13 November 2023, The Tablet

The wise and foolish virgins

A32 | 12 NOVEMBER 2023 | MATTHEW 25:1-13

This picturesque parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins (or ‘bridesmaids’, as the Jerusalem Bible prefers) reminds us that time is finite, that this world will come to an end when God brings his creation to its conclusion. Since, as Jesus says in the parable, none of us knows “either the day or the hour”, vigilance is called for. That same finitude belongs, of course, to our individual lives. The advice of St Edmund of Abingdon (1175-1240) to his Oxford students that they should study as if they were to live for ever, but live as if they were to die tomorrow - that they should live each day on earth as if it were their last, in other words – was not only saintly but sensible; and not only with a view to our dying but also to our living, since refusing to accept our mortality makes it impossible to live life here and now to the full.

St Ambrose (340- 397) says in his On the Blessing of Death: “Death must already be active in us if life too is to be active.” But accepting, let alone embracing, death does not come easily to any of us. St Thomas Aquinas speaks of accepting our own death as the highest manifestation in this life of the virtue of courage. It is not made any easier when talk of death is obscured by euphemisms and periphrases. Catholics of my generation were brought up from an early age to pray last thing at night for a ‘happy death’: “Jesus, Mary and Joseph, I give you my heart and my soul; Jesus, Mary and Joseph, assist me in my last agony; Jesus, Mary and Joseph, may I breathe forth my soul in peace with thee.” This was part of a whole tradition of piety, dating from the beginning of the Christianity, much of it swept away by the Protestant Reformation, that centred on keeping the fact of our own death daily before our eyes.

Integral to that realism about our own death was the profoundly Catholic custom of praying for the dead. Traditionally, the whole month of November is devoted to praying for the dead. Praying for the dead was also swept away by the Protestant reformers, but it was a great loss. Humanly speaking, praying for the dead is the most natural thing in the world; but it is also a practice central to our belief in the Communion of Saints, which is another way of speaking about the whole Church, in heaven, on earth and those on their way to heaven: those in Purgatory, that is. Purgatory, too, was shown the door at the Reformation, for reasons understandable in the light of various malpractices and abuses of the doctrine. It has often been spoken of and rather terrifyingly depicted as a time of punishment, albeit purifying punishment. But the great German theologian, Karl Adam (1876- 1966) called Purgatory “the beginning of spring”, a time of “urgent love, glad hope and sure expectation.” (The Spirit of Catholicism, [1935] 1954, p.111)

Purgatory reassures us that even our death does not inhibit the healing work of God’s love and mercy: he continues, even after our death, to bring us to perfection, to prepare us for heaven and the never-ending love and friendship for which we were created. Our growth towards God, and towards a state of full, human flourishing, continues, if necessary, after our death, in purgatory. Purgatory is one of the most consoling of all the Church’s doctrines, not only because it reminds us that God continues to ‘repair’ the damage which our sins, though forgiven, have done to us, but also that we can still help those who have died and gone before us by praying for them. Our prayers are no less efficacious for the dead as for the living. Death is an end only of the beginning; the bonds of hope and love are not broken. In the light of Christ’s resurrection, there is no such thing as absolute loss, loss, that is, of all that matters most, even in death.

We trust God enough to let ourselves die, to let much within us die, even now, as we get older and our powers decline. We trust Him that nothing that’s good and worthwhile in our lives will be wasted or finally lost. So, we should pray for the grace to accept our death, not grudgingly or fearfully, but full of faith. St Gregory of Nazianzen (329-390) expresses it perfectly in one of his addresses: May the Lord make us prepared and unperturbed, so that at our death we shall not be drawing back, loath to depart, nor dragged and torn from this life, as people enthralled by the world and the flesh, but rather going readily and willingly to the life of eternal happiness in Christ Jesus our Lord.1 Our dying is the final, fulfilling act of loving trust in Him who has been by our side throughout this life, and especially at our death, who will receive us into the next, embracing us as beloved friends embrace. And then, as St Paul says, “we shall see him, face to face”, and enjoy fully, for the first time, his all-consuming love and friendship.

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