I’m not sure why, as Advent begins, I’m thinking so much about Purgatory, but here I am. Purgatory.
We tend to think of Purgatory as a place of punishment, where the “payment” of our sins is exacted. You know – the analogy of the kid breaking the window: the vandalism is forgiven, there is no prosecution of criminal charges, but the kid still has to make restitution.
I’m not satisfied with that analogy. Never have been. I always dismissed my discomfort as being remnants of Protestant theology – that Christ not only forgave the debt, he marked it “Paid in Full” with his sacrifice on Calvary.
Besides, as I have been thinking in recent days, it’s Purgatory – whose root is “Purge” – which means not to punish, but to clean! You’ve eaten something you ought not, you’re prescribed a purgative – not for punishment but to clean the poison out of your system.
Purgatory does just that. After all, when we die, we don’t cease being ourselves – with our loves, affections, habits, and attachments. We carry those things with us, because they are attributes of our heart.
Too many of those attachments are not proper to bring into the presence of God. Habits – of thought and behavior – that have held us in their grip while we live on this earth have to be purged from our hearts. Things we loved that are not consistent with Divine Love – they have to be released once and for all.
“For he is like a refiner’s fire,” goes the alto Aria in Handel’s Messiah – from Malachi 3:2-3 – and the refiner’s fire is the white-hot fire that burns the dross from fine metals, leaving only the pure metal behind.
That’s what Purgatory does, it is the fire of God’s love that burns out the residue and dirt from our earthly lives.
Some of us experience forms of purgation on earth: sickness, sorrows, losses that leave us somehow purer and closer to God than we were before. We think in terms of hell when we suffer – “He’s been to hell and back,” I’ve heard it said of people who’ve been through intense sufferings – but in fact this is part of the great Purgation that scours us down to the fundamentals.
That is not to say that the process is completed on earth. For some, maybe, the saints – those people who love with such single-minded passion that all else fades into insignficance… Perhaps they get immediate admittance into Heaven. But I’m not ready, and I don’t know of anyone who is – except maybe Mother Teresa of Calcutta, who served God by sheer dint of will when her emotional dimension was full of dark and her Lord felt far, far away.
But we can welcome these experiences as part of our preparation for meeting God face to face, in Heaven. This Advent, when we are focused, in the liturgical season, on preparing for His Coming, let us embrace the purgations we experience here below, and even embrace voluntary mortifications in order to hasten that process – of the sort we associate with Lent.