This is the third in a series in which I attempt to address the question, “What is purgatory, and why is it necessary?” by expanding on the simple answer that Purgatory is the state, place, or process by which a soul is purified for entrance into heaven. Part 1 is here  and Part 2 can be found here .
“So be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). Yet man is not perfect, nor are men sinless. Furthermore, we read that “nothing unclean will enter” heaven (Revelation 21:27), elsewhere that
“Nothing that enters one from outside can defile that person; but the things that come out from within are what defile….But what comes out of a person, that is what defiles. From within people, from their hearts, come evil thoughts, unchastity, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, licentiousness, envy, blasphemy, arrogance, folly. All these evils come from within and they defile” (Mark 7:15, 20-23).
Thus, even our evil thoughts can be counted as sins, and can defile us, that is, can make us unclean. These evil thoughts come unbidden to us in this life, though we may attempt to resist them. And they persist after our conversion as before.
They may persist even to the moment of death, at which our soul is for a time separated from our bodies. Are we to believe, then, that evil thoughts which were occurring in the moment of death have suddenly ceased and been expunged from us simply because our souls are now separated from our bodies? I think that to hold such a position, we must believe either that “thoughts” are a phenomenon of the body—though the intellect is a part of the soul—or that grace is something akin to magic, working instantly on the soul at death. Both are problematic. For one, we will be reunited with our bodies in the afterlife, after the resurrection of the dead, that is, the resurrection of the body. Do our evil thoughts then resume? If so, then none can live in heaven. For another, why should grace have one effect in this life, and then another effect in the next life?
Setting aside the question of evil thoughts (to say nothing of actions), let us return to Matthew 5:48: “Be perfect as your Father in Heaven is perfect.” There is more to perfection than not sinning, though not sinning is a pre-requisite. The Law was meant to point the way toward moral perfection, if rightly kept. None could do this, yet the law must be fulfilled:
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets. I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. Amen, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or the smallest part of a letter will pass from the law, until all things have taken place. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do so will be called least in the kingdom of heaven. But whoever obeys and teaches these commandments will be called greatest in the kingdom of heaven. I tell you, unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter into the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:17-20).
Yet the Law can be summarized, perhaps we might say synthesized, into a much shorter pair of commandments:
“You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment. The second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments” (Matthew 23:37-40; cf. Luke 10:25-37).
The path to heaven, to God, has taken shape here. Righteousness is found in love, and we are called then to love. This becomes more apparent still in the parable of the sheep and the goats (Matthew 25:31-46). The sheep, that is, the righteous ones who will enter heaven, are those who feed the hungry, clothe the naked, give drink to the thirsty—those who, in a word, perform the various works of mercy. The damned are those who refuse to do such tings.
“And the king will say to them in reply, ‘Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.’ …He will answer them, ‘Amen, I say to you, what you did not do for one of these least ones, you did not do for me.’ And these will go off to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life ” (Matthew 25:40, 45-46).
In his book What it means to Be a Christian, Pope Benedict XVI turns to this last verse and notes that the King does not ask about a confession of faith here, and that there are no dogmas involved in this passage. It’s only about love. “That is enough, and it saves a man. Whoever loves is a Christian.” He turns at this point to the question of faith, and why it is necessary. If love alone suffices, then what is the point of faith?
The passage sounds at first blush to be liberating, but it is in fact very demanding. Whenever we have done a work of mercy for another, we’ve done it for Christ; but whenever we have failed to do such a work, we have failed to do it to Christ. None of us can claim to have acted in perfect mercy with perfect love to every stranger who passes us by; few if any of us can claim to have perfect love for God, and love for neighbor, or perfect (as opposed to selfish) love for ourselves. We have done some things worthy of the sheep, that is, of the righteous; we have also done much which is worthy of the goats, the unrighteous.
Like the priest and the Levite in the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:30-35), we have surely turned aside from helping a neighbor in need. This may be because we felt we had more important business to attend to, or because we simply did not want to risk seeming “unclean” by associating with such society, or because we rendered the wrong sort of help (should give a man a fish, or teach him to fish?). Indeed, there are times when we must even make a choice between helping one or another person, or rendering aid to one neighbor at the cost of seemingly ignoring the plight of another.
The Holy Father notes that this is where faith enters the picture:
“Thus, the sublime and liberating message of love, as being the sole and sufficient content of Christianity, can also become something very demanding.
It is at this point that faith begins. For what faith basically means is just that this shortfall that we all have in our love is made up by the surplus of Jesus Christ’s love, acting on our behalf. He simply tells us that God himself has poured out among us a superabundance of his love and has thus made good in advance all our deficiency. Ultimately, faith means nothing other than admitting that we have this kind of shortfall; it means opening our hand and accepting a gift. In its simplest and innermost form, faith is nothing but reaching that point in love at which we recognize that we, too, have been given something. Faith is thus that stage in love which really distinguishes it as love” (What in Means to Be a Christian, pp 74-75).
Faith, then, is the acknowledgement of our own imperfect love, and the desire that God will perfect it with His grace. It pre-supposes love, which is why faith without works (of mercy, that is, of love) is dead (James 2:17).
