The Thing About Purgatory (homily)
November 2nd, 2008
Purgatory is one of those strange Catholic ideas that most people don’t get and that even most Catholics don’t get. The idea developed over centuries, was for a time very important to Catholics, and since Vatican II has been de-emphasized. I never heard a thing about it in seminary when I was studying to be a deacon. There’s only one page about it in the 700 pages of The Catechism.
And yet tonight, on the feast of All Souls, when we pray for our beloved dead, it’s good to think about the idea of Purgatory and how useful it is, and encouraging, and instructive.
I think it teaches us five very important lessons.
Lesson One: Don’t be Over-specific.
The Muslims believe in Purgatory, too, and imagined it, in the Middle Ages, as a mountain that rises out of the ocean in the Southern Hemisphere. The great Catholic poet Dante borrowed this idea in his Divine Comedy, picturing Purgatory as a seven-story mountain. He describes it in great detail, right down to the plants and the rocks, and he thinks of it as a joyous place. People are glad to suffer for a higher end. They’re always singing.
But Dante was a poet and he was making things up and he expected all of his readers to know that he was making things up. In the few paragraphs it devotes to Purgatory, and to Heaven and Hell, The Catechism doesn’t give us any details. It doesn’t talk about devils with pitchforks or angels with wings. There’s nothing about boiling in pitch or floating on clouds. As in every other central dogma in the Church, there’s a wonderful open-endedness in what the Church teaches, and that’s because the truths that dogma attempts to describe are mysteries. We can’t know the details.
And that leads to the second lesson: Don’t be Literal.
For one thing, Purgatory isn’t in the Bible, and that’s OK. There are a few hints about it here and there, but nothing specific. The idea of Purgatory is the result of the Church’s long reflection on the nature and identity of God, it comes from philosophy and theology, and that, too, we believe, is the source of revelation. Scripture is one source of revelation, but so is tradition, and thinking, and the ongoing life of the people of faith.
For another thing, in these general paragraphs about the afterlife in the Catechism, what the Church stresses is the idea of relationship with God. Heaven is to be in communion with God, hell is to be out of communion with God. They’re not really places exactly. We can’t imagine them in human terms. Purgatory is the same way. Pope John Paul suggested that maybe Purgatory is something that happens to us instantaneously in the moment of death, but in any event, he said, “purgatory does not indicate a place, but a condition of existence.”
This is really important, in all our thinking about faith. We have to keep from believing that our images for God are really God. They’re not. “The mystery of blessed communion with God,” The Catechism says of heaven, “is beyond all understanding and description.” God isn’t a Democrat and he isn’t a Republican and he’s not even Catholic, and the place where He dwells isn’t really a place and he’s not really dwelling there, and he’s not necessarily a he or a she anyway, because dwelling and place and he and she are human metaphors, not divine realities.
Lesson Three: Don’t Just Think About the Afterlife but About This Life.
The Church’s teaching about Heaven and Hell and Purgatory is meant to assure us that life continues after death, but it’s also, the Catechism says, “an urgent call to conversion.” We create hell on earth when we sin. We create it for others and for ourselves. Just look around at the poverty and the hunger and the suffering in the world. But we can create heaven, too, or glimpses of it, if we act for justice. Thy Kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven, we pray in the Our Father, using the image of heaven as a model for the kind of world we should strive to bring about in the meantime.
Lesson Four: Choice. Freedom.
The Catechism assures us that “God predestines no one to go to hell,” that God wishes no one to perish. “I will not reject anyone who comes to me,” Jesus says in the Gospel today, and this is the key, the center, what so many people don’t understand and so fear. God doesn’t put anyone in hell. We put ourselves there. Jesus doesn’t reject anyone. Anyone. All we have to do is come to him, of our own free will, and we will be saved in the end.
I’m sorry to keep quoting the Catechism, but this is really important, and I want to take this chance to say it and stress it and for you to know that it has the authority of the Church. For any of us to go to hell, The Catechism says, “a willful turning away from God is necessary, and persistence in it until the end.” We can’t go to hell on a loophole. We don’t have to be perfect to get to heaven. God wants all of us, all of us, without limit, without quotas, exactly as we are. All we have to do is to turn even a little bit in his direction. All we have to do is to take the slightest breath, make the smallest move.
And that leads to the final lesson: Lesson Five: The Infinite Mercy of God.
OK. So we believe that God loves us and that we have only to choose. But we also know that none of us are perfect, and that we all make mistakes, and that we won’t be perfect the moment we die, at least most of us. We won’t be ready. So what happens? Purgatory is the Church’s answer. Purgatory is the result of the Church’s long thinking about this. Purgatory is the Church’s way of following out the infinite logic of God’s infinite mercy. If we’re not perfect at the end of our lives, but God’s mercy is perfect, there must be a way--however mysterious, however much it exceeds our human understanding of time and place--there must be a way for us to purify ourselves after death, to get ready, to keep going, to keep following the path. Purgatory is the Church’s term for describing this way. It’s like we get to go to a divine aerobics class, to work off the weight of our sin. It’s like we get to go to a divine therapist and keep unraveling our neuroses, even after we die.
And whoever is willing to do this, is in. Whoever is willing to do this, gets to heaven.
But of course, these, too, are just metaphors, my metaphors, and they are metaphors for a love we can never understand but only believe in. The key is that love. The key is to not be afraid. The key is to rejoice. The Church isn’t a courtroom and God isn’t a judge. The Church isn’t a machine and we’re not the faulty circuits.
But wait. Metaphors again. Only metaphors. In God is the reality. God is reality. And that reality is love: not anger, not nothingness, not rigid, silly rules. Love.
That’s what Purgatory is about.