By LORRAINE V. MURRAY, Commentary | Published October 27, 2011
Many people have houses crammed with heirlooms, but not me. Sadly, I have very few items from my parents, who died when I was in my 20s. There are rings and earrings from my mom, but the only physical link with my father is a gold wind-up watch, circa 1945.
I wore the watch for many years, until one day it simply stopped ticking, so I tucked it away in a drawer, where it has sat for a long time. On a whim I recently took it out, set the time and gently wound it. Much to my amazement, the watch began ticking and continued for a few days. Then, once again, it stopped, just like that.
With All Souls’ Day approaching on Nov. 2, I have been reading a book called “Hungry Souls: Supernatural Visits, Messages, and Warnings from Purgatory”—and my father has been very much on my mind. The book by Dutch psychotherapist Gerard J.M. van den Aardweg explores Catholic teachings on purgatory and describes well-documented apparitions of people who have returned from purgatory to beg family members for prayers.
According to Catholic teaching, the poor souls in purgatory cannot pray for themselves, so they depend entirely on the living to beseech heaven for them. And they may use various means to get our attention, not because they’re trying to frighten us, but because they need our help.
One evening I picked up my father’s watch, rather hopefully, held it to my ear and sighed.
“It’s stopped working again,” I told my husband.
“Maybe your father is trying to send you a message,” he replied.
His comment startled me, and instead of thinking it over, I acted very impulsively, calling out, “Daddy, if you’re trying to tell me something, please make the watch start working again.”
I put it my ear and gasped. “It’s ticking!” I exclaimed.
It is so tempting to believe, as popular culture often teaches, that people who die go straight to heaven. As Cardinal John Henry Newman warned 150 years ago, “We are cherishing a shallow religion, a hollow religion, which will not profit us in the day of trouble. (Our age) loves an exclusively cheerful religion.”
As proof of this point, you may hear folks at Catholic funerals mentioning Aunt Betty looking down on them from heaven. Or you’ll hear, “Well, she was such a good person, so I know she’s with God now.” But, really, we can’t say that for sure, and our faith teaches quite firmly that we do a disservice to Aunt Betty by assuming she no longer needs our prayers.
When our relatives were living, we showed our love for them by praying and making sacrifices for them. Once they die, we should continue expressing our affection in the same ways. And we must avoid the temptation of concluding “Well, that’s enough prayers and sacrifices because surely so-and-so is in heaven.”
When it comes to helping the poor souls, it’s better to err on the side of caution. So what if we pray for an uncle who’s already in heaven? It’s better to do that than to stop praying for someone who hasn’t arrived there yet. And since the Mass is the most powerful prayer of all, the best way to help the faithful departed is by having Masses celebrated in their memory.
We sometimes forget that God’s time is not our time. Yes, my father died many years ago, but this doesn’t mean he is fully cleansed of his sins. And that, of course, is what purgatory is, a place where we are purged of the effects of all the sins we ever committed, so we can be ready to see God face-to-face.
I had become rather lazy about praying for the poor souls, but the experience with the watch was a true wake-up call. Those steady ticking sounds, like a beating heart, shook me out of complacency. And that night as I prayed, I told my father, “Daddy, you can count on me from now on. I promise.”