three states

Our Church: Suffering, Militant, Triumphant

When most of us think of “Church,” we tend to think of a physical building or place. Perhaps it is our parish church or the church where we grew up. Maybe we see soaring spires or stained glass windows donated by immigrant families a century and a half ago. Perhaps it is St. Peter’s we envision, with the pope on the balcony addressing the crowds.

Yes, indeed. All of these are “church.” But since Church is also the Mystical Body of Christ, we cannot say that any of those places are only Church. Jesus said that where two or three are gathered in His name, He is present. That is Church as well.  Our homes, where prayers are taught, forgiveness and mercy are learned, and the covenant of marriage lived out is the domestic church.

Beyond this even, we belong to a Church that defies both time and space, because God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – defy all laws of physics. We have been given mortal bodies but immortal souls, souls marked with the sign of the cross at our baptism and that sign is eternal.

Theologians have long taught that the Church, the Mystical Body of Christ, has three states: suffering, militant and triumphant. 

The Church, the Mystical Body, exists on this earth, and is called the Church militant, because its members struggle against the world, the flesh and the devil. The Church suffering means the souls in Purgatory. The Church triumphant is the Church in heaven. The unity and cooperation of the members of the Church on earth, in Purgatory, in Heaven is also called the Communion of Saints.

If you are reading this, you are part of the church militant. That’s a strong phrase, isn’t it? We think of soldiers in dress uniform, parading by officers. Worse, it conjures up images of soldiers in trenches, with explosions and noise and peril.

But if you think of these images in spiritual terms, they are quite accurate. We work hard to do our very best for God, to not only look good on the outside, but the inside as well. This takes training and practice, and leadership . Further, in our world today, we are surrounded by violence, attacks on our faith and families; we must fight for our faith and our freedom.

While our souls are immortal, our bodies are not; it hurts to lose our loved ones, but we rest assured in faith that their souls – should we care for them properly – will enter into the glory of Heaven. Some souls are not prepared at the time of death to face God, not because He is mean or angry or vengeful, but because we must be purified in order to stand in front of His awesome glory. We truly must be cleansed.

In very simple terms, it’s like the little boy who has been outside playing all day. He has dug hols to find worms, inspected mushrooms on his hands and knees, snuck over to the neighbor’s orchard to steal an apple or two, caught tadpoles and frogs, teased the neighbor girl with a snake. When he arrives home for dinner, his mother tells him they are going to have dinner with Father’s boss, and the boy needs to be cleaned up. He is subjected to Mother’s scrubbing: behind the ears, under the nails. literally cleaned from head to toe. When he is done, the boy is fairly glowing (maybe even a bit raw) from his “purification.” And so it is with Purgatory.

The Church triumphant consists of saints: those known to us and those known only to God. This should be the goal of every Christian: to have lived a life worthy, so that when it comes to an end, we may to stand in front of Almighty God with a soul as pure as it was the day we were baptized.

Monday, we’ll continue discussing t he three parts of the living Church, the Body of Christ.


How To Become Holy: It Ain’t Gonna Be Easy

The one goal every Catholic should have is to be holy. Now, holiness looks very different in different people. God did not create humans to be cookie-cutter images of Himself or each other. Holiness can look like Mother Teresa, or Solanus Casey, or John Paul II, or Elizabeth Lesuer. No matter who we are, what we do for a living, what our situation is, one thing is certain: we are made to be holy.

Peter Kreeft, Catholic philosopher and writer, in his book How To Be Holy: First Steps in Becoming a Saint, says that God can sanctify us in two ways.

God makes us holy in two opposite ways, in the two parts of our lives. First, He makes us holy through our own will, our own free choice of faith and hope and love. (For divine grace does not turn off human free will; it turns it on.) And second, He also sanctifies us against our will, through suffering, because the other way of sanctifying us, through our own will’s choices is not strong enough, because our faith and hope and love are not strong enough. So He sanctifies us also through what He allows to happen to us against our will, in other words, suffering.

This makes perfect sense, of course. It is like the old prayer: “God, make me patient. But not yet.” Our own will and desire are simply not strong enough to overcome the weakness of sin.

How can suffering make us holy? Doesn’t it just make us cantankerous and bitter? Well, it certainly can. But if we recognize that suffering (although not pleasant) comes with gifts, we can allow it to sanctify us.

Illness can make us dependent upon others. If a person is strong-willed, this dependency can be grating. It can also be an opportunity to practice humility and patience and thankfulness. When we grieve the loss of a loved one, we are certainly allowed to be saddened. Yet if we are set upon holiness, we can use that loss to remind ourselves that life is short and precious. Our loss can spur us to be mindful of every moment God allows us.

Being holy is hard. We know this: just look at our world. We recognize holiness so easily because it’s rare; it’s like finding a gem while we are shoveling out the barn. If holiness were easy to achieve, everyone would do it. But holiness is only for those who pray, over and over, in the face of both good times and bad: “Thy will be done. Thy will be done.”