Dear Brothers and Sisters,
Last week we took a moment to begin our reflection on the four last things: death, judgment, heaven, and hell. In this list, however, we find one final reality missing: purgatory. Some may not be surprised, because purgatory has come to be seen as one of those Catholic ideas that we don’t really believe in anymore, but of course we still do believe in purgatory, and it is perhaps one of the most comforting teachings of our faith.
As we saw last week, eternal life is ultimately a matter of what we choose in this life. Do we want to be with God forever, or not? And this is a big choice we reveal each day to God by our little choices. The trouble is though, that while there are some people at either extreme – holiness and sinfulness – most people fall in between. Many of us long to be in heaven, but we’re not saints. That’s where purgatory comes in.
A great image to help us understand purgatory is thinking of sin as an injury to the soul. As a cut is healed by medicine, so too the damage to our soul caused by sin is healed by confession. But just as a cut leaves behind a scar, so too does sin. We continue to desire the sinful thing, and that blemish on our soul is what must be cleansed. Like the addict struggling to overcome the addiction, the more we sin, the harder it is to deny ourselves that sinful object, and the more it needs to be cleansed in the end.
Because we believe that we cannot come before God still desiring sin in our hearts. To stand before an all good God, with imperfection in us, would be unbearable, and the parable tells us that God rejects the man who comes to the banquet without the wedding garment. In this way God is just. He is also merciful however, as He allows those who desire heaven but are not yet ready to go to an intermediate place called purgatory. There, He can cleanse us of those desires for sinful things that we did not cleanse ourselves of in life.
The justice of purgatory goes far deeper though, as it is a way of bringing balance to creation. When we sin, we diminish the goodness in the world, often in a way that we cannot repair. If someone takes another’s life, they cannot give it back. When we harm someone, we often cannot undo that harm. Purgatory then is a place where that balance is repaid.
That’s also why we can pray and do good works for our souls and the souls in purgatory, earning things called indulgences. They may sound like something from the dark ages, but indulgences are a logical consequence of our beliefs. If good works make up for our sins and turn us from desiring sin, then those good works can accomplish what is meant to happen in purgatory. Not only that, if we are all united in the Body of Christ, just as we can pray for each other who are living, we can certainly still pray for those who are dead and help them.
Our challenge then is firstly to ask ourselves that all important question: am I choosing heaven by how I live my daily life? Even if I sin and fall short, do I go to confession, and am I working to transform myself? Purgatory is certainly a comfort, inasmuch as we know confession and a desire to go to heaven is enough to get us there, but hopefully we’re not just aiming for purgatory. Hopefully we are all striving to not just overcome sin, but truly become saints. Then, our job is to pray. For ourselves, but also for the faithful departed. We all pray for each other, and the saints pray for us, so that someday we may all be gathered together at the eternal marriage supper of the Lamb.
Eternal rest grant unto them O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them. May the souls of the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace. Amen.
Yours in Christ,