A pilgrimage towards Christ

POST BY PGallagher

The design of the All Souls’ Chapel in the church of the Sacred Heart, Wimbledon is remarkable.  Approaching it, perhaps the first thing to notice is the reredos.  On this vividly carved altarpiece, the artist, Drysdale, was trying to show the diverse multitude of souls approaching Christ for mercy. The countless dead.  The carving shows the Holy Souls marching towards a place just below a Christus who is the Sacred Heart. This march is not a danse macabre: Drysdale introduces no capering skeletons. But he has included the democracy of such ‘dances of death’ in which cardinals, bishops and kings are shown sharing exactly the same suffering as humbler folk: men, women and children of all conditions.  The two impoverished widows of today’s Scripture, the one who helped Elijah and the one whose generosity to God Jesus praised, might already be in heaven but, if not, they could easily be there among the throng of the Holy Souls of the rich and poor.  Everyman and everywoman are there.   Now their generosity is being revealed.  Now their failures of generosity are being put right.

In the procession of souls towards the Redeemer, each is being asked to give of herself or himself.  To enter the sanctuary that is heaven we must present to God the whole of our selves: to give all; to allow all to be purified; to hold nothing back.  Thou knowest, Lord, the secrets of our hearts.  In purgatory, some of those secrets will scorch us and impede our progress.  It may be that we will suffer at the revelation of what is in our heart.  The procession on the altarpiece is not macabre but the artist has shown flames at the feet of those participating.  These souls are the Church suffering.  They are all being purified and the purification may be extremely uncomfortable.  Yet the expressions on the faces of Drysdale’s dead are serene.  Looking at the reredos of the holy souls altar on Edge Hill we are witnessing not an agony but a pilgrimage towards Christ, the high-priest.  This pilgrimage is arduous and transforming but it is conducted in peace. On Remembrance Sunday we not only pray for peace in the world but we celebrate that peace which is now enjoyed by those who have sacrificed their life for us. They are enjoying eternal rest.  Peace characterises not only heaven itself but also that arduous ascent towards paradise on which the holy souls have embarked. Their purification is thorough but tranquil.  In their flesh they shall see God. The suffering pilgrims know already that their Redeemer liveth.  He awaits them.  He is the Sacred Heart.  He is full of love and forgiveness.  The holy souls rise from dreams of time and an angel guards their feet to the altar where the Sacred Heart beats for them, and for us.

The holy souls chapel in Wimbledon has something of the baptismal font about it.  The bishop who was asked to consecrate it, somewhat disapproving, thought it a mere ‘basin’. When we are baptised we go down into the grave with Christ and rise with Him to new life. And when we die, similarly. In a death like His we find Him. We always find the Lord with joy. He leads us into paradise.  The Lord Jesus helps us not to stumble or falter. Peacefully the soul progresses towards God under divine guidance.   It is not as though Christ had entered a man-made sanctuary which was only modelled on the real one: but it was heaven itself.  We believe that the painful sacrifice of the Cross continues its good effects through the unbloody sacrifice of the Mass.  What happens at the altar renews all the blessings to God’s people of the agonising sacrifice of Calvary. A Holy Souls chapel helps us to be grateful for those blessings and to focus our prayers this November on the dead and, today (11th November), especially, for the fallen in war.

To enter the chapel we go down into a kind of trench. Out of this “‘ole” we are not summoned like the heroes of war to ‘go over the top’. Yet we are invited to summon up our courage.  There is a kind of holy recklessness about our prayers around the altar of sacrifice. In this temple, at every Mass, we are called to give all, to give our whole self.   We clamber up to God, pushed by grace which also goes ahead of us, preparing our way.   Poised in the trench, awaiting the order to Go up to the altar of God, do we look up?  If we try to look towards the Sacred Heart, the cramped space of the Holy Souls chapel would oblige us to crane our neck to do so.  But if we strain to see what is ahead, we glimpse Christ and the throng of souls approaching Him.  Do we not willingly take such trouble for such a glimpse?  And is not such an image of what lies before us truly inspiring. The trench-warfare of the spiritual life, with its many stalemates and ‘sideshows’, with its great losses and sometimes seemingly infinitesimal gains, is nevertheless a tranquil procession towards God.  We seek peace and some rest is at once conferred.

In the Holy Souls altar of the Sacred Heart church, the souls in purgatory are represented right above the altar.  They are not being worshipped there.  They are being prayed for earnestly.  Drysdale has surely put the holy souls in the right place.   They are not in a pit.  They are not teetering on the edge of hell.  The holy souls are not below us: they are our brothers and sisters. They are well advanced on the road to heaven. They ascend.   Drawn on by the love of God in Christ, lifted up by Jesus’s great sacrifice, renewed at every Mass, and supported by our humble prayers, the Holy Souls rise. 

Drysdale’s procession of Holy Souls could be inspired by the procession in canto 28 of Dante’s Purgatorio. It is certainly striking that there appear both on the altarpiece and there in the poem, the four winged animals of the Apocalypse, which stand for the evangelists.  As we pray for the fallen in war our faith in their redemption is nourished by the encouragement we find in the Gospel.  From an ‘earthly paradise’ that is the Mass we are helping others and allowing ourselves to be helped to complete the final ascent of the spiritual mountain. We are learning in this life and will learn even better in the life what God wills for us.  Our creator desires that we should freely hand over to him not alms from our surplus but our whole selves.  His son, Jesus, teaches us to make this offering of ourselves out of love.  We queue patiently like the souls carved on the reredos to worship the One who is love and who teaches love.  The centenary of the unveiling of this carving prompts us to renew our worship at the altar.   At Mass, we process towards a Lord whom our faith has already experienced.  In our everyday life, we make our way to God supported by the eucharistic sacrifice which takes place alongside our pilgrimage. There is rest and even delight for us in the great offering which Jesus makes for us. Christ, the high priest, understands everything about who we are and what we need.  Thou knowest, Lord, the secrets of our hearts. There is great comfort, now, in that knowledge.  We are discovering that what is in our heart is a deep desire to love God.  O Lord, teach us, purify us and lead us in procession to you.

I rise from dreams of time. And an angel guides my feet to the sacred altar throne where Jesus’ heart doth beat. Ever pleading day and night, thou cannot from us part, O veiled and wondrous sight,  O love of the Sacred Heart.

Peter Gallagher SJ