Purgatory as Self-Knowledge
by Fr Alvin Kimel
“God is the Last Thing of the creature. Gained, He is its paradise; lost, He is its hell; as demanding, He is its judgment; as cleansing, He is its purgatory” (Hans Urs von Balthasar).
This statement succinctly states the fundamental approach of contemporary Catholicism to eschatology: the Last Things are understood as aspects and dimensions of the final encounter with the Triune God. The result has been a movement away from the juridical metaphors that have dominated Catholic imagination for the past millenium. “The court room scene,” writes Fr Zachary Hayes, “is replaced with an interpretation in which the primary metaphors are derived from the experience of personal encounter. The traditional symbols are not lost but are given a new interpretation which stands fully within the framework of theological possibilities left open by the church’s magisterial teaching” (Visions of a Future, pp. 115-116).
The interpretation of the Last Things in terms of personal encounter has been widely received within the Catholic Church. A good example is philosopher Peter Kreeft’s popular and insightful work Every Thing You Ever Wanted to Know About Heaven, but Never Dreamed of Asking [Heaven]. Kreeft devotes a chapter to the theme of Purgatory. He also briefly discusses Purgatory in his book Catholic Christianity [CC].
Kreeft notes that the disagreement between Catholics and Protestants on Purgatory seems to be intractable, yet he believes it is resolvable, “if we will only look at Purgatory as the saints do” (Heaven, p. 62). Purgatory, argues Kreeft, logically follows from two facts: our imperfection on earth and our perfection in Heaven. “At the moment of death,” he writes, “most of us are not completely sanctified (purified, made holy), even though we are justified, or saved by having been baptized into Christ’s Body and having thereby received God’s supernatural life into our souls, having accepted him by faith and not having rejected him by unrepented mortal sin” (CC, p. 149). But Heaven requires perfect holiness, not as an arbitrarily-imposed condition, but because Heaven simply is a perfect communion of love and self-giving. No one can love God with all of his heart and soul and body until he has been purified of twisted self-love and liberated from attachments and delusion. If we are not ready for Heaven when we die, then we must somehow be made ready beyond death. Purgatory refers to this process of being made ready for Heaven. Kreeft identifies four essential notes of Purgatory (Heaven, pp. 62-63):
1) Purgatory is a part of Heaven. It is not a distinct “place” between Heaven and Hell. Purgatory is Heaven’s anteroom in which the elect are prepared, cleansed, healed, matured, and sanctified. It is the wash-room, where we shed our dirty clothes and plunge into a hot bath before entering the majestic palace of the King. Purgatory is therefore temporary. There are only two eternal destinies—Heaven and Hell.
2) Purgatory is joyful, not gloomy. Whatever pain may attend the process of purification, it does not diminish the profound joy and triumph of Purgatory. The holy souls have passed through death into life and know that their ultimate destiny is now secure. The sufferings of Purgatory are more desirable than the most ecstatic pleasures on earth.
3) Purgtory is a place of sanctification, not justification. Only the forgiven and justified enter into the final purification. Sin is not paid for in Purgatory but surgically removed. The doctrine of Purgatory neither challenges nor diminishes the finished work of Christ on the cross.
4) Purgatory is a place of education, not works. Purgatory is not a second chance to merit salvation through good deeds but an opportunity to acquire “a full understanding of deeds already done during our first and only chance, and a full disposal of all that needs to be disposed.”
Kreeft acknowledges the long-standing tradition that speaks of Purgatory as the expiation of the temporal punishment due to our sins, but he insists that this punishment must be interpreted by its eschatological purpose—the transformation of sinners into saints:
The reason for purgatory is not the past, not an external, legal punishment for past sins, as if our relationship with God were still under the old law. Rather, its reason is the future; it is our rehabilitation, it is training for heaven. For our relationship with God has been radically changed by Christ; we are adopted as his children, and our relationship is now fundamentally filial and familial, not legal. Purgatory is God’s loving parental discipline (see Heb 12:5-14). (CC, pp. 149-150)
Kreeft’s favorite image of Purgatory is that of reading a book: “Purgatory is reading the already-written book of your life with total understanding and acceptance—the total understanding that comes only from total acceptance” (Heaven, 65). With the story of our mortal lives having reached conclusion, we can step back and read and re-read our stories from God’s perspective, without fear of condemnation, without rationalization and self-deception. Purgatory provides us the freedom to confront our histories and understand our choices and their consequences for ourselves and most importantly for others. “Since in Purgatory,” Kreeft explains, “we do not make different choices but only see and understand clearly all our past choices, the only virtue there is knowledge, and education there does cure all moral ills” (p. 64).
“Human kind,” T. S. Elliot wrote, “cannot bear very much reality.” Humankind cannot bear to see the destruction and horror that it brings into the world, cannot bear to accept the responsibility for the injuries it has afflicted on others. Our offenses, infidelities, greed, lust, and violence ripple through families and communities, affecting people unto the third and fourth generation. We spend much of our time, both individually and corporately, protecting ourselves against this knowledge; but in Purgatory God reveals to us the truth of our lives. Denial is no longer a possibility. God delivers us from our delusions and brings us into reality, into knowledge, into responsibility. This is the suffering of Purgatory.
Sin is purged by sharing in our destiny as light. We see the meaning and the effects of all our sins in Purgatory—their effects on others as well as ourselves, both directly and indirectly, through chains of influence presently invisible, chains so long and effectual that we would be overwhelmed with responsibility if we saw them now. Only a few can endure the saint’s insight that “we are each responsible for all.” … In Purgatory I will experience all the harm I have done, with sensitized and mature conscience. This is a suffering both more intense and more useful than fire or merely physical pain. But I will experience it also with the compassion and forgiveness of God, forgiving myself as God forgives me. … After we remember sin, we can forget it; after we take it seriously, we can laugh at it: after we share in the sufferings of the God Who experienced Hell for us (“My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me?”), we can share in His “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Our experience and forgiveness will be perfect in Purgatory because there we will know. (pp. 68-69)
In C. S. Lewis’s parable The Great Divorce, the visitors from the grey town are met in Heaven by old friends and relatives, who seek to assist them in their journey to God. In love, honesty, and frankness, each speak truth to the visitors. Alas, only one visitor decides to remain in Heaven. The others choose to deny their sins and to return to the grey town. Perhaps this is one of the important functions of the communion of saints—to assist us in the apprehension of our sins. The support of the saints may well be crucial as we read the book of our lives. Reading is most effective when exercised in community. And perhaps in some mysterious way our penitent acceptance of our sins will be instrumental in the healing and final sanctification of those whom we have injured. Perhaps we will even be allowed to ask and receive their forgiveness. The communion of saints, suggests Kreeft, is essential to the process of purgatorial transformation, “for there is no more effective method of religious education than the presence of saints” (p. 72). Even in Purgatory, especially in Purgatory, we need teachers and communicators of holiness. Sanctity is a dynamic, contagious, revelatory power.
“Purgatory, like Heaven,” concludes Kreeft, “is joy and truth. Heaven is the perfection of joy and truth. Hell is the refusal to accept truth and therefore the refusal of joy” (p. 71).
(To be continued)
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