Friday, May 06, 2005


Wayfaring Strangers, Part 8

(Wayfaring Strangers is a continuing series about our experiences as my wife and I study to convert to Catholicism.)

Purgatory: No Pain, No Gain

Catholicism locks into place for me in strange and unpredictable ways. I find that I may be studying some seemingly puzzling piece of church doctrine, struggling to understand something Catholics have believed for ages, and out of nowhere, some other bit of dogma that I'd not even considered yet will make sense to me. It's like I'm trying to work a jigsaw puzzle, obsessing over one piece, turning it over and over again, trying to figure out where it fits. Then, when I take a break from it and step back to look at the big picture, I see that God has put some other piece in place for me... without my help and in spite of my interference. God is solving the puzzle for me, in his own way, by his own schedule, and in the order He sees fit. I find that humbling and comforting, and it's a reminder that what I want to understand isn't as important as what God wants me to understand.

That's the only way I can explain how my in-depth study of Mary resulted in a personal, satisfying understanding of purgatory.

I want to emphasize that I am not trying to persuade anyone to agree with me, and I'm not arguing that what I have come to believe is what everyone should believe. Most important of all, I do NOT presume to speak for the Catholic church. I'm just documenting my own experiences and my own study... I'm not an apologist, I'm just a wayfaring stranger, as the title says, describing the things I see on my journey home.

By the way, I'm still struggling with the theology of Mary. To accept Catholic dogma about Mary, specifically about the Assumption and Coronation, will first require me to accept some sort of corporal idea of Heaven. That's uncomfortable for me. I'm not ready yet. I may never be. I can say now, though, with some certainty, that I've achieved a personal, subjective understanding of purgatory. I haven't "come to terms" with it or merely "accepted" it, I've actually come to understand purgatory in a way that makes it seem good, natural, and even desirable to me. I not only believe in purgatory, I want it.

It happened like this:

Like many protestants, I was raised to believe that the Catholic church sees purgatory as sort of a "mini-hell," a place where we are temporarily punished for our sins so that we can earn entrance into Heaven. I believed that Catholics taught that purgatory was punitive, like a fiery jail, where we serve time for sins serious enough to deserve castigation but not serious enough to send us to hell. This may even be close to what the church once really taught. I'm not sure. I'm sure, though, that the protestant rejection of the concept of purgatory is natural and to be expected, given the protestant dogma about Heaven and hell... and given that so many protestant churches emphasize our relationship to God as one of a servant to a master. The protestant churches of my youth preached of a God that had to be pacified, satisfied, and assuaged. What's more, protestants have a black and white idea of Heaven and hell: Either you make it to Heaven or you don't. And Heaven, as they seem to see it, is some sort of ethereal state of eternal joy and happiness, with no pain, from the very first moment we enter it. Hell, conversely, is like a sci-fi nightmare: all pain, all suffering, all the time, with no hope, no relief, no God. These views of Heaven and hell are stark opposites, and purgatory, to many protestants, seems like some weird middle ground that doesn't fit what they believe. Besides, the protestant doctrine of sola scriputra justifies non-belief in purgatory, since Christ never spoke about it and it's only mentioned in an apocraphical book that isn't even in the protestant Bible. Put simply, protestant faith doesn't require the idea of purgatory. And that's fine. I know plenty of good, godly people who believe those things, and find peace and inspiration in their beliefs.

It didn't work for me, though. It seemed to lack something and didn't match up with the things I firmly believe about the nature of God, the nature of man, and the nature of sin. God, to my way of thinking, is pure and perfect in a way we can't begin to understand. God is everything we are not and can't be, because of our sinful natures. He is, however, what we gravitate toward, what we want to be like, what we are attracted to in the better parts of our natures. God is what we can't be and what we want. To me, the protestant belief that the forgiven are reconciled with God immediately at the moment of physical death always rang false. How could we achieve a purity worthy of unity with God that quickly, after a lifetime of sin? I just don't share that belief with my protestant bothers and sisters. I believe that before we can be totally reconciled with God, we must be cleansed. I believe that Christ won the chance to be cleansed and unified with God for us, that his very blood provides that purity, but I do not believe that the purification process is painless and instantaneous. That's because I do not believe that all suffering is bad. On the cross, Christ won our redemption. He promised the Kingdom to the faithful. But, he never promised us a rose garden.

In a brief aside during one of his lectures, Scott Hahn mentioned his perception of purgatory as a sort of cleansing of our sinful nature by the holy fire of God's love. Hahn painted a picture of God taking us in and accepting us completely, with a pure and perfect love so bright and eternal as to be painful, scary, even overwhelming at first. That pain, that sense of being overwhelmed, is purgatory. It's the world-changing transition as our sinful nature is finally shaken off for good, burned away, and discarded. I believe that the awesome presence of God will initially seem terrible... too big to grasp, too strong to survive, too pure to endure. I believe that it will hurt as we finally cast aside the earthly crutches of sin... crutches such as pride, selfishness, and self-preservational fear. And I believe that the free-will God has given us on Earth will remain ours in Heaven; that it will be up to each of us how long it takes to lay down those crutches, accept God, and be reconciled. The more we rely on those crutches in this existence, the harder it will be to give them up in the next. That is the consequence of sin. It will hurt. Oh, how it will hurt! And how wonderful it will be to finally be rid of them forever and to realize that we've been found worthy to be brought into the bosom of God. Then, and only then, will we be reconciled without qualification, without condition, without excuses and without the need for them.

This is where the modern Catholic emphasis of God the Father first, before God the Master, is important to me. Our time in purgatory will begin to end when we realize that, unworthy as we are, and having not earned it ourselves, we are loved by the Father who made us.

Not all suffering is bad. The surgeon who excises a tumor may leave me with several painful weeks of recuperation ahead of me... but he's saved my life. The pain in my arms and legs when I start an exercise regimen is real, and it really hurts... but it leads to a better me. These are Earthly pictures, Earthly types, of the pain that we are to endure briefly before we come into eternal joy.

I thought this was a very interesting post. A Catholic priest once told me that death is like walking out of a darkened room into the daylight, and purgatory is the time it takes for our eyes to adjust to the light. Likewise, hell is the state of some people who have spent so much time "in the dark" that their eyes have atrophied, and the light causes a pain that will never go away. "An unearthly glare", I think, is what Screwtape once called it. I don't know, but that image always stuck with me.

"We are confident, yes, well pleased rather to be absent from the body and to be present with the Lord."
-2 Corinthians 5:8 (NKJV)

My convictions and faith compel me to affirm that Christ is the way, the truth and the life (John 14:6), and there is only Heaven and Hell, and no in betweens.
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