Saturday, 2 November 2013

All Souls Day and Purgatory in the Syriac Tradition

Purgatory is a topic that is often very grey in the East. Especially the Syriac-East. Being in communion with the Bishop of Rome, we are, however, bound to accept the doctrine of Purgatory as declared by the Council of Trent

Since the Catholic Church, instructed by the Holy Ghost, has, following the sacred writings and the ancient tradition of the Fathers, taught in sacred councils and very recently in this ecumenical council that there is a purgatory, and that the souls there detained are aided by the suffrages of the faithful and chiefly by the acceptable sacrifice of the altar, the holy council commands the bishops that they strive diligently to the end that the sound doctrine of purgatory, transmitted by the Fathers and sacred councils, be believed and maintained by the faithful of Christ, and be everywhere taught and preached.
Purgatory, as a term, has never been used in the Syriac East (and is not required by the Church), however, there are a plethora of prayers in our Liturgies that remember ... our souls and the souls of our fathers, our brethren, our elders, our teachers, our departed ones and all the faithful departed. This remembrance is for people, who we simply do not know where they are. We ask God to have mercy on them as they are now asleep in death in a process of purification.

In addition to this, our great Syriac Fathers. St Ephrem and St Aphrahat. Both spoke about the sleep of the soul in death. St Ephrem, continuously compares sleep to death and awakening to the resurrection. He states:

Sweet is sleep to the weary, so is death to him who fasts and watches. Natural sleep slays not the sleepr, nor has Sheol slain, nor does it so now. Sleep is sweet, and so is Sheol quite... Sleep strives not to hold the sleeper, nor is Sheol greedy. Behold, sleep shows us how temporary is Sheol, for the morn awakes the sleeper, and the Voice raises the dead - Carmina Nisib
he also says:

Behold how (the dead) are encompassed in Sheol, and awaiting the great day, till He come to delight them, and bring hope to the hopeless
In the same set of hymns, St Ephrem makes a distinction between what he calls the flames and sheol.

One road, my brethren, lies before us all: from childhood unto death, and from death unto the Resurrection; thence branch out two ways, the one to the flames, the other to Paradise
Clearly suggesting that Sheol is temporary, while Paradise and the flames are eternal. A doctrine completely consistent with the faith declared by the Council of Trent.

In summary. The East and more specifically the Syriac-East's theology is NOT incompatible with the doctrine of purgatory. St Ephrem called purgatory Sheol but whatever the name that is given to it, it is important that we pray for our departed, so that not only may their suffering be quickened but also to teach our kids to do the same when we depart.

For more info here is a video of a Syriac (Orthodox) Bishop defending prayers for the departed because they are in a state of suffering before Paradise.

Happy feast day to all the Latins out there!

Pray for the departed. Especially those who have no one to offer sacrifice on the Altars of the Lord for them.

Through the Prayers of the Birth-Giver of God Maryam and Mor Ephrem. God Bless you all.


  1. Love those prayers!

    Mor Moshe is teaching the true faith as handed on to the Syrians/Malankarese.

    HG's status is a bit murky, however, is he a Syriac bishop, an Indian bishop (ordained by a few Malankara Orthodox bishops without permission from the Holy Synod), or no bishop at all (excommunicated by the Syriac Patriarch for being ordained by Malankara Orthodox, soon after regularized by the Malankara Orthodox, and then soon after than excommunicated by Malankara for ordaining Indian priests to the episcopate outside his 'territory' in Germany)?

  2. As Eastern Catholics, are we to believe as the Latins do, that prayers and masses said for the dead can help release them from their sleep to Heaven, or are we to believe that the soul is asleep in purification until the Second Coming. This is something that has been on my mind since returning to the Church after many years away from the faith.

    1. Yes I am a Maronite, but I spent years in Roman Catholic schools, then drifted away from the faith. Thank you very much for this reply, btw.

      Something I am not sure about is - in the Syriac tradition, is there a belief in a particular judgement of the soul immediately following death?

      The other thing that comes to mind is I've just read in "Captivated By Your Teachings" by Fr. Anthony Salim that in Maronite tradition the soul is at rest (as you said) but the death-life is considered a journey that the soul undertakes on the way to the Father. This journey can be difficult, and "never free of danger till the end". This makes it extremely important to pray for the souls on this journey, for their protection. Are you familiar with this description?
      Its confusing that the soul would be at rest and waiting for final judgement, and yet on a "journey". I may be reading this wrong.

      Thanks again

    2. This was very helpful!

      I'm going to talk with the priest tomorrow and your answer has helped me formulate a better starting point for the conversation with him. I think I'm starting to understand better.
      I'm still stuck on the word journey, mostly because of my past Latin instruction and thinking of Purgatory as a place where the soul stays while it's being purified.

      It was suggested to me to read the Maronite Funeral Rites because it would give me a better sense of the imagery. I didn't read it completely, but I think that what I've read might have confused me.
      The imagery in the Funeral Rites seems to suggest the soul is travelling, facing somewhat frightening obstacles. I think I'll have to ask the priest about that.

      I truly appreciate your help with this. Hopefully, my priest can help me too.

  3. I find it extremely odd that after reading this the Catholic church has left out a very important if not the most awesome thing, Jesus's suffering and bleeding and conquereing death and the grave He was raised in power just like He said He would be ...He died preaching to the captives who were trapped in hell and the moment Jesus died...there was a great earth quake and the graves poped open and many poped out of the graves like Lazarus did.....they listened and obeyed HIs voice...when He said Come fourth I shall give you eternal life....the first rezerection.....of first fruits...who is Christ.