November is the month of All Souls. It is a yearly reminder of our obligation to pray for the souls who, as our doctrine teaches, are in a process of post-death purification. The souls in Purgatory have repented of their sins but haven’t yet atoned for them, and that is where we come in. As the saints pray for us, so we pray for the souls who have gone before us. This vast communion of saints that stretches from earth to heaven and from heaven back to earth is what we call the Mystical Body of Christ, the Church.

Both Doctrine and Common Sense

Pope Benedict XVI once said in an interview that if there were no doctrine of Purgatory we would have to invent it, and he is right. All human beings are sinners, and we are deeply conscious that sin taints us at the very deepest levels of our souls. Purification of soul requires a spiritual cleanser that only God can provide, but only in rare cases of extreme holiness and suffering is a person totally purified of sin in this world before death. That is both our doctrine and a common sense understanding of human nature.

There are many biblical bases for our belief that Purgatory exists, but it is not our purpose here to attempt to prove this doctrine, which is firmly established in the Christian Tradition. What we do need is a periodic reminder that someday we ourselves will be in that place of post-death purification and will need someone to pray for us! The feast of All Souls is a day in our liturgical year when we recall the need, but the souls in Purgatory always need our prayers.

Sometimes They Ask

Sometimes, as a tangible sign of this, God even allows the souls in Purgatory to ask the living for prayers in a very direct way. Many people receive visits and signs from “beyond” indicating that someone needs prayers. This is not a matter of doctrine as such but seems to be rooted in the common faith experience of the Church. It is consistent with our belief in God’s Mercy, although experiences like these always require careful discernment. Here is one fascinating story.

Several years ago, my nephew attended a boarding school where one of the teachers died of a heart attack during the summer break. My nephew respected the teacher who had been kind to him in significant ways. One night in his dorm room, while all the other students were asleep, he heard footsteps and sensed the “presence” of someone in the room with him. It was definitely a man, and my nephew was a little frightened because no adults should have been there at that time of night.

With a sense of alarm, he pulled his covers over his head as the presence came closer to the bed and said something to him that only the deceased teacher would have said. He even recognized the voice. No other student heard it or woke up. The presence made no physical contact, said nothing else, and then just left. When my nephew uncovered his head, he saw what looked like the back of someone who resembled the deceased teacher walking out of the room. He breathed a sigh of relief and went back to bed, but he was deeply affected by the experience and later asked me what it meant.

God’s Permission

I told him that sometimes souls in Purgatory – those who have no one to pray for them – are permitted by God to let someone on earth know that they need prayers. This is so that they may finish their purification and enter the Kingdom of Heaven with the assistance of some other part of the Church. In that vein, I immediately had a Mass offered for the teacher’s soul and commended the man to the generous love of the Virgin Mary, who cares for all who are undergoing the difficult trial of purification. If this was truly someone in Purgatory who had no one to pray for him, my nephew and I would come to his aid. This, after all, is what we mean by the communion of saints.

My nephew never had another “vision” of his teacher, and neither of us received any overt sign or confirmation of our prayers, but these were not necessary. Prayer is an act of faith. We knew that the man was now in the hands of Our Lady. With that confidence, it was sure that he was no longer alone in his suffering.

Important Distinctions and a Caution

I must expand on what I said to my nephew: God sometimes permits souls in Purgatory to appear in this world to ask for prayers, but this is not the normal course of things. We have plenty of evidence that these visits happen – Padre Pio used to receive visits from souls in Purgatory on a regular basis – but we should never expect this to happen to us, and under no circumstances should we want the dead to appear to us. Souls undergoing purification in another world have work to do, and we should not desire to intervene in that work unless God wills it for some reason known only to Him and the individual soul.

