I Believe in Purgatory

Purgatorial experiences can form a fundamental part of our spiritual journey.

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When the Protestant Reformers threw out the doctrine of purgatory, they had good cause for doing so. They found no scriptural warrant for the highly developed, late medieval doctrine. The doctrine was also a pastoral disaster. It intensified people’s fear of death. And it opened the door for all kinds of ecclesiastical exploitation of that fear.

But in throwing out the abusive bath water that clung to medieval notions, the Reformers may also have discarded an insight important to wise pastoral counsel and spiritual direction.

The Spiritual Insight Behind the Doctrine

The insight behind the doctrine of purgatory grows out of the belief, shared by Catholics and Protestants, that the ultimate goal for human beings is to live forever in the glorious presence of God. Catholic theology calls this the beatific vision of God. Protestants do not usually use that language, but they do talk about the life of glory in the presence of God that lies ahead in the next life.

The insight is that human beings cannot endure the glorious presence of God as long as they remain entangled with the sins and corruptions of this life. There must be a process of purification that happens before any human being can enter into that glory. Protestants confess that basic conviction every time we sing these words “…though the eye of sinfulness thy glory may not see…” in the beloved Trinitarian hymn “Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God Almighty.”

But how does that necessary purification take place? Catholic and Protestants do not have a common vision on the how. Catholics have traditionally seen the how as a process that goes on after death, sometimes for a long time. As a result medieval Catholicism spun out a whole vision of purgatory as lasting years, if not centuries or millennia, after death.

Purgatory was conceived a kind of mini-hell with assorted torments and demons. It differed from hell in one important feature. Anyone in purgatory would ultimately make it into heaven. Anyone in hell would not.

 This view of purification allowed a lot of abuses to arise. The church taught that the living could lessen the suffering of the dead in purgatory through indulgences and private masses. The church sold them as a way of raising funds. This turned a pastoral concern into a mercantile concern. It is one of the abuses that so disgusted Martin Luther. It helped spark the Protestant Reformation.

As a result Protestants have generally seen the purification process as instantaneous upon death. Death itself is the purification. So Protestants generally hold to no view of purgatory in the medieval Catholic sense.

My view is that we simply do not know how the purification process works after death. Is it a process (Catholic purgatory) or an instantaneous act (Protestant purgatory)? Who knows? But I take it as a given that some purification process/act must take place. In that sense I believe in purgatory, but not in the medieval vision.

The Essence of a Purgatorial Experience

For me the essence of purgatory is the cleansing of all that blocks us from being the kind of human beings that God has always intended us to be. Those blocks are sometimes habits, attitudes, and behaviors that cut us off from God, from other people, and from our own inner selves. They are blocks we create for ourselves.

In other cases the blocks are wounds that have been inflicted upon us by other people or by tragic circumstances in life. We may not be responsible for those wounds, but they block us nonetheless from freely loving God, others, and ourselves.

In essence then, I think of purgatory as healing and liberation. We are being set free to become our authentic selves, the unique, beautiful, and loving selves that God has always called us to be. In the process we also find our authentic voices.

What fascinates me is how that process can begin even before our physical deaths. There are times in the process of spiritual and psychological growth when we find our lives shattering and crumbling away. Old orders and structures that we have relied upon to give meaning and stability to our lives undergo a massive emotional earthquake. Old stabilities crash. (This can also be true for cultures.)

At such times we can sink into despair and give up. At the same time such experiences can also issue in a call to be patient and let God reconstitute our lives in a healthier, more wholesome way, a way that leads us through fire and water into a more spacious place (see Psalm 66:12).

The sufferings we experience as those old stabilities collapse and new, more wholesome orders emerge can feel like we are in hell. No one can promise that liberation will be painless or instantaneous. Israel, after all, was forced to wander in the wilderness for 40 years after leaving the slavery of Egypt. Those 40 years were not simply a punishment for faithlessness. They were also a long and necessary part of the process by which God was forming a new people.

