"It's NOT just a story!" Poppy pleaded passionately for me to understand why she had been fretting so much about the spiritual condition of the Pharisee and the Prodigal Son's brother.
"It sounds like a story to me. Isn't a parable the same thing as a story? Didn't the priest call it a parable?" I said trying as hard as I could to sound sincerely curious rather than cocky.
Poppy penetrated my core with her eyes and said: "Death."
Then my fairy friend lost all form as her spirit sunk to the marble floor and turned into a puddle of gray fog.
"Poppy! Stop that! Get up!" I cried. "We were talking!"
The puddle didn't stir. I sat in the dark silence of the midnight Cathedral with wispy spirits whooshing around a gray gloppy Poppy, not knowing what to do. Before I had a chance to contemplate my next move, I suddenly felt very hot. Then I saw flames build a wall around me, until I was imprisoned by them. I didn't know whether to scream or weep. I tried to reach through them, but the heat was unbearable. I could neither stop thinking nor stop feeling the pain, so I screamed louder, "Poppy help me! Lord, help me! My God, please I beseech you to save me from this fiery death!"
Cold doesn't bother angels at all. When the sun was created though, we were aghast. Nothing scared us so much as that big fiery planet that threatened to vaporize us in milliseconds. Surrounded by those flames felt like landing on the sun. What happened? I must get out!
I used every telepathic power at my disposal to scream for salvation, but no one heard me. In fact, I couldn't even hear myself. My hysteria was silent and alone.
The inability to communicate seemed to me to be more frightening than the flames. Just as I began to resign myself to obliteration I noticed a figure of a man walking through the fire towards me.
"Do not fear," he said, "fire cannot harm you as long as you love God with humility, and trust Him to rescue you."
That was the problem. After the way I had treated God, I doubted that He would save me.
"Daniel, can't you tell how painful this is?"
Daniel didn't even blink to hear me utter his name as other humans would have. Surely I have lost every ounce of my angelic power.
With rivulets of sweat streaming down his brow, Daniel replied, "For you it has been given to taste the pain of death. I am spared."
There is that word again. Death. Of course I had heard about death, but to hear what he would say, I asked Daniel, "What is death!"
Daniel replied, "Death is separation from life."
Oh, now that is brilliant, I thought surprised at my ability to be sarcastic in this situation.
Daniel added. "God is life, He is the source of life, biological life, and spiritual life. Human beings die physically when they separate from their bodies, and become like you." He added, "They die spiritually when the separate from God, which always brings suffering.
Suffering is relative though. The same situation that causes tremendous suffering for a person away from God, can affect the one who clings to God much less."
It was enough for me to spit out what I had already said. This was no time for philosophy lessons. I was desperate for relief. How could God expect me to converse with Daniel in the midst of this torture? Paralyzed with fear, and tormented by the heat of the flames, all I could do was weep.
Daniel came over to comfort me. His arms were as cool as a waterfall and as soothing as a poultice. Instead of being vaporized, the flames vaporized Daniel, and both he and the flames vanished!
Hallelujah! I was left stunned staring at the fog that had been Poppy. Shocked by the abrupt transition, my weeping turned to full blown crying. Looking down at my puddled friend, I screamed, "Poppy please come back. I need to talk to you!"
Slowly Poppy resurrected herself. I was never so happy to see any angel or even God as much as I was happy to see Poppy at that moment. Drained and confused I continued crying.
Ignoring my tears, Poppy spoke as if nothing had just happened and as if she was in front of a class of children. "Death" she said, "is separation, and isolation. Humans hate it, but they must experience it, just as they must experience birth without warning or permission. God uses physical death to sort people out. Separating from the physical body, and separating from God, the source of life, are two different kinds of death. A person must experience physical death, but spiritual death can occur with or without the body, or not at all."
Angels don't die. Before coming to earth I never ever had to think about death, or suffering. Today was a horrible. I wanted to GO HOME!!!
Ignoring the interference of my loud thoughts, professor Poppy continued. "Human souls, like us who love God never die!"
Poppy reminded me, "You have met several spirits in this Bride's year, saints and people who have come to speak with you. You have seen the spirits of parishioners in the church, they were considered physically dead but they were just as alive as you and me. Right?"
