong was that I was failing to think heavenly thoughts—neglecting to pray that he might join the blessed.

So I corrected myself, still bawling. "I mean—I'll pray for you. I'll pray the Memorare for you every morning and every night."

I am not sure, but I think I also sobbed, "Pray for me."

Greg said nothing, only gazing straight ahead with that same middle-distance stare. I turned my teary face towards him as though to bury it in his chest. That was when he made his only attempt to acknowledge my physical presence, moving his right arm to put it around me ... but it went through me, and my head felt itself go right through where his chest had been, touching only the back of the diner booth.

I started to wake up—reluctantly making myself awaken, as I feared that otherwise I would forget both the dream and my promise to pray. Already, I was thinking how strange the dream was and how I wanted to share it with readers. The thought occurred to me, while I was still between sleep and waking, of how I would answer someone who wanted to know why a soul who had been dead four years would still be in purgatory. The answer came to my mind that Greg had been Catholic—that is, baptized into the faith as a baby—and had failed to receive the final sacraments. I had no way of actually knowing that he had been baptized—and, indeed, still do not.

The sound of Greg's voice was still fresh in my ears when I got out of bed. I can't remember it anymore now, hours later, but when it had come to me in the dream, it sounded exactly as I had remembered it in life, only with that unearthly calm.

His reciting the last verse of 1 Corinthians 12 was quite meaningful, I realized. The "more excellent way" is charity, which is the most important theological virtue for the obtaining of one's eternal salvation. That Greg knew of its importance suggested he was close to his goal.

The thing he said of heaven—"I've seen it. Once."—haunted me. Searching online to see if those in purgatory do glimpse heaven, I was struck by the prayer for the third day of the old Breviary's All Souls Guild Novena:

During the long captivity of the Jews in Babylon, God's people, sitting on the shores of the Euphrates, moaned and cried in remembering Sion. So the Souls in Purgatory, plaintive and doleful, long for the joys of the heavenly mansion. They have had a glimpse of its glory and happiness, but because they were too much attached to earthly pleasures, they will be deprived, perhaps for a long time, of the celestial joys.
"I've seen it. Once." The words echoed in my mind. I realized then why Greg had not answered my "are you in heaven" question with a simple "no." How painful it must have been for him to be asked if he were there, when he not only knew he was not there, but had seen it and perceived what he was awaiting.

At church after Mass yesterday afternoon, I started the All Souls Guild Novena. It will finish on New Year's Day—the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God.

As it happens, and this too I only discovered yesterday, according to Church tradition, Christmas and Marian solemnities are the days when Our Lady delivers more souls from purgatory than on other days of the year. A 19th-century volume called The Glories of the Catholic Church, archived on Google Books, says,
St. Denis, the Carthusian, assures us that the like occurs at the feasts of Christmas and Easter; that on these solemnities Mary, accompanied with several legions of angels, descends into purgatory and delivers numbers of souls. Novarin declares that this takes place also on all the festivals of the blessed Virgin.
Shortly after waking from the dream, I wrote to someone who had been close to Greg, mentioning the dream and that I had the sense Greg had been baptized Catholic and had died without the sacraments. The person wrote back saying simply what I had known all along—that Greg was an atheist—and making no mention of baptism.

Given his Scotch-Irish last name and his having been born during the Golden Age of 20th-century American Catholicism, I suspect Greg probably was indeed baptized into the Faith. Being an atheist (or, rather, I think, an occultist), the graces he received in baptism may well be what enabled his entrance into purgatory, assuming he is in fact there. In any case, I wrote back to his loved one, saying I made a promise to pray—even if it was made only to my subconscious self—and I intend to keep that promise.

The saints say that the holy souls in purgatory long, painfully, to see what you and I can see every day in the Mass. Think of that this Christmas, and pray for their union with God. One day, God willing, someone will do the same for you and me. Merry Christmas, and may God bless you.