I have no idea why I mentioned purgatory to a Protestant friend while helping her clean her room when I was in college. Maybe because I hate cleaning and wanted credit for time served? In any event, I remember expecting it to be a throwaway comment. Until she responded.
“Purgatory? I thought we got rid of purgatory in the Middle Ages.”
Who got rid of purgatory? Since when has the Church gotten rid of anything? You seriously didn’t know Catholics believed in purgatory?
Turns out, it’s rather a hotly contested topic. So let’s explore, shall we?
First, what purgatory is not. Purgatory is not a final destination. It’s not a blank and empty place akin to limbo. It’s not a place where you earn salvation.1 Purgatory is a transient place for the cleansing (purging) of souls.
The idea is that those who die in a state of grace are saved. They’re destined for heaven. Many, though, are in need of some purification before they enter. Purgatory is a process of preparation for heaven and reparation for sins for those “who die in God’s grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified” (CCC 1030).
Preparation: “Nothing unclean shall enter it.”
The first element of purgatory is easier to understand. Revelation 21:27 tells us that nothing unclean shall enter heaven. You (I assume) and I are unclean. Despite having been restored to God’s graces by our baptism and subsequent confessions, we’re not entirely pure. In order to enter heaven, we must be cleansed. C.S. Lewis (himself a Protestant) put it this way:
“Our souls demand Purgatory, don’t they? Would it not break the heart if God said to us, ‘It is true, my son, that your breath smells and your rags drip with mud and slime, but we are charitable here and no one will upbraid you with these things, nor draw away from you. Enter into the joy’? Should we not reply, ‘With submission, sir, and if there is no objection, I’d rather be cleaned first.’ ‘It may hurt, you know’ – ‘Even so, sir.'” – C.S. Lewis, Letters To Malcolm
As always, it’s essential to point out that we are saved by God’s grace and by the merits of Christ’s Passion. We do not cleanse ourselves in purgatory, nor do the prayers of others cleanse us. God cleanses us through our suffering and in response to others’ prayers.
More than just removing your sin, though, purgatory removes your attachment to sin. I can’t imagine that many people die without even any venial sins on their souls, but most of those, I’m sure, still have some attachment to sin. Even this attachment must be cleansed before we’re able to rejoice in the presence of God.
I’ll be honest here: heaven doesn’t always sound that attractive to me. I mean, I want to be with Jesus more than anything. I’m homesick for heaven and I can’t wait to hang out with the Saints.2 I’m going to touch the leprous hands of St. Damien and hug the joyful St. Philip Neri and just stand near St. Teresa and wait for her to say something snarky. And I’m going to dance with Jesus. It’s going to be awesome.
But eternity is a long time. And I’m pretty sure eventually (within 24 hours), I’m going to get bored. I’m going to want to gossip or brag or just quit playing my stupid harp. If I went to heaven now, I wouldn’t be truly happy because I’d want to sin. See, I like my sin.3 Otherwise I wouldn’t sin. So if I’m going to be happy in heaven,4 I need to be cleansed not just of my sins (the mud of Lewis’ analogy) nor even of the residue of my sins (the stains left over–see below on reparation) but of my desire to sin (my love for mud?).
Even the cleansing isn’t enough, though. We have to be stretched, our capacity for God and good increased lest our minds literally be blown by meeting the Lord face to face. Think of it this way: you’ve been living your life in a windowless room in the dark. Heaven is like the beach at noon—you’ll go blind if God doesn’t gradually turn the lights up. And it’ll hurt like hell when he does, but you need that pain if you’re ever going to survive on the beach. Purgatory is the dimmer switch, the place where our capacity for God is stretched, our impurities refined.
This is the reason that purgatory has traditionally been described as a place of terrible suffering but also of unimaginable joy. It is a consuming fire that refines and burns off our sins, and yet it is the closest we’ve ever been to God. Wendell Berry describes the paradox:
I imagine the dead waking, dazed, into a shadowless light in which they know themselves altogether for the first time. It is a light that is merciless until they can accept its mercy; by it they are at once condemned and redeemed. It is Hell until it is Heaven. Seeing themselves in that light, if they are willing, they see how far they have failed the only justice of loving one another; it punishes them by their own judgment. And yet, in suffering that light’s awful clarity, in seeing themselves within it, they see its forgiveness and its beauty, and are consoled. In it they are loved completely, even as they have been, and so are changed into what they could not have been but what, if they could have imagined it, they would have wished to be.
Reparation: “You will not be released until you have paid the last penny.”
In addition to preparing our souls for heaven, purgatory also enables us to make up for the evil we have done on earth. Once again, let me point out that you can’t ever atone for your own sins–it is Christ who saves you, Christ who forgives you, Christ who heals you and the world. But God, good father that he is, allows us to participate in our salvation and wants us to cooperate with him.