Without waiting for my response, professor Poppy continued, "When the Pharisee died in body, if he had not yet realized how offensive was his pride, he would have been sent to a place of suffering. Those flames you felt were very real; there are spirits who must endure such suffering without relief."
I shuddered, imagining still being imprisoned in those flames.
Poppy looked down into the nave of the cathedral and said, Look! There is a funeral going on down there! We didn't even notice; come and see!"
"What is a funeral?" I whispered.
Poppy replied, "The Bride, the Church, will commend the soul of God's servant to The Lord. Family and friends have a chance to say good bye, and pray to God for mercy and forgiveness so s(he) won't suffer."
I couldn't help but smirk, wondering if Poppy heard herself mention how important it was to say good bye.
Oblivious to my criticism, Poppy said, "Here comes the body!"
Six men were carrying John in a wooden box with brass handles into the church. When they set it down on the altar, it was opened. Inside, John was laying on a white satin bed. He looked like he was sleeping.
John was beloved. Five priests and two chanters were there to bestow the sacrament of burial upon him. I had never seen so many priests at one time. The church was filled with sad people in black.
John's coffin was surrounded by angels preparing to accompany his soul to the judgment seat of Christ.
Poppy and I stayed in the dome to watch from above as John's beloved friends and family filed past his lifeless body with tears and prayers to bid him farewell for his spirit's journey.
Never before had I been so grateful not to have a body, never to have to transition to a new kind of being, never to be so separated from my companions who could not hear me speak to them. That was a truly horrible sensation.
After the church emptied again, I did not feel like flying, or even talking with Poppy. I didn't want to go out, so I spent the next few days and nights alone in the dome, close to King Jesus pictured on His throne. I quietly worshipped Him in awe that God would be willing to take on a body that would some day have to die. Glory to Thee, my God. Praise Him sun and moon, praise Him all you shining stars! Praise Him, you highest heavens, and you waters above the heavens! I the rolled myself into a perfect sphere and found a corner to rest in while light and darkness took turns making time.
On the fifth day I unfolded myself as the chandeliers were being lit and the chanters and priests were taking their places. More angels arrived than I had ever seen there before, and I even noticed a few bodiless souls. I went looking for Poppy to tell me what was happening.
SATURDAY OF THE SOULS
"Good morning sleepyhead!" she said in her perkiest tone of voice.
I stopped myself from telling her that I wasn't sleeping; I was praying. Changing into a less egotistical angel was going to take some work. Instead I said, "Is today special, I don't think it is Sunday yet; I have been counting."
"Right! Today is the first Saturday of the Souls of the year. Those people who make up the Bride of Christ on earth, commemorate their loved ones who have passed into their bodiless state and are waiting for the Last Judgment."
"Wait a minute! When is the first judgment?" I asked afraid that I had missed something.
Poppy replied, "Remember when you saw the funeral of John a few days ago?"
"Yes." I answered.
"When he first separated from his body, his soul was escorted by the angels to the place of judgment where Jesus evaluated his life and determined where he will go to wait for the Last and Final Judgment."
"What are the options?" I asked.
"He will either go to a peaceful pleasant place where he may continue to worship The Lord and to taste the eternal life that God has prepared,
If he does not deserve that, and many people don't, unfortunately, he will go to a place of suffering where he will taste eternal punishment.
"Eternal punishment!" I gasped.
"Look angel! God gave these people every tool imaginable, every warning, every blessing. He even came down to earth to show them the way to live for others. But if they choose to squander all that, like the Prodigal Son, or if they are so full of pride like his brother and the Pharisee that they think their own judgment is at the center of the universe, I mean they are self centered rather than God centered, then the consequence is that they will go to a place away from the holy community, not because God wants them there, but because they separated themselves. They left."
"You know I have seen these people for several months now, and I haven't met one that is all good or all bad. How is Jesus to judge?" I asked.
"True. It can't be easy. " I replied, "They will be judged fairly on the totality of their lives. Many factors will be taken into account. But that is why the prayers of the living are so important. Love is powerful. If God hears prayers of love, then those people who are being prayed for will be given refreshment if they are suffering. Their lots may even improve, at least until the Last Judgment when all decisions will be final and the place they go to will never change."
