The Advantage of Suffering – Part 2: Purgatory

In Part 1 of this post, I discussed the concept of putting your suffering to use by offering it up to God. Now I’d like to suggest a specific intention that you can keep in mind if you don’t already have a few that you can pull off the top of your head. This discussion may seem to diverge a little from the topic of suffering and head in a more theological direction, so bear with me. Purgatory is fundamentally tied to suffering, but for those who don’t understand the concept, I want to explain it first.

My understanding of Purgatory (which is certainly not perfect) goes something like this:

When God thought each of us into existence, we were a masterpiece. But we were born defaced by the effects of Original Sin. As we are now, we are not our true selves. We are not what God intends for us to be. But he sees our potential, and he knows we can be transformed back into the perfect works of art that he first created. As we progress through life, our choices have an effect on who we are. We are either cleaning God’s masterpiece off and revealing what he means for us to be, or we are defacing ourselves even further and becoming more and more unrecognizable in his eyes.

foolish-virgings-parable-ten-virgins-explained-e1361384022400If we die unrepentant, we choose to remain apart from God and refuse to allow him to clean us off. We end up like the five foolish virgins in the parable of the ten virgins. Death catches us unprepared, and we are so far from what God intended for us to be that we are virtually unrecognizable. If we demand to be let into heaven, we receive the heartbreaking reply “Amen, I say to you, I do not know you.” (Matthew 25:12) And we have no one to blame but ourselves.

But what if we die repentant? What then?

I think its probably safe to say that few people succeed in completely cleaning themselves up in this lifetime. Most of us will probably die with stains on our souls that we haven’t quite managed to rid ourselves of: various long-ingrained vices, negative or judgmental mindsets, weakness of faith, stubbornness, pride— just to name a few. As long as those stains are there, heaven won’t be heaven for us. It will be exceedingly uncomfortable, even unbearable. Why? Because we will be in the presence of the all-perfect, almighty God, and our failings will be completely laid bare. We won’t be able to hide from them, and they will become as much a torment to us as deep, festering wounds— not because God is punishing us, but because he loves us so utterly and completely and we will be so very painfully aware of how much we have hurt him and let him down.

This is Purgatory.

Purgatory is not some place we are sent to because we didn’t quite make the grade. It’s a state of existence— an uncomfortable one. Yes, Jesus died for us and paid the price for our sins. If we accept that salvation with our whole heart, we are guaranteed a place in heaven; thus, the souls in Purgatory are full of joy amidst their suffering. But they are suffering. It’s not a suffering being inflicted on them by God. It’s as I described before: pexels-photo-274014when we die and stand before the Almighty, if we haven’t died in a state of utter sanctity, we will be like jigsaw puzzles with pieces missing. The price for our sins has been paid, but we are still not fit for heaven. The fact that we are so close to heaven, but not quite there, will, I suspect, be the main cause of our suffering. It will be like a traveler who has past through a desert and is dying of thirst, but has fallen to the ground just short of an oasis. He knows with a certainty that he will make it to the water without dying. He’s come that far. But oh, that remaining distance. Those final few feet of inching forward along the scorching hot sand, pulling himself with shaking limbs towards the Living Waters.

Now, this analogy isn’t quite accurate. We aren’t “earning” our way into heaven on our own steam through our suffering. It’s God’s grace that is cleansing us. But depending on where we are at when we die, that cleansing process might take a while. It might be difficult for us to submit to his healing touch. We might be willing, but hesitantly so, and God will never force himself on us.

Other people have given much better explanations of Purgatory than what I just gave. It’s simply my understanding of it. C.S. Lewis, in his book The Great Divorce, gave an insightful assessment of the matter:

“Our souls demand Purgatory, don’t they? Would it not break the heart if God said to us, “It is true, my son, that your breath smells and your rags drip with mud and slime, but we are charitable here and no one will upbraid you with these things, nor draw away from you. Enter into joy” ? Should we not reply, “With submission, sir, and if there is no objection, I’d rather be cleansed first.” “It may hurt, you know” “—even so, sir.”

