People don’t talk much about Purgatory these days, and fewer seem to believe in the notion of it any longer. I don’t blame them, as it seems to have arisen as a doctrine in the Middle Ages. And it was surely abused with the development of indulgences and the construction of St. Peter’s on the proceeds accrued from selling them. It is also based on a penal metaphor, of imprisonment for the lasting effects of our sins, which still have to be remedied after we die (sort of like the notion of structural sin today). And I don’t like the imagery that attaches to it: a fiery place somewhat like Hell, but with the proviso that it’s not eternal, but rather temporary—a kind of after-death extension of the miseries of human life, yet even more painful.
But I can live with all that if it all means the guarantee of Heaven. Purgatory gives me hope.
First of all, it means that God continues to love me, even if I die as the radically sinful person that I am. The lure of God is eternal. I have more “time” and what’s passed in this life is not the end of the story. What’s true of me would be true of all of us. (Some people turn to reincarnation for this comfort; I turn to Purgatory). What it really means is that I’ll be closer to God than ever before, because the fire of God’s love is preparing me for seeing him face to face–somewhat like the Tin Man getting polished before entering the heart of Oz.
Second, it means that people pray for one another, even after we die. Catholic piety has us praying for the dead (the Church Suffering), a way of linking us with the dead who are more like ourselves, and not the lofty, often unapproachable, saints, who do not need our prayers. We ask the saints for their favors, of course, but praying for the souls in Purgatory is a comforting link between life as we know it and the fate of people just like us, who don’t necessarily feel quite ready for the “prime time” of Heaven when they die.
Lastly, Purgatory is not permanent: the glory of God awaits us at the end of it. Unlike those described in Hebrews 11, who suffered beyond belief, only to be denied entry into the Promised Land, we actually get there in the end.
So, in my estimation, Purgatory ain’t so bad, and I’m pretty sure that’s where I’m headed.