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.
If 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: when 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 heaven) 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 comes 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!