Is purgatory a faraway place? Or does it begin here and now?
God is a consuming Fire. He alone can refine us like gold, and separate us from the slag and dross of our selfish individualities to fuse us into this wholeness of perfect unity that will reflect His own Triune Life forever. Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation
While the month of November brings to the fore the awareness of the holy souls in purgatory, it also begets an important question: Is purgatory a faraway “place” or is it a state of existence all of us are called to, starting now?
St. John Paul II created a bit of a firestorm during a papal audience in 1999 when he stated during a catechesis on the Last Things, “Purgatory … is not a place, but a condition of existence.”
He continued, “Those who, after death, exist in a state of purification, are already in the love of Christ who removes from them the remnants of imperfection.” (General Audience, July 21, 1999)
Earlier, in Crossing the Threshold of Hope, John Paul II had written:
The “living flame of love,” of which St. John (of the Cross) speaks, is above all, a purifying fire. The mystical nights described by this great doctor of the church on the basis of his own experience correspond, in a certain sense, to purgatory. God makes man pass through such an interior purgatory of his sensual and spiritual nature in order to bring him into union with Himself. Here we do not find ourselves before a mere tribunal. We present ourselves before the power of Love itself … It is Love that demands purification, before man can be made ready for that union with God which is his ultimate vocation and destiny. Crossing the Threshold of Hope, 186-187
The Bible is replete with images that portray God’s love as fire, with a key theme being that the fire of God’s love burns that which it touches without destroying it (Exodus 3:2, Hebrews 12:28). Pope Benedict XVI explained this concept pointedly in the following words:
Jesus sets fire to the earth. Whoever comes close to Jesus, accordingly, must be prepared to be burned …It burns, yet this is not a destructive fire but one that makes things bright and pure and free and grand. Being a Christian, then, is daring to entrust oneself to this burning fire. (God and the World, 222)
It could thus be said that purgation is the experience wherein one is immersed in the fire of the love of God, with the effect being that whatever is not of God, i.e., everything within us that is incongruent with his love, is burned away. As Catholics, we may readily accept that such purgation will happen to us after death. But what we don’t often consider is that the same love we will encounter after death is meant to cleanse us even now, while we are still alive. In fact, the degree to which we allow the fire of God’s love to purify us in this life will determine how much purgation we will need in the next!
So bring on the fire, right?
Well, it’s not quite that simple. Because purification involves the pain of suffering and death, most of us try our darnedest to avoid it.
What within us, exactly, must be purified unto death as we draw near to Christ? While St. Paul called it “the flesh,” Trappist monk Thomas Merton named it the “false self,” which he said is the illusory persona projected by the human ego that “wants to exist outside the reach of God’s will and God’s love … the self that exists only in my own egocentric desires.” (New Seeds of Contemplation, 35)
This is the self that finds its identity in pleasure, popularity, power, posturing and pride instead of authentic love; the self constructed by the ego that gives us an identity of our own making instead of the identity that God invites us to discover only through love of him. This self must die that we might truly live; one must allow it to be stripped away in order to become real and true in loving God, self and others.
Purgatory now? Indeed, may it be so. Let us pray:
Sanctify, O Lord, our souls, minds, and bodies. Touch our minds and search out our consciences. Cast out from us every evil thought, every base desire and memory, every unseemly word, all envy, pride and hypocrisy, every lie, every deceit, all greed, all wickedness, all wrath, all anger, all malice, all blasphemy, all sloth, every movement that is alien to your holy will. Enable us to turn to you, O God, who loves humankind, to call upon you with boldness, with a pure heart, a contrite soul, a face unashamed, and with lips that are sanctified. Amen. From The Divine Liturgy of James the Holy Apostle and Brother of the Lord