Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Catholics and Purgatory

From the  Catechism of the Catholic Church:

1030  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.

1031  The Church gives the name Purgatory to this final purification of the elect, which is entirely different from the punishment of the damned. The church formulated her doctrine of faith on Purgatory especially at the Councils of Florence (1439) and Trent 1563.) The tradition of the Church, by reference to certain texts of Scripture, speaks of a cleansing fire.

I had great admiration for purgatory long before I became Catholic. It always seemed to me to be a blessing, a merciful granting of extra time and insight for the spiritually slow (myself being among them!) so that heaven could be entered without snickers from the saints already there.  I figured that if I couldn't be a Mother Theresa while on earth, it was going to take some extra work in purgatory to make me presentable when I finally (I hope) get to meet her.

The Bible is filled with stories and expressions of God's mercy, healing and bringing to wholeness and new life. They form the backdrop for the church teaching on purgatory. Think of the Samaritan woman at the well (John's Gospel, chapter 4: 1 -30.)

The story of the Samaritan woman is rich with meaning, and has threads that can tie together a number of different topics. But I especially appreciate the element of mercy expressed in this story. This mercy is extended toward a woman, a foreign woman, a woman who is a notorious sinner. 

The story begins :  "A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, "Give me a drink." (4:7)

It was FR. Robert Barron (  who pointed out, in way that moved me, the implication of these words of Jesus, "Give me a drink."  From our perspective it might seem that Jesus is being a bit imperious here, asking for a favor from a lowly woman, a woman he had never met. The spirited modern woman is likely to say, in response, "Get your own drink!!" 

It reminds me of my very first job, fresh out of college. I worked in the undergraduate library at Cornell University, as the periodicals assistant. The director of the library, on my first day, warned me about keeping the coffee pot nice and clean, when I made the morning coffee, so that it would not taste bitter. "Bah humbug" was my interior response.  "I have a recently acquired BA in music, not in coffee-making, thank you very much. Clean your own coffee pot." Fortunately I was wise enough to keep those thoughts to myself. 

So why is Jesus asking this woman for a drink? Was he a male chauvinist, or perhaps just very very thirsty, or was it the custom of his day, to ask strange women to fetch water?

Fr. Barron puts the question on different footing. Far from being a one-sided request on Jesus' part, a favor asked in order to benefit Jesus, Fr. Barron says  the request is an invitation to the Samaritan woman for her own salvation, an invitation to try a new way of living, a way that is more about giving than receiving. "Give me a drink."

"Do something generous, something sacrificial, something for someone other than yourself, and do it because of me, for I am God himself, here to draw you toward your eternal salvation. Woman, give me a cup of water."

It is an act of mercy to show someone how to love, how to give, how to be deeply happy. Behind each one of God's actions we can find the same great magnanimous, merciful love, a love that calls us out of ourselves.

From a life of adultery, Jesus has called a woman to a life of charity in his name. But it is a life, not an instant make-over.

And that is the sticking point.

For all of us who have somehow, by grace caught a glimmer of the truth revealed in the story of the Samaritan woman at the well, there lies ahead a lifetime of learning  how to give cups of water in Jesus' name. It is a slow process, this schooling in sacrificial living. Too many opportunities for self-indulgence await us, our hearts are too often assaulted by pride, or wounded by others. So we stay within the walls of our inner domiciles, tending to our own needs and letting the world go on around us.

But by grace, and this is important, we keep seeing that woman at the well, we keep hearing the call to holiness. We pick ourselves up and crawl slowly outside of our tortoiselike shells trying all over again to live as the saints we are each meant to be.

And in those graced attempts lies our salvation. Because, at the end of the day, at the end of our mortal span, God who knows our hearts, knows our longings says, in effect, "I will not let your failure to be holy be the last word. I will take you  in hand at your day of death and I will cleanse you and purify you and bring you into my eternal rest at last."


It is not the most beautiful sounding word Catholics use, but it is one of the more beautiful teachings.

It is grounded broadly in the entire proclamation of the Gospel, though there are more particular scriptural references.  The Catechism mentions II Maccabees 12:45 (46), and also First Corinthians 3, special emphasis on verse 15, and First Peter, 1:7. 

We are to be tested by fire, but I don't think of that as a kind of horrible pain that will char us. It is rather a fire that shows us through its complete burning away of our need to be selfish how to keep our eyes on God.

Because keeping our eyes on God is the point of heaven.

Heaven is the place where our egos will mercifully let go of their strangle-hold on our wills, where selfishness will give way to charity, where love of God will finally out- do love for ourselves. Heaven is not after all an eternal golf game, an eternity of chocolate, or an eternity of anything that we think is pretty nice to have here on earth. Because, when you think about it, an eternity of anything other than God just isn't all that enticing. In fact an eternity trying to get a small ball into a small cup in the ground from far distances sounds a lot like hell to me... but then again I am no golfer.

No, heaven is all about God, and being in his presence, and if we after all, seek to be with God, then by grace he will see to it that we get there. And he gives us purgatory because he knows a human span is not enough time for most of us to do the job.

Purgatory is God's extra gift of love.

May we all learn to receive it with grateful hearts.



Michael Root said...

Fire can be thought about in various ways. There is a beautiful passage in Benedict's Spe salvi, para 47 (link below) about purgatory as our encounter with the fire of Christ's love which will burn away all that is incompatible with life in the presence of God. In the Dream of Gerontius, Newman says "Learn that the flame of the Everlasting Love
Doth burn ere it transform."

Michael Root said...

Whoops, forgot the link. It's: