It appears that, not long after the healing of the paralytic man who was let down in his bed into the inner court of the house in which our Lord was teaching, He went up to Jerusalem for the celebration of the feast of the Pasch. It was now, then, just a year since He had taken on Himself publicly the office of Teacher and Prophet in the Holy City itself, by the wonderful exercise of authority which had been shown in the act of cleansing the Temple. By far the greater part of this year had been spent by Him, as we have seen, in Galilee, at a distance from Jerusalem – from the neighbourhood of which He had retired in order not to provoke too soon or too much the enmity of the Jewish authorities. At the time, however, at which we have now arrived, our Lord was following what we should call a bolder course, and was claiming for Himself, both by act and word, an authority which was not likely to be at once recognized by men so full of ambition and pride as the Chief Priests and Pharisees at Jerusalem. A notable example of a claim to authority hitherto unheard of, is that on which we meditated in the last chapter – His claim to forgive sins upon earth. The miracle of which we are now to speak is another such instance, at least in so far as it asserted an entire independence of the usual interpretation put by the Jews and their teachers on the law of the Sabbath. When our Lord came to explain, in answer to His accusers, the grounds of His conduct, we shall see that He put forward claims which went far beyond this.
It was then at this great feast, the second in the course of His Public Ministry, that our Lord went on the Sabbath day to a famous pool of water at Jerusalem around which there were five porticoes or colonnades, under which a large multitude of sick persons, suffering from almost every form of disease, were lying, in expectation of an opportunity which might possibly lead, in the case of any one, to his relief. For an angel went down at certain times into the pool, and moved the water, and then the first person who stepped into it after the movement was healed of whatever the disease might be which afflicted him. It was but a chance, for only one among so many could be healed, and we may well imagine how that large collection of sufferers must have moved the tender and compassionate Heart of our Lord. If it had been in Galilee they would probably have all called on Him with one voice to aid them as soon as He appeared; but in Jerusalem He was very little known, and He seems to have entered the place quietly and without any crowd of companions which might attract notice. The miracle which He was about to perform was altogether unsolicited. He did not require prayer or faith, except as far as the latter was implied in the obedience of the man whom He selected as the subject of His miraculous cure. This miracle, then, like many others, was wrought by our Lord for a special purpose of His own, just as He had turned to a like purpose the incidents of the last-mentioned miracle, and made the faith of the bearers of the paralytic give Him an occasion for proving His authority as to the forgiveness of sins. Thus, He did not heal all or many of those who lay around this pool at Jerusalem, but He selected a single sufferer as the object of His compassion. Again, He did not simply heal him, and then pass away; He laid on him a special injunction to take up his bed and carry it to his home – an act which was certain to attract attention at any time, but which on that particular day was also certain to cause a kind of scandal, inasmuch as it was an act which was considered to be forbidden, and a breach of the Divine commandment. This act had the effect which our Lord must have foreseen. It brought upon Him the complaints and hostility of the Jewish rulers, and gave Him an occasion for setting forth to them the proofs of His Divine mission in a long discourse which Saint John relates, and for the sake of which, according to his usual principle in the composition of his Gospel, it seems to have been that he inserted the account of the miracle itself.
The particular truth which our Lord meant to assert by means of this miracle does not concern us at this moment, for we are engaged in the consideration of His miracles only as far as they may be used as illustrations of the Catholic doctrine of Purgatory. But there is one particular circumstance about the miracle which will furnish us with abundant matter for thought in respect of that doctrine. It has already been said that our Lord, Who might, if it had so pleased Him, have healed at a word the whole of the crowd of sufferers who were waiting for the movement of the waters, chose one only as the object of His special compassion. We have no right at all to think that this one person was more deserving of so high a favour than many others, on account of any special sanctity, or resignation to God’s will, or contrition for the sins which may have been punished by his Providential affliction. But two circumstances in the case are mentioned, one by himself, and the other by the Evangelist, which seem to distinguish him from the rest of the crowd; and, as these circumstances are specially mentioned, it is not presumptuous to suppose that they may have had weight in his favour in the mind of our Lord Himself. In the first place Saint John tells us that he had been afflicted by his infirmity for as many as thirty-eight years, and that our Lord saw him lying there, and knew that he had been a long time. In the second place, the sick man himself furnishes us with another circumstance, when he tells our Lord that he had no man, when the water was troubled, to put him into the pool. Thus he had been a sufferer for a very great number of years, and he was also remarkably helpless and left altogether to himself. It may have been the case that our Lord selected him from the crowd on account of both of these circumstances; certainly, it seems as if Saint John meant us to understand that the first of them influenced the merciful tenderness of His Sacred Heart. Thus we have in this miracle both the principle of a selection of one from among many from the objects of Christian charity, and also the grounds on which, among others, preference may be given to this or that particular case—the length of time during which the suffering has been protracted, and the helpless and friend less state of some individual sufferer. From each of these heads we may derive instruction as to the application of our spiritual alms in favour of the Holy Souls who are suffering in Purgatory.
