Though he was Protestant, he loved this Catholic teaching.
Funny that a man so Protestant pushed the value of Purgatory. You don’t expect it. But there C.S. Lewis is, saying in one of his last books, “I believe in Purgatory.” Lewis explains why in Letters to Malcolm, a book of letters to a fictitious friend published just after Lewis died.
He liked Dante’s picture in the Purgatory section of his Divine Comedy. He didn’t like the way some later writers presented Purgatory as what he called “temporary Hell.” He took that to be “the Romish doctrine,” because he didn’t understand the difference between the Church’s teaching and the way some people present it. No, he said, not that, and most of us would agree. Those writers really are grim compared with, say, Pope Benedict XVI in Spe Salvi.
Lewis liked the idea of Purgatory as a place of purification. John Henry Newman’s long poem “The Dream of Gerontius” helped him make sense of it.
This gets at one of the things that make his books so powerful, and so useful for Catholics despite their being so Protestant. Lewis had a Catholic sense that you must be what God made you to be. The Church doesn’t just want you saved from your sins. She wants you to be made holy. In fact, God making you holy is the way He saves you from your sins. The Church knows that making you holy isn’t magic, that you’ll need reshaping and that will hurt. It’s not just a matter of wiping away your debt. It’s a matter of making you a person who doesn’t go into debt.
Lewis’ sense of this is why even though a Protestant, he liked the Catholic promise of Purgatory.
Our souls demand Purgatory
“Our souls demand Purgatory,” Lewis writes Malcolm. “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 joy’?” Yes, he believes, it would break the heart.
We would tell God that we’d rather be cleaned up first, he said, even if it hurt. We want Purgatory because we know we need purging. We look at Jesus who is perfect Goodness and desperately want to be perfectly good ourselves, no matter what it costs, no matter how long it takes. We want to be just like our hero.
It won’t be easy, though. “I assume that the process of purification will normally involve suffering,” Lewis says. The Christian tradition tells him this, but he also knows it from his own life. “Most real good that has been done me in this life has involved it.”
But, he continues, “I don’t think suffering is the purpose of the purgation. I can well believe that people neither much worse nor much better than I will suffer less or more. … The treatment given will be the one required, whether it hurts little or much.” God will clean you up in the way you need to be cleaned up, and you’ll want it even if you don’t like it.
He offers a useful image for the experience that conveys both the reward and the trouble of getting it. It’s like having a tooth pulled. “I hope that when the tooth of life is drawn and I am ‘coming round,’ a voice will say, ‘Rinse your mouth out with this.’ This will be Purgatory. The rinsing may take longer than I can now imagine. The taste of this may be more fiery and astringent than my present sensibility could endure.”
Well done, good and faithful servant
I loved this when I first read it, because Lewis made clear something I’d only dimly understood. Even as a barely Christianized and generically Protestant young man, I liked the idea of Purgatory. Looking back, I’d seen the thing Lewis describes.
A guy I knew looked forward to Marine boot camp. The rest of us thought he was crazy. That was like looking forward to having a root canal in every tooth. He wasn’t crazy. He didn’t just want to be a Marine, he wanted be a real Marine, a Marine from the inside out. He actually wanted to endure the pains of boot camp because he wanted to hear the Marines’ equivalent of “Well done, good and faithful servant.”
Lewis’ teaching isn’t so deep or so rich as Benedict’s. It certainly isn’t so completely Catholic as his. But he does make clear, and a little more clearly than the pope emeritus, why we should like the promise of Purgatory. He shows us why it’s not “temporary Hell” but training camp for Heaven.
For the other articles in the “C.S. Lewis Tells You” series, see: