The Sunday Gospel
November is the month when we remember those who have died and we pray for the souls in purgatory. Purgatory is not specifically mentioned in the Bible but the doctrine of purgatory is a beautiful development which holds in unity two ideas that might appear to be contradictory.
The doctrine of God’s holiness reminds us of God’s majesty, unique otherness, glory and light, far beyond anything we might imagine, much less deserve. The other doctrine is of God’s loving mercy. The all-holy God whom we could never deserve is also the God of mercy who gives us a process of purification, namely purgatory. St Paul tells us that eye has not seen, ear has not heard, it is even beyond our imagination all that God has prepared for those who love him. Purgatory is the bridge across the deep chasm between our unworthiness and the dazzling light of the beatific vision.
Punishment or purification?
Many of us grew up with a Catechism which told us that purgatory was a state or place of punishment where some souls suffer for a time before they go to heaven. The current Catechism of the Catholic Church, published in 1994, under the watchful eye of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the future Pope Benedict XVI, paints a very different picture. “All who die in God’s grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified, are indeed assured of their eternal salvation; but after death they undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven” (Catechism 1030). The old Catechism spoke of punishment and suffering. The new Catechism speaks of assured salvation and a process of purification.
St John gives us this beautiful, uplifting insight into our future. “My dear people, we are already the children of God but what we are to be in the future has not yet been revealed; all we know is, that when it is revealed, we shall be like him because we shall see him as he really is. Surely everyone who entertains this hope must purify himself, must try to be as pure as Christ” (1 John 3:2-3).
So, what has to be purified? Any way of thinking or behaving contrary to love of God and love of other people. Hands up anybody who thinks that he/she is 100% perfect in charity.
Great spiritual directors down the ages have listed seven deadly sins or fault lines in our make-up: pride (glorification of me), covetousness, lust, envy, anger, gluttony and sloth (laziness). These are roots of thought and behaviour which are contrary to the light of Christ. They are like cataracts, a sort of fog that gradually grows over the lens of the eye. Nowadays a cataract can be removed and replaced in a brief surgery. A lady who had cataracts removed from both eyes told me, “I had forgotten what colour was like”. A person who has allowed sinful behaviour to develop has lost the colourful memory of God’s love and human dignity. Some people refer to the loss of one’s moral compass. One of the psalms reads: “Sin speaks to the sinner in the depth of his heart. There is no fear of God before his eyes.”
A gradual therapy
Sometimes an unexpected happening, a moment of grace, can be a sudden eye-opener resulting in a conversion of life. But this sudden experience will need further development. Purgatory, meaning purification in God’s merciful love, is a gradual process. Step by step, as one is increasingly overwhelmed by the experience of God’s love, the cataracts of selfishness, lust, anger, injustice etc. are cleansed from one’s vision. The journey to God is completed when the eyes of the soul are completely cleansed. This is the beatific vision. “Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God.” A person is then like a mirror, returning a perfect reflection of God. As we have heard from St John, “we shall be like him because we shall see him as he really is”.
Is there suffering?
Is there suffering in purgatory? Yes, but not physical pain or burning in fire. Purgatory is God’s therapy of mercy. Psychotherapy or physiotherapy can cause a stab of pain when an injured part is touched, but this is a step towards healing. “The truth shall set you free.” The therapy of God’s love which we call purgatory confronts one with the painful truth of how one falls short of perfection. It is the pain you feel when you recognise how much you have hurt others, or when you have allowed selfishness govern your life, or when you realise how much God loves you and how poorly you have loved in return. That’s the pain of love which is beautiful because it only comes in experiencing an overwhelming divine love.
Are the souls happy?
Next question, are the souls in purgatory happy? Yes, intensely happy. As the Catechism says, they are assured of their salvation. They are coming ever closer to the vision of God’s glory. Not for one moment would they come back to this lesser level of life and love. Would the butterfly return to its former existence as a slimy grub?
The oldest document in the New Testament is Saint Paul’s First Letter to the Thessalonians. There we read the belief of Christians from the earliest times. “We want you to be quite certain about those who have died, to make sure that you do not grieve about them, like the people who have no hope. We believe that Jesus died and rose again, and that it will be the same for those who have died in Christ: God will bring them with him” (1 Thessalonians 4:13).
Prayer in union with the souls in purgatory
O Lord, my God, for you I long, for you my soul is thirsting.
When can I enter and see the face of God?