This is where Purgatory again enters the picture. We desire that our love be perfected, and we acknowledge that we have fallen short, that our love is imperfect, and at times it has been outright lacking, and that we have sinned. God’s grace can work on us to perfect our love, to supply its deficiency. But grace takes time. Indeed, Jesus likened the Kingdom of God—which may be interpreted in the anogogical sense as grace working on a man, that is, working in our hearts—to a mustard seed (Mark 4:30-32). Like the mustard seed, the kingdom of God takes time to grow and flourish; we are the soil in which the seed grows and to some extent the seeds planted (cf Luke 8:5-15, Mark 4:3-20, and Matthew 13:3-9, 18-23), but it takes time before we see whether the seed will flourish or wither.
Sometimes that time is more than we are given in our lives. We may enter the afterlife having fundamentally chosen Christ, and having therefore fundamentally chosen love. But, that choice might be buried, it might yet need time to grown and become known, and that growth inevitably causes growing pains.
In this life we face innumerable distractions and temptations which hamper the development of the Kingdom of God within us; yet God, being not only just but also merciful might allow that seed to grow after we’ve passed from this world, and left this world’s distractions and sorrows behind. The “growing pains” can’t well happen in heaven, since there is no suffering in heaven.
Purgatory, then, is a place where that spiritual growth is able to occur without being hampered. For some people, little growth is needed in the next life, for others much is needed. Pope Benedict XVI has suggested that a part of what happens to a person in purgatory is that he undergoes a sort of clarification: “Even if one’s fundamental life decision is finally decided and fixed in death, one’s definitive destiny need not be reached right away. It may be that the basic decision of a human being is covered over by layers of secondary layers and needs to be dug free” (Eschatology: Death and Eternal Life). This digging free may be a painful process, as the person’s perennial sins are torn free and the soul is slowly purified to reveal its decisions to love God and love neighbor. The “straw” and “wood” are burned away, leaving the “gold” and “silver” on the foundation which is Christ (see 1 Corinthians 3:10-15).
C.S. Lewis describes this process in his story The Great Divorce, in which a man’s ongoing struggle with sin—arguably with lust and sins of lust—is personified as a lizard:
‘Off so soon?’ said a voice…
‘Yes, I’m off,’ said the Ghost. ‘Thanks for all your hospitality. But it’s no good, you see. I told this little chap’ (here he indicated the Lizard) ‘that he’d have to be quiet if he came—which he insisted on doing. Of course his stuff won’t do here: I realise that. But he won’t stop. I shall just have to go home.’
‘Would you like me to make him quiet? Said the flaming Spirit—an angel, as I now understood.
‘Of course I would,” said the Ghost.
‘Then I will kill him,’ said the Angel, taking a step forward.
‘Oh—ah–look out! You’re burning me. Keep away,’ said the Ghost, retreating.
Eventually the Ghost (a man now in purgatory) relents and allows the angel to kill the “embarrassing” lizard, and the Angel does so, causing considerable but only momentary pain to the man. The dying lizard is then transformed into a majestic (and living) horse—a beautiful metaphor illustrating the difference between lust and virtuous sexuality.
I would like to end this reflection with a moment which might seem as purgatory, but on earth. The setting is the Sea of Tiberias, shortly after the Resurrection. Here, in the last chapter of his gospel, St. John records for us an account of St. Peter’s reconciliation with Christ, whom he had previously denied three times. After making a miraculous catch upon the bidding of a Man on the shore—paralleling the miraculous catch a the start of their life as apostles (Luke 5:1-11)—the Apostles recognize that the Man on the shore is Jesus. Saint Peter, in his joy and excitement, dives into the sea and swims to the shore, where the Lord makes a fire to roast the fish they’ve just caught.
After this breakfast, Jesus pulls St Peter aside: the time for reconciliation is upon him. He asked Peter three times, “Do you love Me?” to which Peter three times replies, “Yes, I love you.” We lose something here in the translation from Greek. Each time that Christ addresses Peter, He uses the word “agape,” which means the perfect and selfless love which God has for us, and which we hope to mirror towards each other. The first two times, Peter can only answer by saying, “filios,” which is the love a man has for a brother or a close friend. Peter is greatly distressed, because he knows that he has only filios to offer, having so recently denied Christ three times; he knows that the sin is forgiven him, but cannot trust himself to not repeat it when in crisis.
Yet in his distress, in his momentary mental suffering, St. Peter comes to a realization: he really does love Jesus “more than these.” His meager filios is transformed into agape. This moment of suffering was, in effect, his purgatory, though it took place before his death. This occurred for him in this life, where “we see indistinctly, as in a mirror darkly” (1 Corinthians 13:12); for the souls in purgatory, this occurs in the next world, where we see “clearly.” The reconciliation process might be painful here—but there it may burn like fire. Yet, in purgatory we find that our selfish love, or even or imperfectly selfless love, becomes more perfect; it turns from love of self, or love of paradise, to love of others and finally to love of God.