Understanding Purgatory, Just a Tiny Bit

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One thing about Catholic doctrine I have always had a really hard time believing in is Purgatory. Because Jesus never even mentioned it directly, nor was it ever directly described or brought up in the Bible. Vague concepts only, but everything else seemed merely extrapolation.

(This I say with absolute admittance that I have surely not read all the right things.)

But as I look back on my own experiences with suffering, purification, and growth, more and more I realize that the idea of no Purgatory makes no sense at all. As humans with limited vision, perhaps we’ve had to extrapolate because we have so little actual knowledge to go off of. We have to imagine it somehow within the realms of our own concepts if we are to imagine it at all. But then, haven’t we done the same with Heaven and Hell?

Everything to be experienced on earth has to happen in the context of a place and time. But Purgatory is outside of this experience. Perhaps it is not actually a place, and perhaps it does not have time. One thing it certainly is is Purification, but might that not be the very thing–the only thing–it is?

My whole life I thought of Purgatory more in terms of punishment. But the more I learn of God’s mercy, and the more I experience the puricative sort of suffering, the more I realize that “punishment” is so far from the mark. Purification hurts so much. But as I think of the times that we’ve been crippled with depression so long that we had no strength left to even rise and do the dishes, or when we didn’t even know if we’d be able to pay the rent because we’d used up all our money just surviving those episodes–those were the times we fell most completely on God. There was nothing in the way then. There was nothing left but God. And at the time I knew I’d be grateful for the increased intimacy with Him later, but it’s even more than that. I came out of those crippling episodes with less attachment to money and stuff and more knowledge and closeness to God, more peace with knowing He’d take care of us in some way even if it hurt, more desire for His way over my own even without knowing what His way was, even just simply more awareness of His constant presence in general. I would have none of that if the comforts of that false sense of earthly stability and the ability to be “filled” with lesser things hadn’t been torn away from me and filled with something else. That’s purification.

I think Heaven is so wonderful but in ways that are so far down that path of abandonment of ourselves–of losing the need for the trivial things we think we want the most–that we couldn’t even handle it unless we were completely stripped of our need for those lesser things. I expect we imagine Heaven all wrong most of the time, but even so, it’s always the people who are most attached to their own ideas and desires who least like the idea of praising God for the rest of eternity. The more we’re stripped of our attachment to ourselves and our stuff and our dreams, the more exhilarated we are by God because there’s nothing chaining us inside a cave anymore. We need to be purified to be ready for Heaven–not because we need to be punished for all our sins and made to feel guilty about them for that sake alone, but to remove from us everything that is not our truest selves so that we can even handle Heaven in the first place and enter into it with the freedom we were made for.

Right now I am reading The Great Divorce by C.S. Lewis. It is the story of people from Hell taking a bus ride to Heaven and how humans with different sorts of earthly attachments experience the two places. People are actually more comfortable in Hell because that’s the place that lets them stay in their puny, un-noble human comforts. Entering into even the farthest outreaches of Heaven is extremely painful, in part because it is too glorious for their thus far frail human conditions, in part because they cannot want that glory since they are too blinded by the things they think are better and their addictions to them. In this fictional story, Lewis makes Purgatory out to be in the same place as Hell–the difference is if you decide to stay there or go through the painful transformation that is necessary to get you into Heaven. The transformation is not a punishment; it is simply changing the people from being a shadow of themselves to being the full, strong, authentic, substantial beings they were created to be. They are stripped of everything that makes them less.

I wonder if that more than a period of experiencing something like Hell is what Purgatory is really like. The moment when we become our full selves, the shriveled scales that we cling to being torn away so that we can finally come into God’s glory and not only handle it but see it for what it is and love it without holding back.

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