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FOR ALL THE SAINTS?
Remembering the Christian Departed
By N. T. Wright
Church Publishing IncorporatedCopyright © 2003 Nicholas Thomas Wright
All rights reserved.
Saints, Souls and Sinners: The Medieval View and Its Later Developments
Until nearly five hundred years ago, people throughout Europe were taught a threefold picture of the church: the church triumphant, the church expectant and the church militant. The Reformation changed all that for many parts of Christendom, though the picture is still standard throughout Roman Catholicism. The third division ('the church militant', i.e. Christians alive at the present time) may be left to one side for the moment. What about the first two? What can we say, and what should we say, about Christians who have died?
The church triumphant
'All Saints triumphant, raise the song!' The 'triumphant' saints, according to the traditional medieval view, are the ones who have finally made it. There are, in this picture, some people, some holy souls, who have arrived at the very centre of heaven itself, and who already enjoy the 'beatific vision', the pure and utterly joyful adoration of the living God. Officially, within Roman Catholic dogma, even these souls are still awaiting the eventual resurrection, but this aspect has very little part to play in most official and popular accounts of the 'saints'. (Indeed, sometimes the word 'resurrection' has even come to be used as a synonym for 'going to heaven', which is about as misleading as it could be.) For most Christians of the Middle Ages, there were two ultimate destinations to which people might go after their death. Heaven and hell were the alternatives; talk of bodily resurrection sat uncomfortably with the former. Instead, 'heaven' was thought of as the 'Kingdom' where God reigned supreme, and where the righteous, the blessed, the saved, the saints, were already with him in glory. There didn't seem much more that they could want. The idea of a still-future resurrection, as opposed to 'going to heaven when they died', didn't feature prominently. We shall return to this point later on.
The saints in glory had got there by one of two routes, the direct route and the roundabout one. Some had been so holy in the present life that they had gone to ultimate bliss immediately after death. One in particular, some came to believe, was so completely without sin that she, Mary, was taken up bodily into heaven, like Jesus. Unlike Jesus, however (though like Enoch in Genesis 5.24 and Elijah in 2 Kings 2.1–18), she did not have to pass through death. But the other major 'saints' – Peter, Paul and the rest, and those of whom it was believed that they had attained more or less full holiness during the present life – had gone to heaven as soon as they had died. That is the direct route.
Many of the saints now in heaven, however, had arrived there (according to the same tradition) after spending a period, whether long or short, among the church expectant, to which we shall come presently. There was thus a clear division between two categories of dead Christians.
Within this scheme, the saints, being in heaven and in the intimate presence of God, could pray directly to him on behalf of those still here on earth. The image in mind is of a medieval court. Here I am, let us suppose, in my village a hundred miles away from London. How can I get the king to take any notice of me? Well, there is a man from my village, an old friend of my father's, who is the chief pastry-cook at the palace. He will put in a word for me. I have, in that sense, 'a friend at court'. In the same way, the saints were thought of as being that much closer to God than we were; but since they were our own folk, humans like us, they could sympathize with us, see the problems we were facing, and present our case before the royal throne. To this end, we in turn could and should call upon them ('invoke' is the word normally used), asking them to pray for us, and sometimes simply asking them to do things for us directly. This aspect of belief in the saints, in their accessibility to us and usefulness on our behalf, was and is among the most popular features of piety for some Christians, and one of the most distrusted by others.
The saints triumphant were celebrated with their own feast day from as early as the fourth century. 'All Saints' Day' was originally kept on the Sunday after Pentecost, which is where it still belongs in the Eastern Orthodox churches. The western church moved it to 1 November in the eighth century, making this change official and universal in the ninth century. From at least the Middle Ages through to the eighteenth century all kinds of earlier pagan practices and superstitions have surrounded this celebration. More recently, especially in America, we have seen the rebirth of these with the cult of Hallowe'en ('All Hallows Eve', in other words, the night before 'All Saints' Day'). Indeed, one of the curious accidents of folk culture has been the rise of Hallowe'en as a major event just at the time when 'All Souls' Day', two days later, has also been making a comeback in the churches. One can only guess at the confusion in the popular mind as to what on earth, or anywhere else for that matter, it is all about.
The church expectant
(A) THE TRADITIONAL DOCTRINE OF PURGATORY – AND ITS RECENT REVISION
Most people, according to traditional Roman Catholic theology, did not and do not go directly to heaven after death. Many, of course, go directly to hell; in the traditional scheme, those who are neither baptized nor believing, or who are guilty of 'mortal sin', are not part of the 'church expectant' at all, but pass directly to eternal torment. But most of those who are baptized and believing, and who are therefore bound ultimately for the bliss of heaven (and beyond that the resurrection, though as I said this is not normally highlighted) still need some time of preparation before they are fitted for the joys that await them. Again the imagery of the medieval court is important. These Christians have come in from the country, with ragged clothes and muddy boots, and they need a good scrub and change of outfit before they are ready to enter the king's presence. The good scrub in question is purgatory.