In the first place, then, it is certain that the satis factions which may be applied to the relief of these holy sufferers are limited in their efficacy, either in themselves, as is the case with works which are simply our own, though wrought through God’s grace, or in the decrees and arrangements of God . Himself, as is the case with the satisfactory power of the Holy Sacrifice, infinite in itself, but not so in its application. Thus, when we visit in spirit this pool of holy punishment, by which so great a multitude of souls are lying, as it were, waiting for the movement of the refreshing waters of God’s mercy, we may feel like persons who have but one boon to give, and who should therefore be guided in its application by some reasons of justice or wisdom. Our Lord, if He had chosen, might have healed at once that suffering crowd; but He did not so choose. In like manner, His application of His meri torious satisfactions to the Holy Souls, which is intrusted by Him to us, is limited by His own decree. The choice as to their application is left by Him very much in our hands for many wise and Divine reasons. All these reasons we need not attempt to fathom. It is enough to say, out of other things which might be said, that the thoughtful and careful application of our good works to particular intentions is a thing very pleasing to Him. It helps on devotion, it fosters charity, it gives us many opportunities of making reparation, or of showing gratitude and love, and every such act strengthens in the soul the virtue of which it is an act, while at the same time it forms a new link in that marvellous chain of charity by which our whole life is bound together in His intention, the full effect of which is to knit us one to another in the Com munion of Saints. It is not contrary to this truth that it is often our best wisdom to pray in general for the conversion of sinners, or the advancement of the good in perfection, or for the souls in Purgatory, without any specification of this or that person. These practices work in the same way, and Christian piety has room both for one and for the other. The Church teaches us to be always honouring God in His great mercies to us through our Lord, but she also sets before us one by one the mysteries of His Life and Passion, and of their fruits. She teaches us to honour all His Saints in one great festival, and day by day throughout the year she sets before us, one by one, the same Saints in order, as if for the moment our desire was to be to honour that particular Saint alone. We gain in devotion if we offer Masses or Communions or Indulgences or good works for the Holy Souls in general, or for those in particular for whom we are especially bound to pray, or for those whom it may please our Lady or some one of the Saints that we should especially succour in this way; and in this last case we knit ourselves each time by a fresh tie of love, not only to the souls for whom we intercede, but also to our Blessed Lady or to the Saints in whose honour we offer that good work. Thus the whole spiritual doctrine of the value of special intentions in all that we do for the honour of God or the good of souls is brought before us by this instance in which our Lord selected one poor sufferer, out of so large a multitude, as the subject of the work of mercy which He was about to do in the course of that great series of manifestations of Himself which was so essential to the accomplishment of His work in the world. It was in accordance with the counsels of His wisdom that one single person should be selected; but He did not, as an ordinary man might have done, take the first person on whom His eyes might fall and work the miracle on him. He made a selection according to the instincts and judgment of His own ineffably wise and loving Heart.
The two circumstances, already mentioned, which were peculiar in the case of the sick man who was selected as the subject of the miracle, were the length of time during which he had suffered, and his entire want of human aid. If we apply this thought to the case of the Holy Souls, we are at once struck with the ease with which the lessons of which we are in search are furnished to us. Something has already been said, in the chapter on the Healing of the Leper, of the great length of time to which the sufferings in Purgatory may be extended, and the books of holy writers on this subject are full of very grave warnings on this subject. Thus Christian devotion has often felt itself moved in a special manner to the relief of the souls which have been the longest in Purgatory, or of those who owe the longest debt to God’s justice, unless it be cancelled otherwise than by their own suf ferings. “Woe is me, that my sojourning is prolonged!” is the cry of such souls, and we cannot think of such words without remembering at the same time that even a comparatively short period of suffering there is felt as immensely long, on account of the intensity of their pain, or of the burning desire which they feel for the enjoyment of God. Both these circumstances have the effect of making what is already long seem even longer than it is. Again, the touching words of the sick man in this miracle, “Lord, I have no man!” apply very beautifully to the case of others among the holy prisoners of Purgatory. It is very sad to know, as we do by experience, how very soon the memory of the departed fades away from the hearts of men. It may be one of the things at which the angels marvel most. The deadening effect of the impressions of present and sensible interests upon the traces left on our hearts, even by the deepest of our affections and the strongest claims on our gratitude, is a thing which makes us sometimes wonder whether we have hearts at all. Sometimes, again, our own want of remembrance of the departed who have claims on our assistance, may be allowed in the great Providence of God to act in our own case, when our time of need may come, in turning away from us the thoughts of those whom we may leave behind us. With the same measure which we have used towards others will the aid which we ourselves need so much be meted out to us. But there are often other circumstances which may produce the same effect on the holy sufferers in Purgatory without so much of cause in faults of their own as of others. For they may pass away into the next world at a time or in a place where many of the ordinary means of help to the departed are comparatively wanting. Thus, for instance, the Catholic parents of the generation in this country which witnessed the change of religion from Catholicism to Protestantism, must have been largely de frauded of what may be called their natural rights in this respect. The same may be said of our own Catholic fore fathers during the centuries of persecution, when there were so few priests in the country, and when it was so difficult for Catholics to hear Mass or to approach the sacraments. To such persons we owe the incalculable debt which their constancy in keeping to the faith has entailed upon us; but they could have had little aid, ordinarily speaking, from those who came immediately after them in the inheritance of that faith. The same thing may be said of a great number of persons who are secretly converted to Catholicism, perhaps on their death beds, while their families and friends remain Protestants. The same is true of the number of souls, known to Gor> alone, who die outside the visible pale of the Church, but who have been baptized, and have by His mercy either been preserved from mortal sin, or visited with interior grace sufficient to enable them to reconcile themselves to Him by true contrition before they die, and whose good faith makes them, as the Fathers say, belong to the soul of the Church, though not to its body. In all these cases there are no suffrages offered for the departed – their friends and kinsfolk may not forget them, but they have never been taught how much they stand in need of prayer – for it is the invariable device of Satan in the introduction of false and imperfect creeds to shut the eyes of man as much as possible to the claims of God’s justice, as well as to the provisions of His mercy for the relief of misery of every kind. These thoughts are sufficient to indicate a number of other cases in which the words of the sufferer in this Gospel narrative, “Lord, I have no man!” are true of certain among the Holy Souls of Purgatory, and thus to point them out as especial objects of the compassionate and thoughtful charity of the children of the Church.
– Father H J Coleridge, from the series “The Miracles of Our Lord, As Illustrating the Doctrine of Purgatory, magazine, 1878″