The Catechism of the Catholic Church has this to say about Purgatory:

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 into the joy of heaven.

The Church gives the name Purgatory to this final purification of the elect, which is entirely different from the punishment of the damned. The Church formulated her doctrine of faith on Purgatory especially at the Councils of Florence and Trent. The tradition of the Church, by reference to certain texts of Scripture, speaks of a cleansing fire:

“as for certain lesser faults, we must believe that, before the Final Judgment, there is a purifying fire. He who is truth says that whoever utters blasphemy against the Holy Spirit will be pardoned neither in this age nor the age to come. From this sentence we understand that certain offenses can be forgiven in this age but certain others in the age to come.”

This teaching is also based on the practice of prayer for the dead, already mentioned in sacred Scripture: “therefore [Judas Maccabeus] made atonement for the dead, that they might be delivered from their sin.” From the beginning the Church has honoured the memory of the dead, and offered prayers in suffrage for them, above all the Eucharistic sacrifice, so that, thus purified, they may attain the beatific vision of God. The church also commends almsgiving, indulgences and works of penance undertaken on behalf of the dead:

“Let us help and commemorate them. If Job’s sons were purified by their father sacrifice, why would we doubt that our offerings for the dead bring them some consolation? Let us not hesitate to help those who have died and offer our prayers for them.” (CCC 1030-1032)

When you think about it, it makes sense, doesn’t it? But how does this tie into our discussion of suffering? We aren’t dead yet. We’re still on earth.

There are two points I want to touch on.

First off, our suffering on earth can help us to avoid Purgatory after our death. Think of it as an advance payment. Our free choice to accept/submit to suffering in this life is worth more than our potential sufferings in Purgatory. In one sense, people who suffer unbearably in their earthly existence have an advantage over people who don’t. I very much doubt they’ll be spending much time, if any, in Purgatory. Their earthly sufferings suffice to finish the cleansing process of their souls. With this in mind, accepting suffering in life can prove very beneficial to us after we die. But this isn’t the whole of it.

The second point is more important (as far as I’m concerned). We can assist the souls in Purgatory. In fact, they are relying on us to do so. The souls in Purgatory cannot pray for themselves. They rely on the prayers of the living and the saints (those already in the-purgatory-with-figurinesheaven) to secure their entrance into paradise— so pray for your loved ones who have died. All of them. Even the ones who died years and years ago, or those who seemed like hopeless causes. Especially the ones who seemed like hopeless causes. God is outside of time. Your prayers now can assist someone who died decades ago. God can apply the graces you request for them in their final moments, since he sees you praying for that person fifty years after his or her death at the same instant as that person is dying. Your prayers have the potential to open that person’s heart to God, even if it was closed for an entire lifetime. And for those already in Purgatory, your prayers are like soothing balm applied to their wounds.

But even more than your prayers, you suffering can assist them. Just as you can offer your suffering up for a specific intention, you can offer your suffering up for the suffering souls. It’s like what Simon of Cyrene did for Jesus in carrying the cross. You ease their burden. And the wonderful thing is that the souls can return the favour. They can’t pray for themselves, but they can pray for those of us still on earth, and their prayers hold a lot of sway with God— more than ours do. They are much closer to Him than we are, and He takes pity on them in their suffering. You can even specifically ask the souls there to pray for you in exchange for your prayers for them. It’s a beautiful exchange. The value of your suffering is suddenly multiplied. It can be used to ease the suffering of those in Purgatory, or even completely free them, and their prayers for you in turn multiply the grace that your acceptance of your sufferings would have bestowed on you in the first place. And you better believe the souls you free will be watching over you in heaven and interceding for you with God, not to mention being there to pray for you if you wind up in Purgatory yourself.

So, to sum up this post and the previous one in a single sentence: if you accept your suffering and offer it to God, it can prove to be a huge advantage for you, and for others, because of the value it holds in His eyes. I encourage you to give it a try.