Purgatory is a Roman Catholic doctrine pure and simple. It is not held as such in the eastern church, and was decisively rejected by Protestants at the Reformation. Though some have claimed biblical support for it, the main reasons for holding it were and are theological, and indeed liturgical. (It's interesting to note how in the earlier periods, as today, liturgical practice has been used as a lever to adjust the church's belief.)
Gregory the Great in the sixth century expounded a form of purgatory as a way of explaining why prayers were offered during the church's worship on behalf of the dead. Some have seen this as building on earlier beliefs, according to which the martyrs went straight to heaven while ordinary Christians had to wait for further purification, though this is difficult to demonstrate in any detail. Gregory's official explanation was that in Matthew 12.32 Jesus spoke of sins being forgiven (or not) both in the present age and in the age to come. This implied, so Gregory argued, that Jesus envisaged a future time in which sins that had not been forgiven in this life would finally be dealt with.
The main statements of the fully fledged doctrine of purgatory, though, come much later. Thomas Aquinas gave an academic exposition of it in the thirteenth century; the Council of Lyons (1274) made the doctrine official Roman Catholic teaching for the first time. Two centuries later (in 1494) Catherine of Genoa wrote a powerful and influential treatise on the subject.
It is perhaps, though, through Dante, the great Italian poet of the early fourteenth century, that belief in purgatory became an important part of the mental and spiritual landscape of late medieval Europe. It quickly became popular in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. By the start of the sixteenth century (i.e. just before the Reformation) it was central to the piety and belief of much of the western church. Huge energy went into understanding purgatory, teaching people about it, and in particular arranging life in the present in relation to it.
The medieval doctrine of purgatory can be outlined as follows. Most Christians at death are still, to some degree, sinful. They therefore need two things: more cleansing and more punishment. They must complete what the Council of Lyons called 'full satisfaction for their sins'. After death, if they are indeed genuine Christians, they will long for the full delights of the beatific vision, of seeing God face to face, and yet they will know instinctively that they are unfitted for it. They must therefore enter a longer or shorter period of pain, with the element of punishment as a central feature, though it is a pain they willingly embrace because they know it will lead to bliss. And, crucially, they can be helped to get through this all the quicker through the prayers, and particularly the masses, said for them by those still in this mortal life.
Masses and prayers for those in purgatory became a major feature of medieval piety. This practice was open to flagrant abuse, and it was the sale of 'indulgences' – official dispensation, by church authorities, allowing people time off purgatory if their friends or relatives paid for it – that gave focus to the reforming zeal of Martin Luther. It is only fair to add that many Roman Catholics then and since have agreed that such secondary practices were at best unwarranted and at worst a shocking abuse.
If the late medieval period saw the full flowering of purgatory, the late nineteenth century saw one of its most influential expositions, at least within English-speaking circles. In 1865 John Henry Newman published a poem called The Dream of Gerontius. This tells the story of an old man, Gerontius, who is approaching death. His friends pray for him around his bed, and as he dies he passes into the care of an angel, who explains what is now going to happen. The angel leads him to a brief glimpse of Christ, his judge. This reveals to him just how much he still needs a long process of cleansing, and the angel takes him off to purgatory.
This poem would have had far less influence had it not been brilliantly set to music by Edward Elgar, who described it as coming 'from my insidest inside'. When I first got to know it I found it, to be frank, both compelling and repulsive. (I hasten to add that many things I found repulsive in my youth I now find delightful; malt whisky is not the only possible example.) But I now find it, for reasons that will become clear, equally compelling but also deeply tragic. Newman, one of the most brilliant minds of his day, gave voice, and Elgar gave song, to a high Victorian version of the medieval doctrine. Thus the angel explains to Gerontius that, after he has died,
Thou wilt hate and loathe thyself; for though
Now sinless, thou wilt feel that thou hast sinned,
As never thou didst feel; and wilt desire
To slink away, and hide thee from His sight ...
The shame of self at thought of seeing Him
Will be thy veriest, sharpest purgatory.
This is full of inner contradictions. Is the soul now really sinless? If so, why does it need purging any more? These are dealt with by a (typically Victorian) appeal to 'feeling' ('Now sinless, thou wilt feel that thou has sinned'); but why, we might ask, should the soul trust such feelings if they are not true? And why should God allow such self-deception and self-loathing to continue? But, undeterred, Newman brings the soul of Gerontius finally before the Judge. The soul longs eagerly to get to the feet of Christ, but we, the onlookers, see that the 'keen sanctity' which surrounds Jesus
has seized [it, i.e. the soul],
And scorched, and shrivelled it; and now it lies
Passive and still before the awful Throne.