And so it is in our spiritual journeys, too. We can also go through times of intense pain as we grow up spiritually. Maybe those times of suffering are the required spiritual surgery that transforms our hearts of stone into warm, loving hearts.

A Parable about the Purgatorial Experience

This reminds me of a story that a friend sent me years ago. A women’s Bible study group were studying the prophet Malachi in the Old Testament. In Malachi, chapter three, they encountered these verses:

But who can endure the day of his [God’s] coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fuller’s soap; he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the sons of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, till they present right offerings to the Lord. (Malachi 3:2-3)*

These verses are describing a kind of purgatory experience, not however in the afterlife but within history.

The women wondered what these verses were saying about the character and nature of God. What might the purification of silver say about spiritual purification? One woman offered to find out more about the process of refining silver and report back at their next meeting.

She called up a silver smith and asked if she could come and watch him work. She said she was curious about the process of refining.

As she watched the smith at work, she saw how he held a piece of silver over the fire and let it heat up. He explained that in order to refine silver, one needed to hold the silver in the middle of the fire where the flames were hottest. The flames would burn away the impurities.

She asked the smith if he had to sit there the whole time in front of the silver as it was being refined. He answered yes. He not only had to sit there holding the silver, but he also had to keep his eyes on the silver the entire time it was in the fire. If the silver was left even a moment too long in the flames, he said, it would be destroyed.

She was silent for a few minutes, then asked, “How do you know when the silver is fully refined?” He responded, “Oh, that’s easy–when I see my image in it.”**

I like this story because I think it gets at the essence of what a true purgatory experience is all about. It places us in an experience of suffering so that the image of God which we each are–and paradoxically that image of God within us is also our true self–can begin to shine forth.

What Is Purifying about Suffering?

What is it that is so purifying about suffering? I don’t think there is anything inherently purifying about suffering per se. What purifies is how we respond to it. Suffering can trap us in the dark side of life, so that we respond with despair, anger, and bitterness. If these attitudes get an iron grip on us, we will experience suffering as a present-day experience of hell.

But there is an alternative way to respond to suffering. We can allow our suffering to nurture within us a sense of compassion, compassion for our own suffering selves as well as compassion for other suffering people. As we suffer, we can develop the empathy to understand and be with others in their suffering. And that compassion begins to build the bonds of love.

If our own suffering issues forth into compassion for ourselves and for others’ suffering, then indeed we are beginning to reflect back the image of God. For the whole message of the gospel is how God expresses his true character in the compassionate living and suffering of Jesus.

God is one who humbles himself to enter into the suffering bodies, minds, and history of humanity, to walk with us through the suffering (absorbing it into his own being), so that in union with him God can lead us through our suffering into the glorious kingdom of love that is coming.

When suffering does that, it becomes a purgatory experience. For we are then each coming to fully reflect the face of our compassionate God in our own lives. And in my book that is a primary feature of salvation and sainthood.


* If this passage sounds familiar, you may be hearing how it was set to music in George Frederic Handel’s oratorio Messiah, where it is given a Christological understanding.

** I do not know the ultimate source of this story. A friend sent it to me as a e-mail. But the story has always appealed to me as a parable of the spiritual life. If you would like to watch an example of silver refining, you may want to watch this YouTube video.

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9 thoughts on “I Believe in Purgatory

  1. I like your interpretation of Purgatory, Gordon. I think of it as the Christian version of reincarnation as a purifying process – since it is difficult to conceive of someone with very bad habits (among whom I include myself) achieving beatific peace in God’s presence without completing a process of purgation of what you (& my Buddho-Christian New Age community back in the ’70s) call ‘blocks.’ Do you WHEN in Church history this doctrine started to be complicated?

