Our Eyes Look to the Lord our God (Ps 123:2): What the Holy Souls Teach Us about the One Thing Necessary
St Josemaria expresses the wish in The Way that we should learn to speak of the holy souls in purgatory as “My good friends the souls in purgatory” (571). These “good friends” of ours are not only our fellows in the sharing of spiritual goods, coheirs in the communion of saints, but also our teachers and role models during the time of our sojourning through this life. As souls undergoing their final purification, they gesture eloquently toward the one thing necessary, which should be our sole focus in this life, as it is theirs in the next.
The souls harbored for a season in purgatory are no longer subject to the vacillations and inconsistencies of the earthly sojourn. We struggle to remain focused on the Lord, tempted as we are to look elsewhere for temporary or immediate gratification. The deceptive appearances of sin, the many temptations to be self-centered, can allure us into giving our attention and affection to the wrong things. St Bernard of Clairvaux is very blunt about our lack of effort to keep focused on heavenly things, calling it “stupidity.”1
The holy souls, however, are entirely drawn in one direction. The Psalmist says, on their behalf, as it were: “[A]s the eyes of a maid to the hand of her mistress, so our eyes look to the LORD our God, till he have mercy upon us” (123:2b). Wholly focused on God during their period of purgation, they wait on Him, desiring Him. In the truest sense, nothing else matters to them—not even the sins or imperfections which are the cause of their purifying wait. They do not spend their time of refinement in regret, continually gazing on the self and its past misdeeds.
St Catherine of Genoa (1447-1510), whose doctrine on the nature and purpose of purgatory has influenced generations of theological reflection, teaches that the holy souls “cannot turn their thoughts back to themselves, nor can they say, ‘Such sins I have committed for which I deserve to be here,’ nor, ‘I wish that I had not committed them for then I would go now to Paradise,’ …. They can have no memory either of themselves nor of others, whether of good or evil…. So happy are they to be within God’s ordinance, and that He should do all that pleases Him as it pleases Him, that in their greatest pain they cannot think of themselves.”2
In a sense, the holy souls are making up for a culpable lack of single-mindedness in this life, enjoined on us by the sixth Beatitude: “Blessed are the pure of heart [or single-hearted] for they shall see God” (Matt 5:8). Since the refining fire of purgatory is exactly designed to prepare the human soul for the vision of God, between Him and ourselves there can exist no thought of self, intruding as a shadow to darken the glory of the beatific vision: “…we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. And every one who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure” (1 John 3:2b-3).
For the souls in purgatory, every trace of self-focus is gone—replaced, instead, by a gaze fixed wholly on God’s mercy. This teaches us wayfarers an urgent lesson. Right now, we should be training our own gaze to look ever toward the Lord, and away from self. St Josemaria gives this a characteristically practical note in Furrow: “May you acquire the custom of concerning yourself every day about others, and give yourself to the task so much that you forget you even exist” (947).
Christian self-denial is very particular in its aim. Its goal is, as St Josemaria says elsewhere, “to place Our Lord at the summit and at the heart of all things” (The Forge 678), and for one otherwise to pass unnoticed. St Paul lists this as a significant consequence of the paschal mystery: “[H]e died for all, that those who live might live no longer for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised” (2 Cor 5:15). Christ our life, as the Apostle continues elsewhere, must take full possession of our lives, so that we can say, “I live, no longer I, but Christ lives in me” (Gal 2:19).
St John Henry Newman, addressing a congregation, even says that Christians should “take men by surprise, how much you were really doing, when they happened to come near enough to see it; but that by the world you should be overlooked.”3 In the same sermon, Newman provides the purpose of this singleness: “[Y]ou should work for God alone with a pure heart and single eye, without the distractions of human applause, and should make Him your sole hope, and His eternal heaven your sole aim, and have your reward, not partly here, but fully and entirely hereafter.”4
God wills that giving ourselves to others and to the task at hand in our daily lives should do something quite extraordinary: prepare us to see Him face-to-face. The only venue of the purification that leads us to the vision of God in heaven is the ordinary life that He has appointed for each of us. His grace working in and through the details of our lives prepares us by faith to see Him unveiled in eternity. If, as St Catherine says, the holy souls rejoice to be firmly in God’s “ordinance,” then their joy should influence how we view the life that God has “ordained” for each of us.
First, we should love the life that God has given us, and thank Him often for it. Taking for granted that we are imperfect and that the circumstances of each life are always less than ideal–and, moreover, often difficult and complicated–have we at least taken the basic step of thanking the Lord for where He has placed us and what He has given us to do? If we fail to do this, we will never be wholehearted in accomplishing the very things that clarify our vision and purify the heart. If the holy souls are fully conformed to God’s will in their own purgation, their poignant message to us is to seek the same conformity by loving the will of God in our own lives.
If we are serious about holiness, then we must be tireless in the struggle to maintain our focus in those areas of our lives that we might rather look away from. But the Lord won’t allow us to be “romantic” about following Him. To be romantic about our spiritual life is to imagine that holiness consists in anything other than doing God’s will with an increasing purity and generosity. And our capacity to do this has almost nothing to do with our circumstances. The place, the people around us, and other conditions may challenge us or make things relatively easy, but they are not ultimately decisive in our sanctification.
The idea that purification and sanctity will only come when certain things are in place must be rejected: when the place changes, when the people around me change, when something outside of me changes, then… I will be perfectly generous and self-sacrificing. As it is now, there are too many interruptions and irregularities to keep my focus.
God wants me to be His saint in His way, according to how His Spirit works in and through the ordinariness of my life, not someone else’s, not a dream life that I’ve always wanted. To the extent that I live in love within the ordinary life that God has given me, I am sanctified, and I imitate the witness of the holy souls. Because throughout the darkness of my earthly walk of faith, I attest to my desire to behold the Lord of glory, as my one hope, my one light, and my one love.
1 Bernard of Clairvaux. “Fifth Sermon for the Feast of All Saints.” Sermons for the Seasons and Principal Festivals. Westminster: Carroll, 1950. 389.
2 Catherine, of Genoa. Fire of Love: Understanding Purgatory. Manchester, NH: Sophia, 1996. 17-18.
3 Newman, J.H. “The Mission of St Philip.” Sermons Preached on Various Occasions. London: Longmans, 1904. 242.
4 Op. cit.