Some recent theologians are of the opinion that the fire [of Purgatory] which both burns and saves is Christ himself, the Judge and Savior. The encounter with him is the decisive act of judgment. Before his gaze all falsehood melts away. This encounter with him, as it burns us, transforms and frees us, allowing us to become truly ourselves. All that we build during our lives can prove to be mere straw, pure bluster, and it collapses. Yet in the pain of this encounter, when the impurity and sickness of our lives become evident to us, there lies salvation. His gaze, the touch of his heart heals us through an undeniably painful transformation “as through fire”. But it is a blessed pain, in which the holy power of his love sears through us like a flame, enabling us to become totally ourselves and thus totally of God. In this way the inter-relation between justice and grace also becomes clear: the way we live our lives is not immaterial, but our defilement does not stain us for ever if we have at least continued to reach out towards Christ, towards truth and towards love.
Spe Salvi 47
Reflection – Purgatory is one of the Church teachings which has suffered a bit of neglect in recent decades. When it has been discussed, it has either been in the mode of apologetics with Protestants or in a negative sense. Purgatory for some is at best a heavy, dark doctrine of the Church, perhaps even a hangover from a more legalistic juridical approach to salvation, typical of the middle ages or something. Like ‘you do the crime, you do the time’ applied to God and us. What does that kind of crime and punishment mentality have to do with Jesus and mercy and salvation?
Here we see a richer presentation of the teaching. It is encounter with Christ that purifies and burns away the dross and defilement of our lives, not some artificial fire that comes from God-knows-where.
The point of Purgatory, if I can put it that way is this: we matter. We are real. Our lives are not play-acting or a silly game without consequence or import. Our choices are real choices and fashion us in real ways to become really this or really that. Every moment of my waking life, I am choosing to do something that is making me more merciful, less selfish, kinder, generous, truer… or I choosing something else, something unreal, unkind, hard, cold, bitter, false.
Every moment! While in the abstract we can say there are human actions that are morally neutral (e.g. driving a car) in the concrete there is no morally neutral act. Either it is good (you are driving the car in a responsible fashion, and with some good intent in mind) or it is evil (driving recklessly or to achieve some further bad goal). No neutral ground in concrete actual human action.
And our human actions make us who we are. This is that co-creator thing I wrote about just a few days ago. Whether we like it or not, every action we make is making us into… something. And if that something is something false or unloving or unclean… well, that’s going to have to be fixed, isn’t it?
And it is the encounter with Christ that ‘fixes’ us, that heals and purifies, transforms and redeems. All of us who have faith and a living relationship with Christ know this quite well and have experienced it already. The Catholic doctrine of Purgatory simply says that this process continues after death in a heightened way. When the human being has lost their capacity for further human actions, but is fundamentally oriented to and open to the grace of Christ, then the encounter with Him works its final and intense purification, so that we can enter heaven in fullness of life and love.