Also, I didn’t pull all these facts about Purgatory out of thin air. Most of what I know 51wavceqsblcomes from the marvelous book Day by Day for the Holy Souls in Purgatory: 365 Reflections by Susan Tassone. It’s a very powerful, enlightening read, and I encourage you to check it out if the subject is interesting to you.

Have any questions? I encourage you to go take a look at this fascinating blog post by an Evangelical Protestant convert to Catholicism. He addresses several objections that most Protestants raise regarding Purgatory, and he does so very insightfully. It’s safe to say he has more knowledge about the subject than I do. If you still have any questions after that, feel free to leave me a comment.

Until next time,

Take care, and God bless!

Kasani

 

 

The Advantage of Suffering – Part 1: Offering it Up

“Brothers and sisters, I am now rejoicing in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am completing what was lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church.” ~ Colossians 1:24

Suffering is an unfortunate fact of life, and people with mental illnesses experience their fair share of it. The suffering is compounded for those with comorbidity (when a person has two or more illnesses occurring at the same time. e.g. Fibromyalgia often occurs in patients with mood disorders) or when personal tragedy strikes. There are no easy answers to the problem of suffering, although a number of excellent books have been written on the subject (Making Sense out of Suffering by Peter Kreeft and The Problem of Pain by C.S. Lewis are two examples). There’s nothing I can tell you that hasn’t been said more eloquently and with better insight by someone else, but I’m hoping to offer you a way of looking at your suffering that allows you to make use of it to achieve something positive.

pexels-photo-326559First off, allow me to chuck a few assumptions out the window. I’m not going to elaborate on the idea that “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” My friend and I have a joke that according to that rule we should both be able to bench-press semitrailers by now. It has some credence. Pain changes you, often for the better. But not always. Then there’s the saying that “pain is just weakness leaving the body.” To be blunt, I think that’s one of the stupidest sayings in existence and anyone who tosses it at me receives a withering glare. Pain creates weakness, not the other way around. I’m not talking about athletes and soldiers who have to physically push themselves to the breaking point to achieve a goal. That kind of pain does make you stronger, in a very literal sense. You become physically tougher, with better endurance and better abilities.

Mental illness doesn’t do that.

Depression leaves you curled in a ball of self-loathing pain on the floor, unable to even decide which clothes to wear and lacking the energy to put them on anyway. Hypomania takes your thoughts, shakes them up like a bottle of pop and makes it impossible to remain seated long enough to read one page of a textbook (which wouldn’t have worked anyway thanks to your racing thoughts), and if it progresses to full-blown mania you might get to spend some time in a psych ward. Anxiety gives you panic attacks that leave you paralyzed, unable to breathe, unable to act, so terrified and miserable that you’re afraid you’re dying. ADHD does the same thing to your thoughts as hypomania, except it’s 24/7, 365 days a year, and people blame you and make fun of you for struggling with a disorder that lots of them don’t even think is real. People with schizophrenipexels-photo-551588a suffer through hallucinations and delusions that very few people can even begin to comprehend. People with borderline personality disorder struggle with the lonely misery of alienating the people they love because of their behavior, which the disorder makes very difficult to control.

The list goes on and on, and outside of a Christian context, it can be difficult to find positive things within that mire of unpleasantness. There are some: You might develop coping mechanisms that give you strength. You might get used to your disorder and become more resilient to its effects. You might become more compassionate towards the suffering of others. Or not. Ultimately, mental illness makes life a lot harder than it would be otherwise, and to what purpose? How can there be an advantage to suffering? How can you possibly turn abject misery into something good? Unless you’re coming at it from a Christian perspective, I don’t think you can.

Now, when it comes to Christianity and suffering, one of the first objections to God that atheists and agnostics toss out is that very thing: why would an all-powerful, all-good and loving God allow suffering in the first place? I don’t claim to have the answer to that, but this post  by Tianna Williams does a lovely job of tackling the subject. For now, I want to offer some concrete suggestions to believers about how suffering can be put to good use. These will not take away your suffering. They will simply give it a purpose, and that can make it easier to bear.

