All Souls Day Letter from Fr Toby
Written by Radio Maria England on 02/11/2022
All Souls Day Letter from Fr Toby
The Christmas items are now in the stores and no doubt the adverts and the rest will soon follow. However, we’re still preparing for Advent, so there’s a few more newsletters, before any Christmas greetings from me!
As we begin the month of November with the great Solemnity of All Saints, my mind did turn to those adverts and stickers which you sometimes see around Christmas that say ‘A dog is for life, not just for Christmas’. It prompted me to think that ‘the Incarnation is for life, not just for Christmas’. The incarnation happens at a point in time, but its effects reverberate throughout all of time. That’s what we celebrate at All Saints, the countless lives across time transformed by the grace poured out from the Cross, transformed by the making new of all things in Christ.
The very next day we celebrate the Feast of All Souls, recognising that the response of many of us to the grace of Christ is stuttering, perhaps often more of a ‘maybe’ than a ‘definitely’.
Purgatory seems a bizarre concept to some, but makes sense when we look at our own lives and ask, “Do I cling on to other things in the hope of happiness to the exclusion of God?” Note, that’s different from asking are there things other than God that bring me happiness? It’s okay to love football, better to love cricket, but not to love either more than God. If I spend more time watching or playing one of these than I do in worship of God, then we have a problem. If I’d miss Mass for the sake of the footy, we have a problem, but I can play football and give glory to God, give thanks to God for the gift of play, for the gift of our bodies. We’re called to love things in their proper order. God first, spouse, neighbour next, food and footy, yes, but less.
But, if we’re honest, for some of us, the idea of happiness in heaven without some of the things that we love on earth, like the football or the cricket, without TV, without shopping . . . well, if we’re honest, perhaps heaven wouldn’t yet seem heavenly without them. We might sing along to ‘All my hope on God is founded’ when we hear it on the radio, but we don’t yet fully mean it.
Purgatory is more than anything, I think, a purification of desire, a transformation of our desiring so that God alone is enough. Our lives can be like the Oasis album, Definitely Maybe. We say definitely God is the most important thing in our lives, but someone looking at our lives might only think maybe.
For the ‘definitely’ to go beyond the notional, some purification, then, is necessary. We shouldn’t seek to leave the purification we need until purgatory, we should desire it now, so that we can love God, love our families, love our neighbours, better now too. However, to seek our happiness in God’s will alone, not to keep little pockets of our life sealed off for us, that requires trust and also self-possession.
GK Chesterton wrote, ‘The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.’ Christ’s gift to us was not half-hearted, the Christian response cannot be one foot in, one foot out, we must trust that the difficulty is worth the Cross. A half-baked cake is not half as good as a fully baked one, it’s not really a cake, it’s just the ingredients. We must be brave enough to step into the refining fire and stay to be become truly Christian.
That’s going to require some mortification, purgatory is a time of mortification, but better to choose mortification now, than have it enforced later! I’ve just got back from Medjugorje. It surprised me and delighted me in so many ways, but amongst the most striking elements there was the seriousness with which fasting was taken. Even in some nice-looking hotels on the fasting days bread, very tasty bread admittedly, but bread alone is provided for those fasting.
To see people on holiday willingly embracing fasting, and not doing so with ashen faces, was seriously impressive. If you can fast and smile, it means you’ve understood what fasting is about, it’s about loving better.
The nature of Christian love is gift, not the gift of what I have, but of who I am. But I cannot give what I do not have, if I do not fully possess myself, if I cannot control my desires, then I cannot have the self-possession to truly give myself to someone. Fasting, then, is an exercise in freedom to love. I do not fast because food is bad, I fast because food is good, but the Eucharist is something better. I fast because I want to be able to savour that which is best. Just like the Incarnation is not just for Christmas, fasting is not just for Lent, it’s also for Advent . . . and the rest of the year. But Advent is the oft-neglected time the Church proposes for a particular focus on fasting.
I know I need to make frequent fasting more a part of my life, in order that I can give more of my life. It sounds so sensible and straightforward as I write this, but in the moments of boredom and frustration, in the moments of distraction in prayer, in so many moments when we’re being called to stay there, to persist in whatever we’re doing, it can be so easy, the moment it gets a little painful, a little difficult, to run to the pleasure of a little snack, or a quick YouTube video. Something in you resists staying with the truly good and you settle. We resist the cross in whatever form it takes in our life, and so resist love of God and neighbour.
This individual frailty, we’re each conscious of, makes our collective practises so much more important. It’s hard to be good alone and in fact, God says, ‘it is not good that man should be alone’. It’s good to undertake mortifications together, to have another hold us accountable. The Feasts of All Saints and All Souls also remind us that we are not alone, we belong to something much bigger than just us and God, there are so many who need our prayers and so many who pray for us.
Fr Toby Lees OP