Sunday, January 15, 2012

Tried By Fire

With death, our life-choice becomes definitive—our life stands before the judge. Our choice, which in the course of an entire life takes on a certain shape, can have a variety of forms. There can be people who have totally destroyed their desire for truth and readiness to love, people for whom everything has become a lie, people who have lived for hatred and have suppressed all love within themselves. This is a terrifying thought, but alarming profiles of this type can be seen in certain figures of our own history. In such people all would be beyond remedy and the destruction of good would be irrevocable: this is what we mean by the word Hell. On the other hand there can be people who are utterly pure, completely permeated by God, and thus fully open to their neighbors—people for whom communion with God even now gives direction to their entire being and whose journey towards God only brings to fulfillment what they already are.
For the great majority of people—we may suppose—there remains in the depths of their being an ultimate interior openness to truth, to love, to God. In the concrete choices of life, however, it is covered over by ever new compromises with evil—much filth covers purity, but the thirst for purity remains and it still constantly re-emerges from all that is base and remains present in the soul. What happens to such individuals when they appear before the Judge? Will all the impurity they have amassed through life suddenly cease to matter? What else might occur? Saint Paul, in his First Letter to the Corinthians, gives us an idea of the differing impact of God's judgment according to each person's particular circumstances. He does this using images which in some way try to express the invisible, without it being possible for us to conceptualize these images—simply because we can neither see into the world beyond death nor do we have any experience of it. Paul begins by saying that Christian life is built upon a common foundation: Jesus Christ. This foundation endures. If we have stood firm on this foundation and built our life upon it, we know that it cannot be taken away from us even in death. Then Paul continues: “Now if any one builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw—each man's work will become manifest; for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. If the work which any man has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. If any man's work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire” (1 Cor -15). In this text, it is in any case evident that our salvation can take different forms, that some of what is built may be burned down, that in order to be saved we personally have to pass through “fire” so as to become fully open to receiving God and able to take our place at the table of the eternal marriage-feast.
Spe Salvi 45-6
Reflection – This is a lengthier passage from the Pope than I normally quote, so my reflection will be correspondingly briefer. I couldn’t really excerpt it or cut it up into small pieces without it ceasing to makes sense. It is interesting that the Pope here makes a profoundly scriptural argument for Purgatory, using the quote from 1 Corinthians, along with a philosophical argument based on what we all know of human behavior, mostly from our own interior self-knowledge. Most of us desire goodness, freedom, love, joy, and yet most of us act otherwise, at least some of the time. How is God to receive such conflicted messed-up creatures into the kingdom of light and love? By washing away our impurities, by purging us of them… that’s all. It’s truly not a complicated doctrine. The imagery used to describe this purgation is just that—imagery—and my own opinion is that the traditional images (fire and lengths of time and all that) are no longer terribly helpful for us. But the resistance one often hears about Purgatory - that it's some kind of horrible heavy teaching, baffles me. What do we want - to be filled with selfishness and malice and all sorts of nonsense for all eternity? How can we become pure if God doesn't purify us?
It truly is God’s great mercy towards us that leads us to posit this doctrine – we know that in heaven there is nothing but love; we know that almost all of us are a mixture of love and hate, light and darkness. We know, then, that God in his mercy helps us do what we seemingly could not or would not do during our lives – transforms us into all light. This probably hurts (we know it hurts in this life to repent and turn away from sin). But in his love he hurts us, so as to save us and enfold us into his kingdom, where we will be joyful forever. Thanks, God! Thanks, Father! Thanks, Jesus, for giving us Purgatory!