Thursday, October 25, 2012

Reflections Upon Purgatory

Since I was raised a Protestant, I didn’t have any particular image of Purgatory as a child and then a teen. I wouldn’t have even acknowledged that Purgatory existed, since the Reformation rejected the Catholic Teaching on the subject.

As I began to associate with Catholics in my College days, I would hear the occasional comment about "the poor souls in Purgatory" and the image of "the fires of Purgatory" and "the suffering souls" there who could be helped by our prayers. As I studied at that time to be a Catholic, the official teaching about Purgatory made sense to me and what I might not have understood wasn’t important enough to prevent me from eventually becoming a Catholic.

I have only grown in my appreciation of Purgatory over time as a Catholic. It is unfortunate that Catholic imagination has sometimes negatively embellished upon the reality of Purgatory which is actually revealed as a very positive and benign process of healing and forgiveness.   In the past many thought of Purgatory as a "mini-hell" or "prison."

18century Image of Purgatory

I see Purgatory as really a kind of "divine therapy" where God’s love heals us entirely for the life and love of Heaven. St. Catherine of Genoa captures this in her "Treatise on Purgatory" (AD1551):

"I believe no happiness can be found worthy to be compared with that of a soul in Purgatory except that of the saints in Paradise; and day by day this happiness grows as God flows into these souls, [and] more and more as the hindrance to His entrance is consumed. Sin’s rust is the hindrance, and the fire [of Divine love] burns the rust away so that more and more the soul opens itself up to the divine inflowing."

The Church’s teaching which is stated in the Catechism of the Catholic Church #1030 says: "All who die in God's grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified, are indeed assured of their eternal salvation; but after death they undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven."

I detect that there is more of an emphasis now in the Church on the language of purification. The purification refers to our purification from sin. Jesus says "Blessed are the pure of heart for they shall see God." (Matthew 5:8) This purification of Purgatory is about becoming free from all the lingering effects of sin in our life. We may be forgiven sin, but there might still be an attachment to that sin or a predisposition toward it. In this life becoming free or purified of these effects is part of conversion.

But what happens when we die and our conversion is not complete? What part are we called to have in our conversion? In this life it is obvious that conversion is usually a process and it requires our cooperation with grace. We might have certain dramatic changes in a short period of time, but a long, steady process of change is usually more reliable. Purgatory is in a way simply the completion of that conversion process.

Blessed Pope John Paul II affirmed that Purgatory is not a place. It is a state of being, beyond death. But what about time? Does one spend a certain amount of time in this state of purification? If there is no time for those who die, having entered into eternity (which is timeless), how could we speak of length of time in Purgatory?

Actually, the Church today doesn’t speak of time spent in Purgatory. It doesn’t address this issue, at least in the Catechism. We in this life talk of time; we live in time. My speculation is that perhaps Purgatory is only a moment of time, that transition between death and entering the life of the world to come, i.e. eternity. Some of us will require a more intense purification than others. Some will require very little purifying, and Mary the Mother of God needed no purification: that was given at her Immaculate Conception.

I wonder, also, if this purification called Purgatory isn’t intimately part of our particular judgement before God? It is interesting to me that some people who have died and been resusictated, report seeing their whole life flash before their eyes. Would that be what the Judgement will be like? I mean, that we would have our entire lives reviewed and we would see how every decision we made, every act we performed or neglected, every person we loved or did not love, resulted in good or harm, and that we would see the implication of all the moments of our life in the light of God’s love.

Byzantine Style: Last Judgement

I would imagine that some of that review would be painful. That pain could very well be the temporal punishment we owe for sins committed, but which are forgiven. But if we are saved by Christ, then in Purgatory we will also see how love changes everything. More and more our old sinful self will be transformed and we will be so convinced of the superiority of love that we would never again, for all eternity, desire or do anything other than love (which would be heaven). We would still have our free will, but we would exercise it only for love.

What a different view of Purgatory is that of St. Catherine of Genoa and the mystics! If one is more and more changing into a loving person in the experience of Purgatory, then one’s happiness would also be increasing, until it turned into the eternal bliss of heaven! As St. Catherine wrote, there is happiness in Purgatory, even if the purifying is sometimes painful.

And what about the prayers, indulgences and penances, and acts of charity we offer for the dead?  If Purgatory was but a moment (and again we do not know its timing), why would we offer prayers for the dead years after they have died? Here is where a good dose of an appreciation of mystery is helpful. We cannot totally explain all things when it comes to the life of the world to come. We are bound by time and must pray in time. But God, I believe, can apply those prayers to when they are needed. And even if our deceased loved ones are now in heaven and we offer prayers for them, our prayers and offerings for them are signs of love and I would think appreciated by them. And no doubt they pass this love on to others on earth and in Purgatory needing prayer and mercy.

This gifting or "circulation of love" within the Body of Christ is affirmed in the Catechism:
#1475:  ''In the communion of saints, 'a perennial link of charity exists between the faithful who have already reached their heavenly home, those who are expiating their sins in purgatory and those who are still pilgrims on earth. Between them there is, too, an abundant exchange of all good things.' In this wonderful exchange, the holiness of one profits others, well beyond the harm that the sin of one could cause others. Thus recourse to the communion of saints lets the contrite sinner be more promptly and efficaciously purified of the punishments for sin.''  
These are a few of my personal speculations and thoughts about Purgatory or as I like to call it The Purification. If we are motivated by the love of God, we will not want to put off our conversion in Christ. It is comforting to know, however, that we can complete this conversion at the time of our death and purification, and then it will be love upon love upon love.