Sunday, 18 November 2012

Tonight, perhaps?

"And death shall have no dominion...."

Patrick Leigh Fermor who died quite recently, was not a Catholic.

Yet, some years ago, he undertook a mission to travel and stay at a number of monasteries, just for the experience.

His book, 'A Time to keep Silence' was the result and, if you have not read it, I commend it to you.

It is an account of the periods he spent within various monasteries; living the monastic life, eating the monastic fare.

It is full of the sort of gems that may only be sieved by one who is not of the Faith and able to observe in a dispassionate manner.

I recall, particularly, his account of a deep conversation with a monk from an enclosed order who told him that Satan sends hordes of demons each night (especially) to torment those in monasteries and abbeys.

Important to note that this occurs at night when we are at our physical weakest; how often, upon waking in the mid of night are we besieged by groundless fears that, upon daybreak, evaporate like the mists of winter?

If you are a monk or a nun (or a certain sort of secular priest) you will have experienced this but multiplied by several hundred or thousand times.
Satan is not so interested in us easy pickings, he wants the rare meat, the perfect cuts evidenced by a life of solitary prayer and penance.

Mrs Linen, who is reading this book for the first time, reminded me of some of the "gems", in particular, Leigh Fermor's account of a German Trappist monastery where, in the Refectory,  a large mural was painted on the wall facing those who were eating; it depicted a skeletal grim reaper bearing scythe and hourglass, with the wording alongside stating:

"Tonight, perhaps?"

How apt a thought for November, the month of Purgatory and the Holy Souls, especially if you are a Catholic of, how can I put it?.....a certain age?

It brings to mind our wonderful, eschatological, "Four Last Things.....Death, Judgement, Heaven and Hell.

Things that you never, ever, hear a mention of at a modern Catholic funeral; yet they are critical to our eternal prospects.

"You wallow in misery" is the refrain heard from our liberated liberal brethren yet, this brief aide memoire is truly glorious and wonderful.

We welcome death, we embrace it willingly, we have no fear of the grim reaper, let him scythe away.

We are not the chaff. We are the sound, good and wholesome grain (or, so we hope) and we know, do we not? that death is transitory, a mere fraction of a second of existence.

But we do also know that death is not followed (except for a providentially fortunate few) by auto Heaven; death is the gateway for many or most, to Purgatory and that is what November is about - emptying Purgatory.
By our prayers and penances, of course.

After receiving Holy Communion today, I turned, as always to the 'Prayer before a Crucifix' which allows an indulgence of ten years, according to my missal.

It set me thinking; if a brief prayer can obtain a respite from time in Purgatory, (and ten years is listed as just one indulgence reward), then Purgatory is likely to be one very long sentence; in fact, ten years alone is almost the statutory life sentence in Great Britain.

And ten years is only part of the Purgatorial trial; we don't actually know how long a term one might serve; it could well be twenty times ten years - or more!

Blimey O'Reilly!

What is crystal clear is the fact that we do know that Heaven is not a clear run for most of us.

To gain that clear run we would need to have died in a state of grace and to have repaid, in full, the debt "for sin committed here" - that's an option, I would hazard, not open to many of us.

So, perhaps the slogan: "Tonight, perhaps" is one that we should cling to a little more closely; that's hard if you are only 35 years of age and enjoying life to the full.
Easier if you are a sixty something and keep glancing at the rapidly reducing level of sand left in the hour glass.

Patrick Leigh Fermor was an adventurer and a writer of some skill. He focused on Greece where he lived out his final years.
During the Second World war he led the Greek partisans and British commandos in a daring kidnap raid on a high ranking Nazi Officer, General Kreipe, spiriting him away over the mountains, pursued by German paratroops.

His code name in the Greek undergound was 'Philomel' - nightingale in English and his role was played by Dirk Bogarde in the film 'Ill met by moonlight'

....And death shall have no dominion.
No more may gulls cry at their ears
Or waves break loud on the seashores;
Where blew a flower may a flower no more
Lift its head to the blows of the rain;
Though they be mad and dead as nails,
Heads of the characters hammer through daisies;
Break in the sun till the sun breaks down,
And death shall have no dominion. 

Dylan Thomas


  1. Well said, Richard – and very timely!

    Being one of those “of a certain age” (closer to 70 than 60, actually…) the Four Last Things are never far from my mind. While St. Therese frequently spoke of the fact that we can avoid Purgatory, I suspect that most of us will not.

    Like Padre Pio, the Little Flower wanted us to ‘empty Purgatory’ – and avoid adding to the numbers there! But that takes work here and now – something that has been lacking in the Church these past decades.

    While the criticism of the pre-Vat II Church was often stated as “too much fire and brimstone” in preaching, we have gone to the other extreme: “too much taking salvation for granted…” Funerals have become too much of the ‘celebration of the life of…’ people, rather than praying for their souls.

    We need to get back to helping the Holy Souls in Purgatory – every day. It is a work of Charity right now and insurance for our own future - as, most likely, we will be in their state one day…

  2. Thank you for your discussion of Patrick Leigh Fermor and for the other excellent entries today.

    - Mack in Texas

  3. Have you ever read Robert Louis Stevenson's lesserknown "Travel with a donkey"?
    His patchy and curious account of a sort of walking cum donkey-riding tour of part of France.

    Perhaps expectedly,if sadly, in an area of onceProtestant revolt, he is as anticatholic as his age, but I was struck by his seemingly honest account of his stay in a Trappist I recall monastery, where the brothers are very definitely preparing for Death, it jibes muchly with what you wrote above. A catholic reader sees the significance of things he misunderstands, yet his account, looking at what we take, or once took, for granted, is nonetheless readable and hmmm ......edifying could be the right word?


  4. Thank you Mack and thank you GOR. Mike, I have to admit to failing with this book. Something just did not click with me. H.V. Morton in his Irish travelogue also had a good monastic experience; we seemed to have forgotten the elements of Catholic hospitality these days.

  5. A partial indulgence is an excellent thing but you've misunderstood what the "10 years" signifies; it's not time off Purgatory but the equivalent to 10 years of public penance. Also, all the old years and months and days of indulgences are gone, abolished in that most idiotic of decades, the 1960s. There are only plenary and partial indulgences now but how partial the Church doesn't tell us.