Purgatory Explained, Part 2, Chapter 29

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Relief of the Holy Souls – Alms, Raban-Maur and Edelard at the Monastery of Fulda

It remains for us to speak of a last and very powerful means of relieving the poor souls: viz., almsgiving. The Angelic Doctor, Saint Thomas, gives the preference to alms before fasting and prayer, when there is a question of expiating past faults. “Almsgiving,” he says, “possesses more completely the virtue of satisfaction than prayer, and prayer more completely than fasting. This is why the great servants of God and the great saints have chosen it as a principal means of assisting the dead. Amongst them we may mention as one of the most remarkable the holy Abbot Raban-Maur, first Abbot of Fulda, in the tenth century, and afterwards Archbishop of Mayence.

Father Trithemius, a well-known writer of the Order of Saint Benedict, caused abundant alms to be distributed for the dead. He had established a rule that whenever a Religious died, his portion of food should be distributed among the poor for thirty days, that the soul of the deceased might be relieved by the alms. It happened in the year 830 that the monastery of Fulda was attacked by a contagious disease, which carried off a large number of the Religious. Raban-Maur, full of zeal and charity for their souls, called Edelard, the Procurator of the monastery, and reminded him of the rule established regarding the alms for the departed. “Take great care,” said he, “that our constitutions be faithfully observed, and that the poor be fed for a whole month with the food destined for the brethren we have lost.”

Edelard failed both in obedience and charity. Under pretext that such liberality was extravagant, and that he must economize the resources of the monastery, but in reality because he was influenced by a secret avarice, he neglected to distribute the food, or did so in a manner far short of the command he had received. God did not leave this disobedience unpunished.

A month elapsed, when one evening, after the community had retired, he walked across the chapter room with a lamp in his hand. What was his astonishment when, at an hour that the room should be unoccupied, he found there a great number of Religious. His astonishment turned into fear when, looking at them attentively, he recognized the Religious lately deceased. Terror seized him, an icy coldness ran through his veins and riveted him to the spot like a lifeless statue.

Then one of the dead brothers addressed him with terrible reproaches. “Unfortunate creature,” said he, “why didst thou not distribute the alms which were destined to give relief to the souls of thy departed brethren? Why hast thou deprived us of that assistance amid the torments of Purgatory? Receive, from this moment, the punishment of thy avarice; another and more terrible chastisement is reserved for thee, when, after three days, thou shall appear before thy God.”

At these words Edelard fell as though struck by a thunderbolt, and remained immovable until after midnight, at the hour when the community went to choir. There they found him half dead, in the same condition as was Heliodorus of old, after he had been scourged by the angels in the temple of Jerusalem. (2 Machabees 3).

He was carried to the infirmary, where all possible care was lavished upon him, so that he recovered consciousness. As soon as he was able to speak, in the presence of the Abbot and of all his brethren, he related with tears the terrible occurrence to which his sad condition but too evidently bore witness. Then adding that he was to die within three days, he asked for the last Sacraments, with all signs of humble repentance. He received them with sentiments of piety, and three days later expired, assisted by the prayers of his brethren.

Mass for the dead was immediately sung, and his share of food was distributed to the poor, for the benefit of his soul. Meanwhile, his punishment was not at an end. Edelard appeared to Abbot Raban, pale and disfigured. Touched with compassion, Raban inquired what he could do for him. “Ah!” replied the unfortunate soul, “notwithstanding the prayers of our holy community, I cannot obtain the grace of my deliverance until all my brethren, whom my avarice defrauded of the suffrages due to them, have been released. That which has been given to the poor for me has been of no profit but to them, and this by order of Divine Justice. I entreat you, therefore, O venerated and merciful Father, redouble your alms. I hope that by these powerful means Divine clemency will vouchsafe to deliver us all, my brethren first, and afterwards myself, who am the least deserving of mercy.”

Raban-Maur increased his alms, and scarcely had another month elapsed, when Edelard again appeared; but clad in white, surrounded with rays of light and his countenance beaming with joy. He thanked, in the most touching manner, his Abbot and all the members of the monastery for the charity exercised towards him (Vie de Raban-Maur, Rossignoli, Merv., 2).

What instruction does not this history contain! In the first place, the virtue of almsgiving for the dead shines forth in a most striking manner. Then we see how God chastises, even in this life, those who through avarice fear not to deprive the dead of their suffrages. I speak not here of those heirs who render themselves culpable, by neglecting to make the endowments which devolve upon them by last will and testament of their deceased relatives, a negligence which constitutes a sacrilegious injustice; but of those children or relatives who, through miserable motives of interest, have as few Masses as possible celebrated, are sparing in the distribution of alms, having no pity for the souls of their departed relatives, which they leave to languish in the horrible torments of Purgatory. It is the blackest ingratitude, a hardness of heart entirely opposed to Christian charity, and which will meet its punishment perhaps even in this world.

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