In Elgar's setting, this is the climax of the entire work, a moment of intense drama and excitement. And here, at the moment for which – one might have thought – the soul would have longed all its life, the first words it utters are the terrible cry:
Take me away, and in the lowest deep
There let me be,
And there in hope the lone night-watches keep,
Told out for me ...
There will I sing my absent Lord and Love:–
Take me away.
The angel then passes over the soul to the Angels of Purgatory, who open the gates of their 'golden prison' to receive it. There it will be placed into the 'penal waters', taking a 'rapid passage' through the flood, 'sinking deep, deeper, into the dim distance'. In this condition,
Masses on the earth, and prayers in heaven,
Shall aid thee at the Throne of the Most Highest.
The reader will deduce, rightly, that I find all this musically glorious, humanly noble and theologically intolerable. But I shall come back to this. First, I want to note the quite drastic revisions that have occurred in Roman Catholic teaching in the century since Newman wrote.
His vision, or at least the teaching which underlay it, undoubtedly still forms the staple diet of the teaching, liturgy and piety of a large part of the Roman Catholic Church, and of some others that look to it for a lead in such matters. But in the last generation two major and central Roman Catholic teachers have expounded very different views.
Karl Rahner, who died in 1984, was widely acknowledged as one of the greatest Roman Catholic theologians of the mid-twentieth century. He attempted to combine Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox teaching on the place of the soul between death and resurrection. Instead of concentrating on what he saw as the over-individualized concern with the fate of a particular soul, he supposed that after death the soul becomes more closely united with the cosmos as a whole, through which process, while still awaiting the resurrection, the soul becomes more aware of the effects of its own sin on the world in general. This, he suggested, would be purgatory enough.
Perhaps more remarkable still is the view of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who has held high office in the Vatican for many years. Building on 1 Corinthians 3, which we shall look at presently, he argued that the Lord himself is the fire of judgment which transforms us as he conforms us to his glorious, resurrected body. This happens, not during a long-drawn-out process, but in the actual moment of final judgment.
By linking purgatory to Jesus Christ himself as the eschatological fire, Ratzinger separates the doctrine of purgatory from the idea of an intermediate state, and thus snaps the link that, in the Middle Ages, gave rise to the idea of indulgences. One of the greatest contemporary Protestant theologians, Wolfhart Pannenberg, says that in Ratzinger's view, 'The doctrine of purgatory is brought back into the Christian expectation of final judgment by the returning Christ' – in other words, Ratzinger has brought the idea closer to a biblical model. It is clear that two of the most important, and indeed more conservative, Roman Catholic theologians of the last generation have offered a radical climb-down from Aquinas, Dante, Newman and all that went in between.
(B) PURGATORY, NEW STYLE
At the same time, a quite different tendency has been at work in much liberal theology. Older Anglicanism, not least where influenced by the Reformers (who were here simply echoing the New Testament), spoke enthusiastically of the 'sure and certain hope' that all believers would share, after death, the glorious life of Jesus Christ. But there has been a tendency in much twentieth-century theology, shared by many Anglicans, to soft-pedal this definite and confident statement. It seems (we are often told) very arrogant: if we know our own hearts, we will know that we are not yet ready for final bliss. Many have thus moved towards some kind of a new-style purgatory, not so much because of Roman influence (except, perhaps, at the liturgical level), but because of a loss of confidence in the biblical promises.
In addition, the marked tendency towards universalism, the belief that all people will eventually be saved, has produced a quite new situation. If all are indeed to be saved, then not only professed Christians, but the mass of professed non-Christians, are going to have to be got ready for salvation in the time after death. Though, as I said in the Introduction, the question of what happens to non-Christians after death lies outside the scope of this little book, it is important to realize the effect that the tendency towards universalism has had on beliefs about the Christian hope itself.
Like a badly sprung double bed, this theology has propelled the people at either side into an uneasy huddle in the middle. The Christians do not go straight to 'heaven', but need to be cleaned up and sorted out, proceeding by unhurried steps through uncharted spiritual country until they arrive at the goal. The non-Christians do not go straight to 'hell', but will find themselves continuing whatever journey they are on, perhaps with the option of looking again at the claims of God and Jesus and perhaps coming to accept them. Sometimes, as in the American Prayer Book, this post-mortem process is spoken of as 'growth' – though why that metaphor is preferred to others is not clear.
Excerpted from FOR ALL THE SAINTS? by N. T. Wright. Copyright © 2003 Nicholas Thomas Wright. Excerpted by permission of Church Publishing Incorporated.
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