Monday is All Souls’ Day so let’s talk about Purgatory. Start with a story.
Some years ago I walked into a wake service to preside and, since I didn’t know the deceased, looked for a family member to give me a bit of background. One of the sons came up and said (I remember this verbatim, and you’ll see why), “Father, whatever you say don’t say anything good about my mother. She was a b**** and everyone knows it.” Well. Cue a very generic homily.
So what happened to Mom when she died, and where was she as we spoke? From the son’s comment it seems likely that the process of sanctification or theosis hadn’t quite come to a successful conclusion by the time of that wake. There was still more work for Mom to do, apparently, to become the “best version of herself” that was God’s dream for her. Enter the doctrine of Purgatory.
Having seen a bit of human nature over the years I realize that the often-heard solicitous comment that “S/he (the deceased) is in heaven now” is meant to console the mourners – but we go off the tracks if we think it’s a reliable guide to what awaits us all after death. I may be wrong, but it seems to me that few people I’ve known have finished becoming “the best version of themselves” by the point of death. (And, while I’m working on it for myself, I strongly suspect that I won’t have the years left to finish the project either before I’ve shuffled off this mortal coil…)
Our church reassures us that this is where God’s mercy comes in. We’re not stuck with what we’ve made of ourselves at death. Nor do we get a second chance with another life. (Religious traditions that trust in reincarnation face the same problem I’m talking about but answer it differently: instead of Purgatory, they anticipate another few – or few thousand – lifetimes to finish up the work. We Catholics see it differently.)
Now no one – including our church – knows exactly what God has in store for us. Some theologians (including Pope Emeritus Benedict) have suggested that seeing God face-to-face provides an instantaneous (although painful) healing for what’s still broken in us. Other descriptions rely on our earthly experience that change happens with hard work over time, and that this is the better metaphor for how God helps us toward sanctification. (Think of working to change a bad habit.)
Perhaps the greatest imaginative vision of this process is in Dante’s Purgatorio. A devout and very insightful Catholic and great poet, Dante understood a great deal about the soul’s transformation in this life and used that insight to craft his poem. In it the souls in Purgatory are given two great gifts: they see clearly exactly what ails them, and are given the opportunity for undistracted work on healing that fault. Their sufferings are not punishments, but exactly the right remedy – self-imposed – for their distorted selves.
For example: in the “Valley of the Rulers” Dante puts good kings; a commentator today says that would be the equivalent in our time of “anxious parents, over-burdened housewives and breadwinners, social workers, busy organizers, and others who are so ‘rushed off their feet’ that they forget to say their prayers.” Another commentator adds to that list, “overworked doctors, psychologists, priests, and ministers … indeed all those who take refuge from themselves in an unreflective pursuit of good, pouring all their energy into the redemption of society or the succor of other people, while blind to their own darkness.” In their Purgatory, they wait. They wait for a fixed span of time they cannot alter, until they learn the proper use of time, something they had failed to do in this life.
But, Dante says, there is one thing that can help them along the way (and here he is fully basing his poem on Catholic teaching): the prayers of the living can shorten their span. Again the Holy Communion of the baptized comes into view, and God’s grace comes to them through others.
On Monday join us if at all possible to pray for the faithful departed. Masses are at 8am, 9am, and 7:30pm. And remember and pray for all those (like “Mom”) who departed this life without finishing their work of sanctification. We can help them along by our prayers. Until next week, peace.