G.K. Chesterton once commented that tradition might be defined as an extension of the franchise. It gives a vote to the most obscure of all classes, the dead. It is a democracy that includes the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking around. All people who believe in equality object to certain persons being disqualified by accident of birth; tradition objects to their being disqualified by accident of death. Recently, a lady wrote asking me to write her aunt and explain the Christian teaching about the communion of saints and prayers for the dead. Her aunt’s son had been killed in an accident, and she had been dissuaded from having Masses said for her dead son. The question was: can we still pray for the dead? Well, if Chesterton is correct, and Christianity submits that he is, then we need to extend the franchise, we need to pray for the dead, both through liturgy and through private prayer.
Why? What possible good can it do? Looked at from a certain point of view, prayer for the dead can seem silly and superfluous. Why pray for the dead? To remind God to be merciful? God doesn’t need reminders. To point out to God that our loved one who died was not so bad? God already knows that. God is already as merciful as love allows, and already loves and understands our deceased loved one infinitely more deeply than we do. As a student of mine once cynically put it: “if the person we are praying for is in hell then we can’t help them, and if they are in heaven then they don’t need help!”
So why pray for the dead? For the same reason that we pray at all, we simply need to. The criticisms raised against praying for the dead might be used with equal logic against all prayer. God already knows everything; there is no need to remind God of anything. Yet God has asked us to pray, to pray always, in fact. Prayer, as we know, is not meant to change God’s heart, but ours. Thus, the first reason that we need to pray for the dead is because this prayer helps us, the living. We pray for the dead that, among other things, those of us left behind might be consoled.
As well, tied to this, we pray for the dead to assuage our own guilt, guilt about continuing to live while the other died, and guilt about our less-than-perfect relationship with the deceased. In praying for the dead, many of the shortcomings we had in relating to them are washed clean. We pray for them because, as we believe in the doctrine of the communion of saints, there is still a vital flow of life between themselves and ourselves. Love, presence and communication reach through death. We, and they, are still in one community of life. In a real way, we can still feel each other’s hearts.
Hence, we pray for the dead to remain in communication with them. Just as we can hold someone’s hand when they are dying, and this can be an immense consolation to them, so too, figuratively but really, we can hold a person’s hand beyond death. And now, much more so than when they were alive, our communication is washed clean, the understanding is deeper, the forgiveness can be total, the perspective is wider, the anger and the shortcomings are unimportant. Communication with the dead is privileged; it undercuts so much of what kept us apart. This, we believe, not only consoles us, but also offers real strength and encouragement to the dead person. How? In the same way as loving presence to each other offers strength and consolation here in this life.
Imagine a young child learning how to swim. The child’s mother and family cannot learn for the child, but if they are present and offering encouragement, the struggle and learning are easier. Art Schopenhauer once remarked: “Anything can be borne, if it can be shared.”By praying for the dead, we share with them the adjustment to a new life (which includes the pain of letting go of this life). In our prayers for the dead, we offer encouragement and love to them as they, just born from the womb of the earth, adjust to a new life. Classically, we said that, for awhile, our loved ones who die go to purgatory. That is true, though purgatory should not be understood as a place distinct from heaven. It is rather the pain of entering heaven and of being embraced by perfect love when we ourselves are less than perfect. Love itself can be a painful experience.
From my own experience of losing my parents and others whom I love deeply, as well as from what others have shared with me, I have found that usually, after a time, we sense that we no longer need to pray for our loved ones who have died. Now we just talk with them. What was for a time a cold, hurting absence becomes a warm presence. They are still with us.