It was the mid-1950’s. Despite certain reservations, Joseph entered the Trappist monastery in Berryville, Virginia. He was a simple but devout man. Pressing family needs compelled him to quit school when he was in the fifth grade so that he could go out and work. He had labored hard ever since. Now he was nearing 40 and wanted to give a definite direction to his life. The hard existence of the monks appealed to him. As for the religious element, that was also firmly grounded in his soul. For a time he functioned as a church sacristan and altar server, earning seventeen dollars a week. Okay, he did not make much money, but material things never seemed all that important to him. Among his occupations, he had been a fisherman and crab-man, a construction worker, a surveyor’s aide, you name the grunt work, he had done it. He staunchly believed that faith and work were the two vital estimations that made up a real man.
After a long illness, Joseph A. Jenkins, Sr. passed away on February 24, 2000. The story narrated here was told to his children many times over. The monks took a vow of silence. This was hard but for Joseph there were some definite benefits. His speech always had been impaired by a cleft palate. It took two surgeries to close it and still his words sounded slurred and awkward. The hardest aspect of this new direction was meal time. The monks were vegetarians and had to ask for bread or water or whatever, entirely by improvised sign language. While they ate less than appetizing food, large dogs ate juicy steaks in front of the monks. He began to envy the dogs.
The monks would sing and say their prayers in choir fashion and while processing. Joseph had yet to fully appreciate what it meant to join the “Order of the Dead.” This unofficial title conveyed not only the fact that these hermits from society were dead to the world, but as a Catholic monastic brotherhood, they prayed especially for the souls in purgatory. Two events would forcefully bring this home to Joseph.
After a long hot day working in the fields, Joseph was eager for rest in his cell. He went immediately to sleep but his slumber was not restful. He found himself looking upon a wall of flame and from the fire he began to see many faces. Wearing monkish hoods, their glowing eyes were red with anguish and their faces were all aflame. Piercing cries of agony and pleading reached him. He abruptly awoke. Sweat covered his skin. He was shaking. Each time he tried to close his eyes or even blink, he could still see them there, on fire– crying out– begging him for something.
Fatigued from lack of sleep, he went to see the superior early that morning. “Do you think I’m going crazy?” he asked.
The superior answered with directness, “Joseph, what you saw, we have all seen. They are the souls of your ancestors crying out for prayers so that they might be liberated from the fires of their prison, purgatory. They know that your prayers here can be most beneficial to their release and entry into heaven.”
Joseph accepted the answer readily. The interpretation explained to his satisfaction the meaning of the vision. It was like no dream he had ever experienced. Like the flash of a camera, something of the image remained for a short time after he awoke. He would devote himself more earnestly to his meditation and prayers.
One day while praying alone in the chapel, he heard someone come up next to him and call his name, “Joe.” He looked around and there was his Uncle George.
Not desiring to be rude, he spoke, “Uncle George, it is good to see you, but why are you here?”
The old man answered, “Pray for me, Joe, that is all I ask.”
Motioning for him to be silent and to return to his prayers, Joseph did just that. Many people came to the monastery for retreats and days of recollection, but it was quite a ways for his dear uncle to come, all the way from Southern Maryland. It was nice to see a familiar face. Maybe he could get permission to visit with him later in the day? Yes, that would be nice. Uncle George was a good man but he was a haunted one. Many years earlier his only daughter had gotten involved with a young man who took advantage of her. Uncle George was furious. He went over to the man’s house and shot him dead. Then he called the police and turned himself in. Rumor had it that his wife, a well-to-do woman, paid the judge off so that Uncle George would not go to prison or worse. He ended up spending a year in a mental health institution and then came home. Those had been days when even society at large took the virtue of a young woman very seriously. Many considered Uncle George a hero, that in his place, they would have done similarly. Uncle George, however, regretted his acting in anger. But, he could not turn back the hands of the clock. What was done, was done.
Joseph prayed for his family, saying as requested a special prayer for his uncle. He was just going to see the superior when he himself was summoned.
“Joseph,” said the superior, “I have some bad news for you. A call just came in that your Uncle George died earlier today. Your family wanted you to know so that you could offer special prayers for him.”
Joseph was stunned. If Uncle George was dead, then he had seen his ghost. He explained what had happened to his superior. He nodded in recognition. Had this also happened with the other monks? Joseph would continue to pray for Uncle George.
Eventually, and he attributed the trouble to the dogs eating better than the monks, Joseph discerned that the monastic life was not for him. He left but retold many times over the two interventions of souls for prayer and penance on their behalf. Joseph felt that he had actually assisted in the translation of all his deceased family from purgatory to heaven.
A few years later, Joseph married a young woman and had a family of seven children, the first of whom was placed upon the altar at his baptism by the priest. No doubt responding to a call from heaven, implored by the prayers of this simple man, this son of his would become a priest. I am that priest.
We are bonded with each other in a way that transcends death. Never should we underestimate the power of prayer and sacrifice on the behalf of others. May we never neglect such offerings on the behalf of our beloved dead in purgatory. While their individual salvation is assured, these souls need to be perfected by the fire of God’s love and by the intercession of the saints and the Church.