Friday, May 11, 2012

In Defense of Purgatory

Perhaps the most criticized doctrine of Catholicism is that of Purgatory.  And, why shouldn't it be?  It's not explicitly named in the Bible.  In the Middle Ages, certain Church folk would use it as fundraising tool, promising liberation from time in Purgatory in exchange for donations.  Catholicism seems to have made up purgatory, so why not criticize it?

Unless, of course, Purgatory makes sense.
Looks painful, but anything worthwhile
 typically is painful.
There's a misunderstanding among Catholics and non-Catholics alike about Purgatory.  The general notion of Purgatory is that Purgatory is a place of pain and suffering (but not as much suffering as hell) in which a person does time and after which they are released into Heaven.  This notion is only accurate in the vaguest notion.  While we can say that Purgatory has a degree of pain and suffering the rest is not entirely true.  Rather than "serving time" as one would be in prison, Purgatory is a period of cleansing.  Rather than a place (like Heaven and Hell), Purgatory is an action, a state, a transition.  Purgatory is like the butterfly's cocoon, a metamorphosis of the soul into a being of heavenly beauty.

So why do we need Purgatory? Well, while it isn't in the Bible, it is in the human heart.  When we are confronted with a thing of Truth, Goodness, or Beauty, we want to change to be more like that thing.  For example, suppose a man meets a truly extraordinary woman, and he falls in love.  He will want to be a better man, not for his sake, but for her sake.  The same basic principle is present in the soul of a person after death.  Once they have been caught in the gaze of Heaven and so enraptured by heavenly beauty, the soul will want to ensure that it is absolutely in the best possible condition it can be.

Heaven is a place of absolute perfection.  The heart of a person in Heaven has no impurity because it cannot have impurity.  Think of a miner coming into daylight from the mines.  While light is certainly a good thing, one that he needs, the bright glare of daylight burns his eyes because for so long, they've been in darkness.  He needs a period of adjustment, a time in which his eyes adjust.  It is similar for the soul who, after death, while saved, has found that living in our relatively dark world has made him inadequately suited for Heavenly brilliance, and thus, those inadequacies are washed away in Purgatory.

Now, a good critic might pipe in "But Joe, isn't Christ's grace sufficient enough?"  Of course it is!  And it is precisely the principle at work here.  It is the chisel, the purging flame at work in Purgatory.  The Grace of Jesus Christ is that which causes Purgatory in the first place.  Purgatory is not a place of merit, at least not in our notion of the term.  Purgatory is where Mercy works to make perfection.  "So why is it painful? Why wouldn't Christ just zap away our imperfections lickety split?" asks our intelligent, inquisitive critic.  Simply put, because grace is always painful.  Name a time in your life in which you improved without some sort of pain, whether that be spiritual growth or simply following a diet.  Grace, for whatever reason, comes as a blissfully painful experience, whether here or hereafter.

Our souls need purgation.  Whether in this life or life eternal, the Love of God evokes within us a desire to be better, and the vision of Heaven, even if far off, evokes within is the desire to be perfect.  Going straight to Heaven after death (for most of us) would be a dissatisfying experience because our very nature would demand that we be perfect, it would beg to be purged.  In God's infinite mercy, our pleading for purgation is heard and answered in Purgatory.

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