There are two concepts in particular I want to discuss. One of them is Purgatory, and I’ll be attempting to tackle that in Part 2 of this post. As far as I know, Protestants don’t believe in it, so if you’re Protestant then that might not be of much use to you. But there’s a lot of confusion and misunderstanding revolving around the concept of Purgatory and I might be able to clear some of that up for you, so I encourage you to check it out anyway. The other concept can apply to Christians of any denomination, without question, although I’m not sure if it’s something that is discussed much outside of the Catholic church. I’ll tackle that concept first.

keep-calm-and-offer-it-up-7If you’re Catholic, you’ve probably heard of the idea of “offering up” your suffering to God for a purpose. Or you might not have. A few years ago, I had heard about it, but for a long time I had no understanding of its value. I wasn’t close enough to God to feel inclined to try it, especially when I was in the midst of intense suffering. It was an airy-fairy sort of subject that sounded to me like a half-hearted consolation prize handed out by people who didn’t know what else to say to someone in pain. I’ve since revised that opinion. Part of my confusion came from not knowing how to offer my suffering up. It wasn’t as if I could grab it off a shelf and give it to God. I also couldn’t understand how offering God my suffering could have any value. Suffering was forced on me against my will. It wasn’t as if I was making any special effort to do something for God by experiencing it. And then there was the question “if I offer my suffering up, does that mean I can’t ask God to take it away?”

All of this conspired to keep me from exploring the subject. I also, deep down, still resented God a little for having to deal with the suffering in the first place. If you resent God for your suffering then it’s pretty hard to make any use of it at all. It took me a long time to accept the grace that allowed me to pull that deeply rooted weed out of my heart. But once it was gone, I received a whole new dimension to my world-view. Christ’s suffering and death redeemed the entire world. He died once, for all. But that doesn’t make all of the suffering in the world that’s come since his death obsolete and useless. Suffering has merit.

“Dear in the eyes of the Lord is the death of his devoted” ~Psalm 116:15

Other versions of the bible read: “Precious in the eyes of God is the death of his saints.” It means the same thing. God values our suffering. He understands deeply just how much we hurt. It moved him to send his only begotten Son to earth to die for us on the cross. It gave our suffering a purpose. Because Jesus opened up the gates of heaven for us, we can join our suffering to his on the cross and do something with it. I didn’t understand this idea at first. How can I join my suffering to Christ on the cross? For some reason the idea didn’t ‘click’ with me. Then I was given another way of looking at it: because Christ used his suffering and death to pay the price for our sins, we can now go to God with our suffering and say “you used your Son’s suffering to redeem me and the world. Please use my suffering too.”

God can make use of suffering. Don’t ask me how. I don’t know. But he does. When you’re praying for something, maybe for a loved one, or for the resolution of a problem of some sort, you can take whatever suffering comes your way and embrace it for the sake of that intention. You essentially put your money where your mouth is: “God, instead of resenting this bout of depression, I accept it willingly for the sake of my loved one who has turned away from you. Please make use of it to guide her home.” Now, this doesn’t mean you can’t pray for God to take the suffering away. You can. But by accepting it with patience for as long as you’re forced to endure it (or at least making an effort to do so; it isn’t easy) you gain great merit for yourself and for the intention you’re offering it up for. (You can also offer it up as a penance or mortification, but I’ll discuss that in a later post.)

This is one of those things that’s easier said then done. In theory, it’s an exciting possibility. God used his Son’s suffering to redeem me, so he must be able to use my suffering to accomplish something too! In the same breath, we have to keep in mind that we aren’t Jesus. He was a perfect, innocent human being without blemish (not to mention, he was also God). He didn’t deserve any of the suffering he endured on this earth, but he embraced it anyway for our sake. No amount of suffering on our part will ever come close to being worth that kind of merit. Despite being redeemed by his death, we are still sinful creatures. But our suffering can still have great worth when we attempt to imitate Christ by picking up our cross and following him.

This idea also plays into my discussion of Purgatory in Part 2 of this post.

Until then, take care and God bless!

Kasani