Purgatory Here and Now
Do the tormented and aggrieved have a head start on their refinement?
I have suffered heart arrhythmia most of my adult life. It has afflicted my parents, siblings, and their offspring. Two have had their heart valves replaced. I have many maternal cousins with hip and knee replacements. The husband of my maternal aunt contracted a brain cancer that killed him and three of his four children. They lived in southern Georgia, where they daily drank toxic water polluted by a local industry.
Why the endless sufferings of humanity from war, famine, pollution, pestilence, and disease? Can the repentant soul benefit spiritually from suffering, and is it somehow essential for our eternal salvation? St. Paul taught, “We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22).
Catholics have heard that a soul goes either to Purgatory or to Hell after physical death, except for a select few who go straight to Paradise (cf. Luke 23:43). We’ve all heard people say their lives have been a constant torment, whether it be suffering the chronic pains of a sickness or witnessing the ruined lives of drug-addicted grandkids. So it would seem the tormented and aggrieved have a head start on Purgatory.
Catholics commonly believe that purgative refinements will occur some place after our death. But St. John Paul II stirred up a firestorm during a 1999 catechesis on the Last Things, when he stated, “Purgatory… is not a place, but a condition of existence.” Many fail to realize that those same “living flames of love,” as described by St. John of the Cross, that we experience after death can also purge us now, while we yet exist in the flesh. The extent to which we permit the flames of God’s love to purify us in this life will determine how many eons of purgation we will need to enter God’s presence. We are constantly being purged in our daily trials, but any unfinished refinements must continue after we die. All worldly desires and affections must be cleansed, “so that the genuineness of your faith, more precious than gold that is perishable even though tested by fire, may prove to be for praise, glory, and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 1:7). The jeweler rejects all but highly refined gold and silver. So too does God.
In my youth, I read in Butlers’ Lives of the Saints of a young monk who asked his confessor if it were possible to experience both purgatory and paradise on Earth. The novice (whose name eludes me) had been practicing soul-purging austerities that gifted him with beatific visions. He had achieved an exalted state of divine union that afforded him continual foretastes of heavenly bliss. He was troubled that perhaps he was delusional, even demon-possessed, and needed his mentor’s counsel. The gist of what was said, I paraphrase: “Let not your heart be troubled (John 14:1). You are graced by the Holy Spirit to suffer purgatory here and now for your sins and transgressions. And in you, it seems, the kingdom of heaven is at hand (Matt. 3:2).”
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