"I should think if I was a person I would work at nothing harder than a good judgment after death."
"Me too," said Poppy. "But it doesn't seem to occur to most people that they will be judged. Indeed some, a very few people will bypass judgment, but it is the foolish ones who assume they will fall into this exclusive group. Most humans go so far as to think they will live forever with their notions of power and glory, and then fall into a deep void of sleep.
"Delusional." I replied.
"Well, that is why this Saturday is such a big day for the souls. They not only receive the prayers of a few, but from many."
I looked over to notice a few souls waiting patiently to see if their names will be called out by the priests. I looked into their spirit faces when the names were read and he and he and she appeared to have been given a glass of cool water, while they and them waited till the end and heard not their names but were enfolded into the greater unnamed group and smiled gratefully.
I looked over at a young spirit who radiated a baby blue light gazing upon the table in front of the altar that was filled with plates and bowls full of mounds of wheat covered with a powdery sugar decorated with almonds and lit candles. I read in his mind that the wheat reminded him of his muscular body, and how he treated it, what he filled it with, and what he did with it. How he longed for the new body that Christ promised him after the last judgment of his soul. How he hoped he would be able to receive one, for still he wasn't sure if the second judgment would be more or less difficult than the first. How sad he was about all the anger and bitterness he had expressed in his embodied life. How surprised at how it boomeranged back to him, bitterness and anger and criticism of himself.
"Let's go, let's go, don't dawdle. It is time to return!" ordered a very militant angels who was obviously in charge of the fortunate souls that had visited the cathedral that morning.
Meanwhile, back in the church, another darkness passed bringing a new day in time. Once again the cathedral gradually filled with people, each with his or her reason for being there, each with his or her own distracted thoughts. Those people who come regularly filled their favorite spots, chosen for its proximity to a particular person, to be near a favorite saint, or to be near a nameplate on the pew because that name was a beloved friend or father by whom they wished to sit.
The time had come for the doors to be shut. No one was allowed to walk into the nave. Guards were positioned at every entrance to make sure of that inside everyone stood as the priest, the tall young one, Father Dimitri, emerged to read the Holy Gospel.
“When the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the angels with Him, then He will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before Him, and He will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and He will put the sheep at His right hand and the goats at the left.
Then the King will say to those at His right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave Me food, I was thirsty and you gave Me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed Me, I was naked and you gave Me clothing, I was sick and you took care of Me, I was in prison and you visited Me.’
Then the righteous will answer Him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw You hungry and gave You food, or thirsty and gave You something to drink? And when was it that we saw You a stranger and welcomed You, or naked and gave You clothing? And when was it that we saw You sick or in prison and visited You?’
And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of My family, you did it to Me.’
Then He will say to those at His left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and His angels; for I was hungry and you gave Me no food, I was thirsty and you gave Me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome Me, naked and you did not give Me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit Me.’
Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw You hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of You?’ Then He will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to Me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”
Father Dimitri gently shut the book and with a most somber heart and face, looked up at the figure of Christ seated on His throne, and then straight at his flock. With a tear running down his cheek he said,
"God is merciful but even He has limits. No one is so patient and merciful as God but even He does not forgive those who do not repent, who do not try hard to change, who are not willing to enter the cocoon of Lent and come out a butterfly.
The God of love is also a God of righteousness, and when Christ comes again in glory, He will come to judge the living and the dead, those who loved and worshipped God and worked at modeling him, and those whose pride separated them from Christ-likeness. It was always their choice, but there were consequences.
The message of Lent is to turn back and go home to the Father while there is still time. The Great and Last Judgement will be the happiest of days and the worst of days. Let us be ready. Please brothers and sisters, let us ever be mindful of the impending reality of our death, and let that thought alone guide our actions, while there is time."
Then he turned and chanted, "Grant that being ever protected by Thy power, to Thee we may ascribe glory, to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, now and ever and unto the ages of ages." while returning to his cave.
Upon hearing that, I shuddered and was never so grateful to be an angel.
Poppy flew up to me and said, "Whew! Me too, I am sorry that I was ever jealous of the people with bodies." Agreeing, I sent her a spirit hug.