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  2. According to Oxford scholar Diarmaid MacCulloch, the medieval doctrine of purgatory arose around the 11th century. It had roots in earlier theologians, especially some of the monastic writers influenced by the Alexandrian theologian Origen. The medieval doctrine grew up along with the growth of the parish system of church organization in Europe. It tried to address a pastoral concern, a concern of laity that they did not have enough time to remedy their lives in this life in order to qualify for heaven. It reflects the fact that death was a constant reality in medieval Europe. It came to be a prominent aspect of European Christianity after the Black Death, when Europe everywhere had to address the ubiquity of death and the obsession of people in dealing with it. Interestingly, it was a very popular doctrine in northern Europe, precisely the area where Luther would find a popular response to his denunciations of its abuses.

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    • Patrick, thank you for your comment. You are right that there are allusions to an emerging doctrine of purgatory in the patristic writings, but according to Diarmaid MacCulloch in his magisterial history of Christianity, the doctrine did not reach its fullness until the early Middle Ages. The Protestant Reformers were reacting against that full-blown doctrine, not the allusions in the early Fathers. So that’s why I talk about it as a medieval doctrine.

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      • But why deny it when the First Christians believed in Purgatory? It is evident from their writings. If the Reformers reacted to anything, it was the teaching of the fathers as well.

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      • Patrick, the New Testament makes no reference to purgatory. That is one of the prime reasons the Reformers rejected the doctrine. According to MacCulloch, Clement of Alexandria (3rd century) talked about progress in the spiritual life possibly involving a fiery purging after death, but he did not develop his ideas in any detail. That waited upon developments in medieval theology. That’s why I still maintain that the doctrine of purgatory is a medieval doctrine, not a patristic one.

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      • The following Church Fathers writings can only be understood unless the believed in a purgatory. The idea of Purgatory was nothing new to the Reformers.

        St. Clement of Alexandria (lived from 150-215 AD)

        “Accordingly the believer, through great discipline, divesting himself of the passions, passes to the mansion which is better than the former one, viz., to the greatest torment, taking with him the characteristic of repentance from the sins he has committed after baptism. He is tortured then still more — not yet or not quite attaining what he sees others to have acquired. Besides, he is also ashamed of his transgressions. The greatest torments, indeed, are assigned to the believer. For God’s righteousness is good, and His goodness is righteous. And though the punishments cease in the course of the completion of the expiation and purification of each one, yet those have very great and permanent grief who are found worthy of the other fold, on account of not being along with those that have been glorified through righteousness.” (Stromata 6:14 [c. post AD 202])

        Tertullian of Carthage (lived from 160-230 AD)

        “We offer sacrifices for the dead on their birthday anniversaries.”
        (The Crown 3:3 [A.D. 211]).

        Why would the Early Christians offer sacrifices for the dead? They obviously wanted to help their departed. Why? Because they believed in Purgatory.

        “A woman, after the death of her husband . . . prays for his soul and asks that he may, while waiting, find rest; and that he may share in the first resurrection. And each year, on the anniversary of his death, she offers the sacrifice” (Monogamy 10:1–2 [A.D. 216]).
        Here, we find Tertullian speaking of prayer for the dead! The Christians would not pray for the dead if they did not believe in Purgatory.

        St. Lactantius (lived from 240-323 AD)

        “But also, when God will judge the just, it is likewise in fire that he will try them. At that time, they whose sins are uppermost, either because of their gravity or their number, will be drawn together by the fire and will be burned. Those, however, who have been imbued with full justice and maturity of virtue, will not feel that fire; for they have something of God in them which will repel and turn back the strength of the flame.” (Divine Institutes 7:21:6 [c. AD 307])

        St. Cyprian of Carthage (lived from 200-258)

        “The strength of the truly believing remains unshaken; and with those who fear and love God with their whole heart, their integrity continues steady and strong. For to adulterers even a time of repentance is granted by us, and peace [i.e., reconciliation] is given. Yet virginity is not therefore deficient in the Church, nor does the glorious design of continence languish through the sins of others. The Church, crowned with so many virgins, flourishes; and chastity and modesty preserve the tenor of their glory. Nor is the vigor of continence broken down because repentance and pardon are facilitated to the adulterer. It is one thing to stand for pardon, another thing to attain to glory; it is one thing, when cast into prison, not to go out thence until one has paid the uttermost farthing; another thing at once to receive the wages of faith and courage. It is one thing, tortured by long suffering for sins, to be cleansed and long purged by fire; another to have purged all sins by suffering. It is one thing, in fine, to be in suspense till the sentence of God at the day of judgment; another to be at once crowned by the Lord.” (Letters 51[55]:20 [A.D. 253])

        St. Cyril of Jerusalem (lived from 318-386)

        “Then, after the spiritual sacrifice, the bloodless service, is completed, over that sacrifice of propitiation we entreat God for the common peace of the Churches, for the welfare of the world ; for kings; for soldiers and allies; for the sick; for the afflicted; and, in a word, for all who stand in need of succour we all pray and offer this sacrifice. Then we make mention also of those who have already fallen asleep: first, the patriarchs, prophets, apostles, and martyrs, that through their prayers and supplications God would receive our petition; next, we make mention also of the holy fathers and bishops who have already fallen asleep, and, to put it simply, of all among us who have already fallen asleep, for we believe that it will be of very great benefit to the souls of those for whom the petition is carried up, while this holy and most solemn sacrifice is laid out. And I wish to persuade you by an illustration. For I know that many say, what is a soul profited, which departs from this world either with sins or without sins, if it be commemorated in the prayer? For if a king were to banish certain who had given him offense, and then those who belong to them should weave a crown and offer it to him on behalf of those under punishment, would he not grant a remission of their penalties? In the same way we, when we offer to Him our supplications for those who have fallen asleep, though they be sinners, weave no crown, but offer up Christ sacrificed for our sins, propitiating our merciful God for them as well as for ourselves.”
        (Catechetical Lectures 23:5:8-10 [A.D. 350])

        St. Cyril is making mention of the liturgy of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, which commemorates it’s diseased members, and prays for them! He says that the Sacrifice of the Mass, petitioned to the souls of the dead, will benefit them greatly!

        St. Ephraem of Syria (lived from 306-373)

        “Lay me not with sweet spices: for this honour avails me not; Nor yet incense and perfumes: for the honour benefits me not. Burn sweet spices in the Holy Place: and me, even me, conduct to the grave with prayer. Give ye incense to God: and over me send up hymns. Instead of perfumes of spices: in prayer make remembrance of me.” (His Testament [c. ante AD 373] XIII:135)

        St. Ephraem asks the other Christians to pray for him after he dies!

        St. Epiphanius of Salamis (lived from 315-403)

        “Useful too is the prayer fashioned on their behalf [of the deceased], even if it does not force back the whole of guilty charges laid to them. And it is useful also, because in this world we often stumble either voluntarily or involuntarily, and thus it is a reminder to do better.” (Panarion 75:8 or Medicine Chest Against All Heresies [c. AD 375])

        Prayer for the dead is useful for them!

        St. Gregory of Nyssa (lived 335-395 AD)

        “If a man distinguish in himself what is peculiarly human from that which is irrational, and if he be on the watch for a life of greater urbanity for himself, in this present life he will purify himself of any evil contracted, overcoming the irrational by reason. If he has inclined to the irrational pressure of the passions, using for the passions the cooperating hide of things irrational, he may afterward in a quite different manner be very much interested in what is better, when, after his departure out of the body, he gains knowledge of the difference between virtue and vice and finds that he is not able to partake of divinity until he has been purged of the filthy contagion in his soul by the purifying fire.” (Sermon on the Dead [A.D. 382]).

        That purifying fire sounds a lot like the purifying fire in Purgatory…

        St. John Chrysostom (lived 349-407)

        “Let us help and commemorate them. If Job’s sons were purified by their father’s sacrifice [Job 1:5], 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 to offer our prayers for them.” (Homilies on First Corinthians 41:5 [A.D. 392]).

        Again, prayer for the departed…in 392 AD!