Furthermore, we must never deliberately attempt to contact the dead, a trend that seems to be growing more common in an age that has abandoned the sanity of traditional Christian faith. The Catholic Catechism puts this practice in the category of “divination” and states categorically that

All forms of divination are to be rejected: recourse to Satan or demons, conjuring up the dead or other practices falsely supposed to “unveil” the future. Consulting horoscopes, astrology, palm reading, interpretation of omens and lots, the phenomena of clairvoyance, and recourse to mediums all conceal a desire for power over time, history, and, in the last analysis, other human beings, as well as a wish to conciliate hidden powers. They contradict the honor, respect, and loving fear that we owe to God alone. (CCC, 2116)

While the person who attempts to contact a deceased loved one may believe he or she is doing it innocently, the practice is nothing less than “conjuring” the dead and is one of the most spiritually dangerous things we can do because it opens us up to the power of demons.

Let’s also not be too quick to endorse what happened to my nephew as a visit from a soul in Purgatory without examining it more closely. How do we know he wasn’t being visited and deceived by a demon? My nephew was frightened, but I think most people would find a visit from the dead a perplexing thing, to say the least! But demons also reach out to people, so we need to carefully discern such experiences.

Purgatorial Discernment

Let us consider five dimensions of my nephew’s experience as points of discernment to understand it better.

  1. The presence:

My nephew intuitively knew that the presence in his room that night was a man. It’s useless to ask how he knew this because it was a personal intuition that went along with the experience. But a key point of discernment is that demons don’t have gender, while humans retain the characteristics of gender when we die because it is part of our unique individual identity. The presence was disturbing to my nephew either because it was demonic or because it was “unsettled” in a spiritual sense. A lonely soul in Purgatory with no one to pray for him would qualify as unsettled. In either case, there was no sense of peace in the experience, which meant it was not God or a holy angel or a saint that confronted him that night.

  1. The setting and recipient:

Demons, who are not bound by space and time, can appear anywhere on the earth at will, but humans returning from the dead would only likely return to places they had inhabited while alive. The “wandering souls” of legend are just that, legend. There is no testimony in any Christian tradition, as far as I know, that indicates human souls wander the earth to expiate their sins or ask for prayers. Souls who are allowed by God to come back from the dead always seem to do so in the places they lived. If their purpose is to ask for prayers, why would they come to someone who does not pray? Hence, the teacher “chose” a student who he knew would likely make a faith-based interpretation of the experience.

  1. The voice and lack of deception:

Although demons can very easily imitate any human being’s voice as a form of deception, the personal recognition of his teacher’s voice was necessary. He had to make himself known in a personal way so that the recipient would pray for him, specifically. Another critical point of discernment here is that the voice did not ask my nephew to do anything or prolong its visit beyond their brief encounter. Demons always try to lure human beings into ongoing contact with them in order to further deceive them. Remember Eve and the serpent in the Garden of Eden? Here, there was no solicitation, no extended conversation, and no deception of any kind.

  1. The lack of malice:

Following on the last point, there was also no sense of malice in the experience, even though it was frightening by its very nature. The presence didn’t threaten anything or fill my nephew with fear that he would be harmed. Demons, who are purely evil, sometimes communicate a distinct sense of menace by their very presence, although that threat may become apparent only after some reflection. The sense of malice is a feeling that usually endures far past the experience. My nephew never felt that, even in the aftermath of the visit.

  1. Freedom and faith:

As noted, only a believer would interpret an experience of this type in the light of faith and come to a conclusion that the mysterious visitor in the dorm room that night was from Purgatory, not from Hell. The visitor did not make a grand announcement that he was “Mr. So-and-so, your former teacher, suffering in Purgatory, needing prayer.” Perhaps God limits souls from asking for prayers in such an explicit way (although Padre Pio’s visitors seemed to be very forthcoming with information about their state – they were Italians after all). With faith, we see “indistinctly, as in a mirror” (1 Corinthians 13:12) says St. Paul, and that was what happened here. My nephew’s freedom to discern or ignore, to intercede for or neglect his teacher’s need remained intact.

Prayers for the Dead

It is the same with our faith. November, the month of All Souls, reminds us of our obligation to pray for the dead, not just as a pious act on one day of the year but every day. I once heard a bishop say that he always prayed for the soul who was “deepest in Purgatory.” What a tremendous act of faith and charity! We believe that all souls need prayer upon death and also that there are a few souls so abandoned that they have no one to pray for them. Some of them may even wake us up to their need through visits from the Beyond.

This article was originally published at Catholic Stand.