Now God is merciful. And because he is merciful, sin has consequences. Yes, because he is merciful. God in his mercy did not want us to do what is evil without consequences to serve as deterrents. So our sin merits two kinds of punishment: eternal and temporal.
Eternal punishment is, as all Christians agree, hell. Eternal punishment is a consequence of sin, as St. Paul says: the wages of sin is death (Rom 3:23). When you go to confession, God forgives you and your eternal punishment is satisfied by the death of Christ. You no longer merit hell. But there are still consequences to your actions, damage you’ve done to yourself and others and the Church and the world. When you do penance or receive an indulgence,5 you satisfy some of the debt of temporal punishment you owe. But if you die not having satisfied all your temporal punishment, you are given the opportunity to “give back” in purgatory. With the mud analogy from above, it’s as though confession washes the mud from your baptismal garment but it’s still stained. Purgatory bleaches it whiter than snow.
But your sin doesn’t just hurt you–it hurts everyone. It’s as though there’s a giant jar of jelly beans on display in your classroom7 and you run up to it, grab a fistful of jelly beans, and fling them on the floor. Why? Who knows. Apparently you’re kind of a jerk.
Now, if you apologize for having flung the jelly beans, your teacher can forgive you, but you still have to put jelly beans back in the jar. You’ve hurt everybody by your reckless hatred of jellybeans and if you’re truly sorry, you want to make up for it. If the school year ends and you haven’t replaced all the jelly beans you trampled, you need to…spend your summer collecting jelly beans? Okay, the analogy is getting weird. But you see my point.
When we pray or do good on earth, we’re putting jelly beans back in the cosmic jar. If we die having been forgiven for our awkward jelly bean outburst but we’re still in the red, we go to purgatory until we’ve put in enough jelly beans or someone has put them in for us.
Because here’s the awesome (and hotly-contested) thing: if we haven’t replaced all the jelly beans by the time we leave school, somebody else can do it for us. This is where the idea of praying for the holy souls in purgatory comes in. It’s not that Christ’s Passion is insufficient or that God refuses to let people out of purgatory unless we say the magic words; it’s that God has established his Church as one family and given us the gift of intercessory prayer. I think that, if for no other reason, God allows us to pray for the dead to give us the consolation of being able to do something. I think Protestants are never more Catholic than when they lose a loved one. The natural inclination is to pray for those who have died–probably because God gave us that inclination.
Despite the fact that Catholics reference purgatory as a matter of course and Protestants think it sounds medieval, there’s really significant agreement on this doctrine. All Christians agree that we ought to do good to make up for the evil we’ve done; Catholics simply maintain that we must. All Christians agree that we must be purified in order to enter heaven; Catholics simply maintain that this purification is a process while Protestants would consider it an event, a moment of purification. Now, I’d argue that God tends to work in processes rather than events9 and that really we couldn’t handle sudden holiness. As with the beach analogy, we need our sanctification to be gradual.
But we agree that we need purification. And nobody ever said it took time–in a sense, purgatory is outside of time. And nobody ever said that it was a place–why would immaterial souls need a place? And nobody ever said that there was really fire–fire burning immaterial souls? The division really comes down to the sola fide vs. faith and works argument: Catholics assert that our salvation and the salvation of others can be affected by our works; Protestants, naturally, disagree. That’s a discussion for another post (or six), but I think at this point we can say that there is quite a lot of common ground here.
I’ll leave the defense of purgatory–Scripture and Tradition–for another post. For this feast of the Holy Souls10 during the month of November in which we remember our dead, I’ll leave you with this: the doctrine of purgatory acclaims that God’s mercy is without end; not even death can end the merciful love of God. Purgatory is not a threat. It doesn’t demonstrate God’s desire to punish but to heal. Purgatory tells us that God, who desires that all men be saved (1 Tim 2:4), will fight to the death and beyond for your soul. Let’s pray for the souls in purgatory this month, but let’s also live like souls that are destined for heaven. Praise God for his mercy in coming after every lost lamb of us.
- Strictly speaking, it’s not a place at all, but we’ll go with it. [↩]
- If you pray the Office of Readings, you read this line from St. Bernard of Clairvaux yesterday: “The saints have no need of honor from us; neither does our devotion add the slightest thing to what is theirs. Clearly, if we venerate their memory, it serves us, not them. But I tell you, when I think of them, I feel myself inflamed by a tremendous yearning.” If you don’t pray the Office of Readings, you should. It’s awesome. Download the free app now. [↩]
- This always shocks people. I’m not a serial killer. I like my stupid pathetic sin, not my terrifying, disgusting sin. Although, really, is there any other kind? [↩]
- Which is, I’m told, kind of the idea. [↩]
- I’ll write about those another day. [↩]
- Photo courtesy of Garry Knight. [↩]
- Work with me here. [↩]
- Photo courtesy of puuikibeach. [↩]
- Consider that he created gradually, revealed himself to the world gradually, and draws men’s hearts to himself gradually. [↩]
- What? It’s still November 2nd on the West Coast. [↩]