Saturday, October 23, 2010
Letter to Fleming N. Ferneau continued: PURGATORY
“But.” you may say, “in grade school, I was taught that purgatory was like hell, but with a get out of jail free card. And then we got a new nun who wore a polyester pants suit instead of a habit who told us that the Catholic church didn’t believe in purgatory anymore.”
I wonder if you heard either nun clearly. Just consider the impossible task that these poor young women faced. They tried to instruct 30 or 40 truculent seven-year-olds in the mysteries of eternity. Most people can’t even handle two or three of the little terrorists. We older folks got the impression as seven-year-olds, that God was a crabby old man who was just waiting for us to mess up. The dear nuns finally got tired of holding us miniature tigers by the ears and, since terror hadn’t worked that well, they started emphasizing how nice God is, so that people your age think God has the disposition of Captain Kangaroo. So what is the truth? I, of course, shall take a stab at it.
We do believe that there is such a thing as Purgatory. Let’s take a peak at what the catechism says.
Paragraph 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. Paragraph 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 and Trent. The tradition of the Church, by reference to certain texts of Scripture, speaks of a cleansing fire.
But, you may say, why isn’t Purgatory mentioned in the Bible? Simple: the Bible is written in Greek and Hebrew. The word Purgatory is a Latin word that means “place of cleansing.” The Bible talks about judgment (Hebrew: mishpat) for us judgment is always a bad thing; not so for the ancient Hebrews. It was the dispensing of wisdom, which didn’t always end in punishment.
The Jews, to this day, have a saying, “When the Messiah comes...” Unresolvable disputes about property or inheritance or other thorny issues will just have to wait ‘til the Messiah comes. Judgment is about the decisions of God, the perfect Judge. His verdicts and laws are just. He knows what is best for humanity. If we learn God’s judgments expressed in His commandments and cherish them in our hearts, we avoid a lot of trouble and sorrow. Read Psalm 119. The word judgment is used twenty-three times and it’s a good thing.
I often talk about people I know who have died and lived to tell about it. They talk about judgment in which they review their lives. I have heard people say they experience all the pain they’ve caused. Youch! That’s gotta hurt.
Here’s what the Bible says (1 John 3:2) “Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when He appears, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is.” In other words God wants to transform us into His own image in order to adopt us as His sons and daughters. He doesn’t simply want to smite us.
The Judgment/Purgatory, is about love. It is one of the most beautiful ideas in the Bible. It means that if we die in the Lord, we continue to grow after we die. Those you love who have died don’t love you less, they love you more because as they enter the vision of God, they become like Him. The fires of Purgatory are the fires of love that burn away our selfishness and smallness until we arrive at the very stature of Christ (...we all attain to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ. Ephesians 4:13)
Death does not break the bond between believers . It intensifies it. A fellow who had been there and back told me that not only do our prayers rise to heaven, but that when we pray from our hearts, our spirits stand before God and become like one spirit. In other words, we stand in unity with those we love before the judgment throne of God. It is a good and noble thing to pray for the dead who have died in the Lord, to support them as they begin real life. For most believers, life really begins in purgatory. This sad world is just a very brief beginning. CS Lewis talks about purgatory beautifully in his Screwtape Letters:
“But when he saw them (the angels) he knew that he had always known them and realized what part each one of them had played at many an hour in his life when he had supposed himself alone, so that now he could say to them, one by one, not "Who are you?" but "So it was you all the time"..... The dim consciousness of friends about him which had haunted his solitudes from infancy was now at last explained;......he saw Him. This animal, this thing begotten in a bed, could look on Him. (The vision of Christ) is now cool light to him, is clarity itself, and wears the form of a Man. .....Pains he may still have to encounter, but they embrace those pains. They would not barter them for any earthly pleasure. All the delights of sense, or heart, or intellect, with which you could once have tempted him, even the delights of virtue itself, now seem to him in comparison but as the half nauseous attractions of a raddled harlot would seem to a man who hears that his true beloved whom he has loved all his life and whom he had believed to be dead is alive and even now at his door. He is caught up into that world where pain and pleasure take on limitless values and all our arithmetic is dismayed.....”
So yes, we believe in Purgatory and I am so glad that we do.