Imagining what purgatory will be like shows us our hope for justice. And forces us to acknowledge our faults.
“Our souls demand Purgatory, don’t they? Would it not break the heart if God said to us, ‘It is true, my son, that your breath smells and your rags drip with mud and slime, but we are charitable here and no one will upbraid you with these things, nor draw away from you. Enter into the joy’? Should we not reply, ‘With submission, sir, and if there is no objection, I’d rather be cleaned first.’ ‘It may hurt, you know’ – ‘Even so, sir.’ “ —C.S. Lewis, Letters to Malcom: Chiefly on Prayer, pp 108-109
An unexpected benefit of my conversion to the Catholic faith was the realization that I didn’t have to go to Hell, even though I was not worthy to enter Heaven. I had known before catechesis that Confession was supposed to wipe away one’s sins, but I didn’t think that 65 years of wrong-doing could actually be erased.
As I learned more about Catholic teaching, I found out that Purgatory was prefigured in the Old Testament: 2 Maccabees 12:44-45, Malachi 3:3, Isaiah 4:4, Micah 7:9, Psalm 66:12. I also learned that despite medieval descriptions, Purgatory was not a less painful version of Hell, where we were punished for our sins, but a regime in which we would be cleansed and made suitable to enter heaven. As the Catechism has it:
“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.” —CCC 1030
So, what will my Purgatory be like? Rather than taking an exhaustive list of my sins, venial and mortal, and giving a purgative cure for each (this isn’t a confessional), let me examine just one: impatience/ irritation. Now, what should Purgatory accomplish with me on that front? Rather than a behavioral remedy, such as administering an electric shock so we avoid committing the sin, it should change our soul, so in our innermost being we abhor the sin and refrain from it.
Here’s how that change in soul might be accomplished for this specific example — at least in my imaginings. I’ve often dealt with online or telephone help desks—problems with a computer, credit or cell phone charges, etc. Quite often the people who man these help desks are contract workers in other countries—their command of English is adequate, but their accents make them hard to understand (for this old guy with hearing problems). So I blow up, I get nasty, I don’t call them names, but I do everything I can to make them feel little and inadequate.
What better way of making me understand how bad my behavior is than to put myself in their place, to be the recipient of insult, snide remarks about competence, an angry voice? I will be the help desk person, and those seeking help will be speaking Latin (which I know a little of), or German (ditto), or French (also).
Of course, this is just me recognizing a fault and imagining what I might find a suitable purgation, but God’s ways are not ours, nor our thoughts his (so don’t take this scenario to the bank or use it for your RCIA homework). But yes, a chastisement should be our due, and if it is one that makes us experience the effect of our sins, so that we truly repent and abhor them, I will feel it a just punishment.
It may take a while, though, as in my case, there are many such faults.