Today is November 2nd, All Soul's Day, the day we especially remember the souls of the faithful departed who are awaiting unity with God in heaven. Purgatory is the name we give to the place where these souls undergo their final purgation, or cleansing, before entering into the beatific vision.
Pugatory isn't an easy thing for me to write about, particularly since it wasn't a part of my spiritual formation as a Protestant. But when I think of the mercy of God, it becomes much easier to comprehend.
For our God is truly a loving and merciful God. We know this is true because he sent his only begotten Son, the Word made flesh, to be born of a human mother. He was dependent upon her and his foster father for protection and the basics of life because, although he was God, he was also a helpless newborn. He came down from heave to save people from their sins and enter into a deeper relationship with all mankind. He lived among the people of his time in poverty and humility. Then, he who was without sin, was convicted as a common criminal, to suffer an ignominious death on a cross on our behalf, all because of the unspeakable mercies of God. If God would go to all that trouble, just to extend his mercy and love to all peoples for all times, shouldn't we clean up our act a little bit before we pop on over to heaven? Maybe scrub our hands and faces and put on some wedding clothes before the great wedding feast?
I think of those people we all know who may not have professed a faith in Jesus while alive, but tried, for the most part, to live a good life. The all-loving and all-merciful God wants nothing more than to spend eternity with them in heaven. Couldn't he give them one very last chance at saying "yes" to Christ's atoning death? Perhaps at that point of death, when all truth is revealed, the soul will have a chance to see themselves as they truly are before God and to choose life or death; heaven or hell. But wouldn't that soul, once saved, need a little final polishing before being ushered into heaven? Wouldn't it be a good idea if they were given a chance to atone for some of their wrong doings? At this point, Protestants may say, "Christ's death atoned for sin! There is no more atonement to be done!" Yes, he forgave us and he paid the ultimate price for our sin. But we also have some culpability to acknowledge. The owner of the broken window may have forgiven us for hitting a baseball through the window, but we are still responsible for fixing the broken window. Our free will is still free to hold on to anger, malice, greed, lust and pride. We have to get rid of all those. We have to fix our broken windows.
Dante Alighieri, in the second book of the Divine Comedy, Purgatorio, has given us a vivid image of the suffering souls in purgatory. They are suffering with joy because they know they are only there temporarily and their ultimate destination is heaven. Their suffering is intense because they long to finish their atonement quickly. Whenever the main character, Dante himself, stops to question any of the souls in purgatory, they never stop or pause in their toils. They answer his questions but also tell him they must not tarry--they must quickly go and continue in their work of purgation. They also ask him for prayers, for they can not pray for themselves, only for others. The only time there is indication they pause in their work is when the bells toll and songs ring out for a soul that has completed his time in purgatory and is released into heaven. Then all of purgatory rejoices together. When I read the Divine Comedy with my high school students last year, Purgatorio was my favorite book. It seemed so real to me. It was far easier to comprehend than Inferno or Paradiso. Dante had painted a picture of purgatory that appealed to my frail human psyche. The top of Mount Purgatory holds the Garden of Eden; the place God made for mankind before the fall. The place we were all meant to be before sin entered into the world. Dante's description of the Garden appealed to my senses because it was an earthly paradise and I can only fathom that which my senses have known. The joys of heaven are beyond description and beyond my human comprehension.
In C.S. Lewis's children's story, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Eustace Scrubb is turned into a fiery dragon, and can only be redeemed by Aslan's peeling off his dragon skin and bathing him. Aslan tells him he must undress before getting into the water, so Eustace peels off several layers of his dragon skin. But there is still another layer that he can't remove without Aslan's help. It's a painful experience for poor Eustace. He describes it as such: "The very first tear he made was so deep that I thought it had gone right into my heart. And when he began pulling the skin off, it hurt worse than anything I've ever felt. The only thing that made me able to bear it was just the pleasure of feeling the stuff peel off." Surely purgatory must be something like that. We can only shed our sinful pleasures to a certain degree, but to go really deep, we'll need some divine help.
The national news was filled with the story of "the six last words of Steve Jobs" this past week. When I first heard the news anchor report the story, I chuckled. I thought it was a joke. But the news outlets were all agog. The six amazing words spoken by Steve Jobs as he looked past his wife and children? "Oh wow. Oh wow. Oh wow." Then he died.
Yep, I'm thankful for purgatory.