Today’s topic is technically not a “Last Thing”, for purgatory is never the last stop in anyone’s life. It is simply a way-station on the road to Heaven. Eventually purgatory will be emptied out and will cease to exist. But it fits in a series about life after death, as many of us will inhabit purgatory for at least a little while after our deaths.
Purgatory, of course, is a particularly Catholic doctrine: Protestants reject its existence and Eastern Christians conceive of a “middle state” quite unlike the typical Western depictions of purgatory. What do Catholics believe regarding this purging state of the after-life? Like our discussion of Hell, it is first important to state what the Church has defined in regards to purgatory. There are only two definitions:
- The souls of the just which, in the moment of death, are burdened with venial sins or temporal punishment due to sins, enter purgatory.
- The living Faithful can come to the assistance of the souls in purgatory by their intercessions.
What is interesting is what is NOT defined: there is no description of what happens in purgatory, how long someone stays in purgatory, or how exactly our prayers help those in purgatory. All we know for sure is that purgatory exists and our prayers help those in that state. Over the centuries, however, many mystics and saints have written powerfully about purgatory, and while their writings are not dogma, they can be helpful for our understanding of what purgatory might be like.
The main purpose of purgatory is purging. Every sin that a person commits leaves a stain on them. A mortal sin leaves a deadly stain, one that separates the soul from God. But even a venial sin is a terrible thing and wholly opposed to an all-holy God. No one who is burdened by even a venial sin and its stain can stand in the presence of the All-Holy One. Some Christians argue that what God does is simply ignore our sins or “cover” them with the righteousness of Christ and this action allows us to be in the presence of God. But this cannot be the case, because it would be a lie – God would be declaring someone pure who is, in fact, not pure. God does not simply cloak our sins for all eternity, He purges them from us, thus making us truly holy. One analogy is that purgatory is like a shower which cleanses us and prepares us for our entrance into heaven.
But the image of a shower is a bit weak, as most visions and images of purgatory in the Catholic tradition include the concept of pain – purgatory is seen as a place of suffering. Why is that? I think our own experience here on earth should answer that question: when are we ever made better or purged of imperfections and it is NOT painful? Think of the Olympic athlete who must prepare his body for competition: the process can be extremely painful. Think of the process of becoming holy in this life: do we not have to be disciplined in our prayer life and offer up our sufferings for our own salvation and the salvation of others? Even Christ had to go through his passion for our salvation. Simply put, the process of purging is almost always a painful one and purgatory is no different. But one thing to remember is that purgatory will also be a completely joyful state, as the souls in purgatory know with certainty that they will one day be with the blessed in heaven. There is no chance of rejecting God or even committing a sin in purgatory, and this alone brings deep joy to the heart.
This month of November, please remember to pray for the souls in purgatory – especially those souls who have no one else to pray for them.
The next post in this series will be the last one, as we look at the goal of all human existence: communion with God for eternity in Heaven.