As I have done supply work in various parishes I have discovered that the parishioners in general and even a number of priests have lost any belief in purgatory, and that surprises me more than a little. I am aware that purgatory has little or no scriptural basis, yet the whole concept of a certain experience of passage through a transitional state between our lives on earth and our life in heaven seems so obvious to me that I feel that it must be true (within limits).
Purgatory: An Event or Experience
I may be making the mistake of assuming that because an idea makes sense to me and seems so rich that, therefore, it must be true, yet my vision of purgatory seems to fit what we know of ourselves and of God so well that I nonetheless feel justified in proposing it publicly.
Let me be clear: I do not consider purgatory to be any sort of place or locus which God created for our punishment; I believe that it is, rather, an event or experience that is part of our passing into the fullness of God’s presence. Our birth into this earthly world is a significant change of status for us, is somewhat traumatic, and needs, afterwards, a cleansing of what remains from our existence in the womb; so too our birth into eternal life demands a cleansing and a healing of the wounds we acquired by our sins and, in addition, an ending to the “disordered attachments” of our lives in this world, our holding onto anything that is not God himself or part of our eternal worship of the Three in heaven.
Like Peter in the Courtyard
As far as the sin-cleansing aspect of purgatory is concerned, I look to Peter’s experience in the courtyard of Caiaphas as the high priest and the Sanhedrin judged Jesus. Jesus had foretold Peter’s betrayal, and when the cock had crowed the second time and Jesus turned to look at him, Peter felt a terrible shame, guilt, and deadly embarrassment (Lk 22:54-62). I can well imagine his feeling a tremendous burning as he had to face what he had done, and I believe that any human entering God’s presence undergoes this same overwhelming experience.
I would say that when we finally see, with our eyes finally wide open, all the love and care that God has shown us throughout our lives and see, at the same time, how little we have profited from that love, how slow of heart we have been and how downright sinful, we will turn from God in reaction for we will know how profoundly unworthy we are of being in His presence forever.
Weak Spot for Repentant Sinners
A second stage of this passage (only in an analytical sense), an even deeper burning, comes when the open arms of Love itself draw us nonetheless to the heart of the Trinity, where the compassion and mercy of our God will purify us and transform us into perfect beings of light and glory (Lk 15:21). That heart of God is a perfect blaze of eternal affection for us — Jesus always had a weak spot for sinners, especially repentant ones, and the Father and the Spirit are no different!
But this purgation from sins, faults and flaws is not the only change we experience as we enter into the Eternal Presence; God also frees us from all our suddenly unimportant attachments to earthly things, ideas and people so that we can finally live fully in His presence and concentrate on what is essential: His love for us and the love we shall eternally return to Him there.
The possessions that we will leave behind will become as meaningless to us as our first diapers, and as for our very limited human ideas — ambitions, careers, patriotism, political leanings, even personal views of theology — they will all disappear in our new way of existing as fully focused on God. Even gender, race, nationality, native language, weight, age and handicaps will all disappear or be radically subordinated and relegated only to our memory and the personal history that made us who we will be (cf. Col 3:10-11; Gal 3:28).
Saints in Heaven
As for the people we knew and loved, we will see them, no matter how dear to us in this life, as mere brothers and sisters that we love like all the others. They may have a special claim on us, yet we will respond to their love and petitions as all saints do — for if we are in heaven, we are indeed saints.
All of these were attachments we held as God’s children still on earth, still working on emptying ourselves so that God might fill us as He pleased. He will take them from us simply by revealing himself, and we will not find this loss to be any more painful than taking a bath.
There will be at least some rearrangement of who we are in all of this, a reconfiguration of the elements that constitute us, but it is all part of our transformation into completely spiritual beings who nonetheless retain such gifts as intelligence, memory and a personal history, which will become part of our identity as we praise and love God (cf. 1 Cor 13:13).
The Example of the Caterpillar
If this series of changes seems a little unlikely, we might consider the caterpillar, who leads a very humdrum life and then passes to a seemingly entirely different form of existence in a cocoon. The passage from there to the butterfly stage is far more rapid and shows another fairly radical change of form but with no question of the continuing identity. Our change from fetus to conscious and active human and then to joyful saint is at least as radical and profound as this.
So instead of our current form we will move through a certain changing process to a new and supposedly final form, one which we will need to adapt to. That form, however, will be what we have always aimed for; it will not be another transitional state, with one exception: our new form will in fact be transitional in the sense that by our nature we will not stop “growing” when we reach it but will actually constantly increase in our knowledge of God, our love of God, and our praise of God for all eternity.
Let me add the note that this entire passage from our earthly life to our heavenly one will be virtually instantaneous, which makes little sense to say because it will take place outside of time; it will seem more like a popcorn kernel exploding in a microwave.
What does our prayer for the souls in Purgatory do in this case? I would say that, just as always, we are asking for a reduction in their pain. I think that such prayer is justified even if it is not a first priority — such as praying for those who have no knowledge of Christ or who do not accept Him as their Lord and God.
I don’t know whether this view of purgatory and our experience of it is at all accurate, but I hope that it will at least stimulate some reflection and maybe add to the future homilies we give during this Lenten season, and, especially, during the last weeks of the liturgical year.
FATHER KESTERMEIER, S.J., teaches in the English Department and is a campus chaplain at Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska.