Once, when I was teaching moral theology, a student who wasn’t Catholic asked me about purgatory. I explained that, in this life, we retain numerous attachments to earthy goods and concerns, selfish wants, resentments, prideful aspirations that have little to do with our relationship with God. We dread the approach of death because there’s too much in this world we aren’t prepared to leave behind if that’s what going to heaven requires. It’s not that we don’t love God or want to be with him in heaven. It’s that we don’t love God and want to be with him in heaven quite enough—that everything else in our lives is getting in the way and it needs to be burned away.
So, I explained that, for Catholics the thought of a sudden death is unappealing. Traditionally, Catholics have prayed that death not take us by surprise because it’s the kind of thing you want to be prepared for. Many Protestants see salvation as a unilateral gift of God uncorrelated to our personal conduct, and so, don’t really worry too much about their frame of mind at the time of death. They already know they’re going to heaven. But generally, if you push against this view even a little, you find that most people get the idea that I can’t go to heaven if I don’t want to be there—if I want other things instead that I can’t have if I have heaven. That’s why we want to go into death with our eyes wide open. It’s our moment of truth, when we climb up onto the Cross and decide whether to be the penitent thief on the right hand of Christ or the recalcitrant thief on his left.
What does preparation for death look like? At the bare minimum, it looks like wanting to go to heaven and detesting our sins. But better still, it looks like preferring nothing to God, not just abstractly but concretely and immediately. Here and now, given a choice, no matter what we’re in the middle of doing or planning to do, there’s nothing I’d like to hear more than, “Come, you who are being blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom which he has been preparing for you from the foundation of the world” (Matthew 25:34).
Honestly, most of us can’t say that, and that’s why we all need purgatory. But purgatory doesn’t have to wait until the end of life. In fact, it shouldn’t. Ideally, it should start now, so that by the time our lives in the world come to an end, there’s nothing left to give up—there’s nothing left standing between me and God. Everything and everyone I love, is just caught up in our embrace.
Francis Thompson’s poem, The Hound of Heaven, is a really great picture of what the process of purgation looks like in the life of a an obstinate and prideful person. The protagonist is trying as hard as possible not to be saved, but God eventually crushes him beneath the weight of his unrelenting Love and Mercy, until he resigns his will to the will of God. I strongly recommend this poem as serious spiritual reading, especially for Lent.
So, Thompson is talking about conversion from obstinate sin, but even for those of us who start out as Christians, if we’re really self-aware and serious about our spiritual lives, the idea expressed in this poem rings true. Conversion isn’t just a one-time thing. For Christians, it’s a way of life—it’s the Way of Life—and what purgatory is all about.
One time, when I was teaching moral theology, we came to this topic and I explained it in these terms. One of my non-Catholic students, a Protestant, saw immediately what I was talking about and decided then and there that purgatory made sense to her. What’s more, she was confident that her grandfather had already gone through it as he lay dying of pancreatic cancer.
What was left for him to give up that he hadn’t given up already? This life had nothing left in it that could console him. His temper and wrathfulness had long-since faded beneath the weight of an illness that stripped him of any sense of self-importance he had left. With that, old grudges and resentments gave way to forgiveness, and all that remained was a desire to face a God more merciful than he had been, and with a lot more forgiving to do.
Thompson had taught us how strategic, providential loss strips a person of those things that keep us far from God. In his great poem, God says to the protagonist:
All which I took from thee I did but take,
Not for thy harms,
But just that thou might’st seek it in My arms.
Purgatory is, at the very least, a process of surrender. God loves me more than I love myself, so, as long as I love myself more than I love him—as long as I resist his plans and his will—I resist my own true good. A literal translation of Luke 17:33 is exactly to the point: “Whoever may desire to make his life his own possession will see it destroyed, but whoever would be destroyed will preserve it for true life.”