Ashes to Ashes: One’s Prayers for the Dead

The question, no doubt, occurs intermittently to anyone who tries to say his prayers on any regular basis, most notably with regard to petitionary prayer: “Is this doing any good?” On the one hand, there is the thought, “Oh well, God knows, and has known from all eter­nity, what He is doing, and nothing I say can alter that”; on the other hand, I have heard the maxim put forward, “Prayer is the power that moves the arm of God.”

The difficulty with the first of these replies is that it coaxes us to­ward a somewhat dispirited attitude in our prayers: “This is a charade.” Given the mystery of our actual participation in Christ’s high-priestly intercessory ministry, this would seem to fall short of the mark. But the other rejoinder seems shaky, evoking the picture of a somewhat wooden deity only to be roused to action by our importunity.

The particular aspect of the matter that has occupied my own ruminations lately entails our prayers for the dead. These people have gone altogether out of our ken. Beyond the belief that the souls of the faithful departed are in the hand of God, we don’t know their exact state, in spite of the jaunty assurances with which every Catholic funeral is fraught. Only God knows the state of the soul once it crosses the threshold of physical death. The assumption of faith is that all believ­ers are “with the Lord,” whether that is under His gracious care in purgatory (Dante pictured this state of affairs as very taxing but full of joy), or all the way inside the precincts of felicity. And as for those who seemed to go to their graves indifferent, disobedient, or hostile toward God, there again we don’t know the whole story. A Catho­lic will never pronounce on the topic.

There are about four names under each day of the week in my own list here. I hesitate to suggest anything to God in their behalf other than the pe­tition, Requiem aeternum dona eis, Domine, et lux perpetua luceat eis.

Here, for example, is a woman whom I knew from my youth, who in despair threw in the towel on the Faith, choosing instead “an alternative lifestyle.” The problem seemed intrac­table. On the same day there appears another woman, an old friend of ours, who, if not mad, was at least bedev­iled by inconceivably tangled interior complexities. Or another woman here who seemed choked with great bit­terness; certainly life had dealt her a poor hand of cards. But faith flickered there, with a pale and lambent flame in spite of all.

Or, on another day: Here is a boy whose life exhibited almost total havoc. He died of an immune disease. And another, a former student, who was perhaps the most vicious human being I have ever known outside of myself. Also dead from the same cause. A young man here, from a pedigreed family, a neighbor of ours, murdered. I have no idea as to his religious predi­lections. Certainly he seemed a model of civility. And, on the same day in my list, a teenager, a godson of mine who shot himself with an Uzi. One would like to offer some assistance. But there is nothing one can “do”—other than to name them before the Mercy Seat with the prayer, Requiem .. .

But then here are two women, both atheists, I think. Also a former colleague, perhaps the most serenely secular and promiscuous man I have ever met. I know Christians who would conclude that since these last three weren’t “saved” their destinies are patent. But we know no such thing.

We do know one thing, however. There is one Savior, Jesus Christ. His sacrifice on the Cross was the “propi­tiation” for the sins of the whole world (Rom 3:25; 1 Jn 2:2, 4:10). No one comes to the Father except through Him On 14:6). We are not privy to the hidden tale of anyone other than our­selves. So we pray, Requiem.


Tom Howard is retired from 40 years of teaching English in private schools, college, and seminary in England and America.

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