        “Weep for those who die in their wealth and who with all their wealth prepared no consolation for their own souls, who had the power to wash away their sins and did not will to do it. Let us weep for them, let us assist them to the extent of our ability, let us think of some assistance for them, small as it may be, yet let us somehow assist them. But how, and in what way? By praying for them and by entreating others to pray for them, by constantly giving alms to the poor on their behalf. Not in vain was it decreed by the apostles that in the awesome mysteries remembrance should be made of the departed. They knew that here there was much gain for them, much benefit. When the entire people stands with hands uplifted, a priestly assembly, and that awesome sacrificial Victim is laid out, how, when we are calling upon God, should we not succeed in their defense? But this is done for those who have departed in the faith, while even the catechumens are not reckoned as worthy of this consolation, but are deprived of every means of assistance except one. And what is that? We may give alms to the poor on their behalf.” (Homilies on Philippians 3:9–10 [A.D. 402]).

        St. Ambrose of Milan (lived 339-397 AD)

        “Give, oh Lord, rest to Thy servant Theodosius, that rest Thou hast prepared for Thy saints….I love him, therefore will I follow him to the land of the living; I will not leave him till by my prayers and lamentations he shall be admitted unto the holy mount of the Lord, to which his deserts call him.” (De Obit Theodosii [c. AD 395] or Migne PL 16:1397)

        St. Ambrose is praying for one of his diseased friends! He hopes (future tense) that his friend, Theodosius, will be admitted onto the “holy mount of the Lord.” The holy mount could only be Heaven. If there is only Heaven and Hell, then where is Theodosius waiting to be admitted?

        St. Augustine of Hippo (lived 354-430 AD)

        “There is an ecclesiastical discipline, as the faithful know, when the names of the martyrs are read aloud in that place at the altar of God, where prayer is not offered for them. Prayer, however, is offered for other dead who are remembered. It is wrong to pray for a martyr, to whose prayers we ought ourselves be commended” (Sermons 159:1 [A.D. 411]).

        “But by the prayers of the holy Church, and by the salvific sacrifice, and by the alms which are given for their spirits, there is no doubt that the dead are aided, that the Lord might deal more mercifully with them than their sins would deserve. The whole Church observes this practice which was handed down by the Fathers: that it prays for those who have died in the communion of the Body and Blood of Christ, when they are commemorated in their own place in the sacrifice itself; and the sacrifice is offered also in memory of them, on their behalf. If, then, works of mercy are celebrated for the sake of those who are being remembered, who would hesitate to recommend them, on whose behalf prayers to God are not offered in vain? It is not at all to be doubted that such prayers are of profit to the dead; but for such of them as lived before their death in a way that makes it possible for these things to be useful to them after death” (Sermons 172:2).

        “Temporal punishments are suffered by some in this life only, by some after death, by some both here and hereafter, but all of them before that last and strictest judgment. But not all who suffer temporal punishments after death will come to eternal punishments, which are to follow after that judgment” (The City of God 21:13 [A.D. 419]).

        “That there should be some fire even after this life is not incredible, and it can be inquired into and either be discovered or left hidden whether some of the faithful may be saved, some more slowly and some more quickly in the greater or lesser degree in which they loved the good things that perish, through a certain purgatorial fire.” (Handbook on Faith, Hope, and Charity 18:69 [A.D. 421]).

        “The time which interposes between the death of a man and the final resurrection holds souls in hidden retreats, accordingly as each is deserving of rest or of hardship, in view of what it merited when it was living in the flesh. Nor can it be denied that the souls of the dead find relief through the piety of their friends and relatives who are still alive, when the Sacrifice of the Mediator [Mass] is offered for them, or when alms are given in the Church. But these things are of profit to those who, when they were alive, merited that they might afterward be able to be helped by these things. There is a certain manner of living, neither so good that there is no need of these helps after death, nor yet so wicked that these helps are of no avail after death” (Handbook on Faith, Hope, and Charity 29:109).

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