Last week in my column I considered the question, “What happens to me when I die?” I argued that what we do in this life has some impact on how we experience the next life, both for good and for ill. But things on the other side of the grave are different and indeed often contradictory to what we experience here in this life. While we may want to get all that we can here in this life, Jesus tells us that in the next, what matters is what we gave away. Jesus often tells us that the first shall be last and the last shall be first. Or to use another image, unless the grain of wheat falls to earth and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat. But if it dies, it produces much fruit. What works in this life does not work in the next, and vice-versa.
This brings up the idea of JUDGEMENT. It’s the consistent belief of Christianity and many other religions that after death, our conduct here on Earth will be judged. Jesus, in Matthew chapter 25, clearly gives us the criteria of this judgement: I was thirsty and you gave me a drink, or you didn’t. I was hungry and you fed me, or you didn’t. I was sick and you visited me, or you didn’t. I was a stranger and you welcomed me or you didn’t. It’s all about how we treat others.
Most of us here at St. Austin try to do what is right and lead a good, decent life. However, few of us are perfect. We get lazy, we are stingy, we lie, we hold on to prejudices, we go to places on the internet we shouldn’t go, and on and on. During Lent we try to do better and avoid these things, but we still fall and sin.
When we die, we hopefully will be basically good people and will be saved. But we will not have accomplished fully the growth into loving and generous people that we are called to as beloved children of God. There will still be areas of greed, selfishness, and evil that cling to us. To enter fully into the light of God’s love, these remaining areas of sin must be removed. The process of removing these areas that we didn’t clean up in this life we call purgation. It’s a fancy word for cleaning. We need to be purged of our remaining imperfections and sins in order to open ourselves fully to the love of God in Jesus Christ.
Traditionally, Catholics call this process Purgatory. It’s not so much a place as a process. It’s more about growth than about sin. Growth is not always easy, fun, or convenient. Sometimes it hurts. Just as growing out of bad habits here on Earth is often hard and painful work, on the other side of the grave, this growth, being stretched to be more loving and capable of being loved, might very well be unpleasant. Think of someone trying to quit smoking or give up drugs or alcohol.
My image of Purgatory is that when we die, and stand before Jesus, we will see ourselves reflected in His eyes. And then we will see ourselves, for the first time, truly and completely as Jesus sees us: with all the compassion, all the hope, all the expectation that Jesus has for each one of us. We will see all the opportunities to love that we missed, all the times we could have been brave, or honest, or true, or loving, and did not. We will see all the times we chose to do wrong and to turn away from who Jesus calls us to be. We will see how much Jesus loves us, even suffering the Cross for us, and our response. Such knowledge will burn us like fire with remorse, shame, humility, and regret. Jesus looks at us with love until all hesitancy and reluctance to love is burned out of us, and we can finally love fully and completely as God created us to. That will be Purgatory. At least that is my take on it.