Ask Father Leo: How can we imagine the spirit world?

Dear Fr. Leo: Would it be okay to imagine a biosphere (a spiritsphere?), perhaps, surrounding the earth containing the spirit world where souls head toward at the time of death? I hope that the spirits and images of those I love would be apparent to me if I find myself so lucky to meet them in the spirit world. Peace and love, always,
-AF

Dear AF:
What a very intriguing image for one aspect of what we in the Church call the “communion of saints.” You are not the first to do so. Your notion of a “pneumasphere” evokes very strongly a striking image from the Letter to the Hebrews (12:1-2a):

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us rid ourselves of every burden and sin that clings to us and persevere in running the race that lies before us while keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus, the leader and perfecter of faith.

Let’s take your notion of a “pneumasphere” and the “cloud of witnesses” from Hebrews and run with it. There is a lot more going on here that I think you will find appealing.

We say in the Apostles Creed, “I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy Catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body and life everlasting. Amen.” What is the communion of saints?

First, what do we mean by “communion?” Essentially, we are talking about union at the level of being. As human beings, we are unique in that we have a body and a soul. Thus, any level of communion will involve all that we are, body and soul.

Now let’s talk about the “saints.” That would be you and me and every other Christian, living and dead. This communion of saints has both earthly and heavenly members. Think of the Cross. It has a horizontal arm (the saints on earth) and a vertical arm (the saints in heaven). In referring to the horizontal arm of the communion of saints, we are saying that as a baptized, confirmed, practicing Catholic in full communion with Christ and his Church, I am united at the deepest level of my being with all other members of the Church, the Body of Christ on this earth. We often refer to this as the Church militant or the pilgrim Church. When we speak of the vertical arm, we acknowledge that we are in communion not only with Christ but also with all other holy men and women “who have gone before us with the sign of faith…” (Eucharistic Prayer I). We sometimes refer to these as the Church being purified and the Church triumphant. (See the Catechism of the Catholic Church, 946ff)

In a nutshell, the communion of saints is simply another way of speaking about the whole Church, both on earth and heaven. As the Catechism says in paragraph 954: “But at the present time some of his disciples are pilgrims on earth. Others have died and are being purified, while still others are in glory, contemplating ‘in full light, God himself triune and one, exactly as he is.’”

So, your idea of a “pneumasphere” captures one aspect of this reality. Namely, that the bonds of love we share here are not severed with death. We shall indeed enjoy communion with them at the end of the age. But it is not some distant, future reality. To understand the communion of saints fully is to understand that we enjoy their fellowship even now. All those who have gone before us in faith are praying for us and with us that we will join them, now and in the future, in perfect communion with Our Lord. Our task is to maintain and deepen full communion with Christ and his Church by lives of faithful service and missionary discipleship.

In her famous work, The Dialogue, St. Catherine of Siena shares what Our Lord told her in a vision regarding the prayers of the souls in heaven for those they left behind on earth:

Their desires are a continual cry for the salvation of others. For they finished their lives loving their neighbors, and they did not leave that love behind but brought it with them when they passed through the gate…Because they seek my honor they desire your salvation, so they are constantly praying to me for you. (Chap. 41, pp. 83-84)

Where does this communion of saints happen most obviously in the life of the Church? In the Eucharist. Every time we receive the Body of Christ worthily in Holy Communion, we are intimately united at the level of being with Christ and all the members of this Body, both living and dead. It is a communion of heart and mind and body and soul that grows deeper and deeper into eternity.

Got a question about the Church or the Faith? Fr. Leo Walsh, JCL, STD, is your local canon lawyer and theologian. He currently serves in the Archdiocese as Judicial Vicar and Pastor of St. Patrick’s in Anchorage. Email your question to: lwalsh@caa-ak.org.


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