Even before I ever considered joining the Catholic Church, I liked the concept of purgatory. I liked it in the way that it just made sense to me. Heaven is pure. And even through baptism, profession of faith, and confession of sin, humans are still stained. There lingers the sins we forget to consider sins, the desire to sin, the inclination of temptations, the unhealthy attachments to earthly things. It only makes sense we have to go through some cleansing process to enter heaven. It seems more unbelievable to me that some die in a state of grace and get to bypass purgatory and go straight to heaven. We are so undeserving of that gift, but it’s there. God’s always trying to help us get there.
We were talking about purgatory in RCIA last week, and one man said, “I think I’ll go to purgatory.” “Why is that?” “I have a guilty soul.” I have a guilty soul too. I feel bad about something I’ve done even if it was an accident and even if I have long been forgiven by whomever I wronged. The bad feeling lingers. I don’t feel clean. I want to know there is some place to purge all the dirty humanness. I want to be cleaned up for heaven. T. S. Eliot wrote, “human kind/ Cannot bear very much reality.” I think purgatory both purges believers of any lingering sin or guilt and forges them to be capable of existing in such a pure place as heaven.
It’s a beautiful and sensible concept. Of course, the particulars aren’t too pretty. There is punishment and pain, pain upon the soul for which I cannot find an adequate comparison. But there is not hopelessness. There is the communion of saints praying for those in purgatory. And I believe God is still there, watching over them. Purgatory isn’t Lesser Hell. In hell, there is no hope. But purgatory offers hope, a goal. All those in purgatory will one day be united with God. Purgatory is temporal. I think any true believer who wants to be united with God yet recognizes failings would use his/her free will to enter purgatory, just as everyone has the choice to reject God and go to hell. We accept that heaven is worth the punishment and pain.
I don’t know if purgatory exists in time like earth or out of time like heaven. I don’t know how we can know whether someone is still in purgatory or heaven. Even though I think I’m going to have to make a stop in purgatory first, I don’t think of it as necessarily a bad thing. In fact, I shouldn’t think about it much at all, and focus on just being the best Christian I can be, letting the chips fall where they may later.
I’m starting to figure out that for any theological idea I have, there is a saint that said it better. So I’ll conclude with a quote from the Treatise on Purgatory by St. Catherine of Genoa:
When I look at God, I see no gate to Paradise, and yet because God is all mercy he who wills enters there. God stands before us with open arms to receive us into His glory. But well I see the divine essence to be of such purity, greater far than can be imagined, that the soul in which there is even the least note of imperfection would rather cast itself into a thousand Hells than find itself thus stained in the presence of the Divine Majesty. Therefore the soul, understanding that Purgatory has been ordained to take away those stains, casts itself therein, and seems to itself to have found great mercy in that it can rid itself there of the impediment which is the stain of sin.