The Gift of Purgatory

The room is air conditioned, and cold. Admittedly, the heat outside is uncomfortable, but the chill inside manages to be worse. Unnatural. Sterile. Like the air churning out of the vents, the atmosphere feels forced. Two greeters, with expressions and attitudes to match the manufactured climate, greet my parents and me as we enter. One condescendingly mentions that my father’s shoe is untied. I suggest to her that with the right combination of circumstances, my dad’s untied shoe might produce more business for her. After all, this is a funeral parlor.

The crowd mingles among the stackable chairs. A casual round of eavesdropping reveals the thoughts of those gathered. It seems Jim finally went blind in that darn right eye of his. Cheryl’s daughter moved in with her trash hauler boyfriend, “who can’t even be bothered to buy her a ring.” Marge’s grandchildren, save for blessed Steve, have all turned out to be major disappointments. The deceased rests, burnt to a crisp, in a box on a small, portable, altar. Holy Mother Church does allow for the cremation of the dead, but I cannot see an urn without recalling the darkly humorous verse of G.K. Chesterton:

If I had been a Heathen,
I’d have piled my pyre on high,
And in a great red whirlwind
Gone roaring to the sky;
But Higgins is a heathen
And a richer man than I:
And they put him in an oven,
Just as if he were a pie.

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Not that it mattered to this crowd what state the remains were in. Hardly a soul approached the altar for a silent vigil or a prayer. John, whose remains sat in the front of the room, and whose pictures were receiving the most attention, had been born in Chicago, in the wake of World War I. A son of Norway, he returned to his homeland to escape the Great Depression and as a teenager trafficked contraband British newspapers in defiance of Nazi censorship. At the dawn of peace John crossed the ocean, thinking he may never see his family again. He found work in Minnesota, and found purpose in the preaching of Billy Graham. When he died a month ago, he was among the few who remained of the Greatest Generation. Now his remains sit almost unnoticed, as crowds of his elderly friends chit-chat about the week’s events. I am only here because I once fished the 92-year-old John out of a toilet, which he had fallen into by mistake.

“We know John is in heaven,” remarked the minister as the funeral began. Several dozen impromptu eulogies followed, all of which offered the same sentiment. A song crackled from an unseen CD player: “If you could see me noooowwwww… I’m walking streets of gold. If you could see me now, I’m standing tall and whole.” The lack of sorrow before the funeral was now explained: everyone was absolutely certain John was in heaven. There were no tears because there was no cause for crying. John was with God and we are glad.

But for all the happiness and smiles; there was something deeply troubling about the scene. On the one hand, a gathering of persons after a death ought to be sad. On the other, it is difficult to justify tears for a soul gone to heaven, and pointless to shed tears for a soul gone the other way. Both heaven and hell are permanent, whereas even the deepest grief is transient, and with time it will pass. A permanent grief would be no grief at all. Grief is sorrow over deviations from the norm, not the norm itself. The world falls for a moment out of order and we grieve. Our joy comes with the morning and the dawn of a new heaven and a new earth: a world set right. But here, even a moment of transient grief was not to be had.

The ceremony lumbered on, past the point where my legs could remain awake. Our Lord taught that in prayer: “We must not prattle on as the Protestants—er—pagans do.” As words followed words followed words; I realized the reason for grief’s absence among the crowd. The Billy Graham apostles who populated this room had no concept of purgatory, the great gift of Our Lord to us.

I am not here going to spend much time arguing for the existence of purgatory. We read in the Gospel of Mark that those who blaspheme the Holy Spirit shall not be forgiven in this life or the next. Given that no one in heaven needs forgiveness anymore, and that no one in hell will accept it, forgiveness of sins in the world to come must mean another option between heaven and hell: a way station, if you will, for those souls who need further purification. My humble thesis is that purgatory is a great gift to us. Not only is it a blessing for those who pass away, for they may with time and suffering enter the kingdom of heaven, but it is also a gift for we who remain. Purgatory lets us grieve without despair and praise God’s mercy without presumption.

If heaven and hell are the only possible destinations for the deceased, those who grieve are forced to presume that the deceased is in heaven, for the alternative is unacceptable. Yet, absolute certainty of the attainment of heaven is as unjust to a soul as absolute certainty of the damnation of hell. We must not fall into the error of Fred Phelps. We must not replace the judgments of God with the judgments of man, for we are often mistaken. We have neither the power nor the wisdom to know one way or the other.

Consider for a moment the bizarre behavior of Jesus during his time on earth. If he reserved his mirth, he certainly reserved his might. The God of the Gospels could have enjoyed Panera on demand in the desert. With a great fall and the arms of the angels he could have invented bungee-jumping. With a simple bend of his will, he could have reigned over the world with a terrifying grandeur and overwhelming power. Yet, he did not. He came to the tomb of his friend and wept. He, who could command the dead to rise, watered the ground with his tears. If we are going to follow his example for celebration in the courtyard at Cana, then ought we not also follow his example for lamentation at the tomb of Lazarus? Should not our sorrows be as pious as our joys? I shall never encounter a casket whose inhabitant I could bid to rise and jump and live again. Nor shall I likely ever mourn the death of a man so just as Lazarus. It is my sneaking suspicion that perhaps the second, and certainly the first, of these is true for all Christians. Why then do so many persist in assuming the instant salvation of the dead? Why then do we not follow Our Lord’s lead and weep?

If it is not yet clear: I think we ought to. I further suggest that we abandon certainty as concerns our speculations about the afterlife. Among the many things Our Lord reserved during his time on earth was the true knowledge of heaven. Every parable about the kingdom that is to come seems to have been proclaimed with a smirk. For every question answered, three more arise. We are told it is impossible for us to enter the kingdom of heaven, yet the Lord has mercy on those who fear him. The rich will not get in, but Our Lord dines with them as though they were childhood chums. We are assured that those who will be found in heaven will be a surprising cast of characters indeed, for God’s ways are above our ways. When James and John began to kibitz about the divine seating arrangement, Jesus said the words which ought to resound in the ears of all Christians who wonder if their beloved is in heaven: “You do not know what you are asking.”

If all the future held for us and for our beloved dead was the certainty of salvation, that perhaps would be amiable to our egos, but reason and scripture would have to be cast rather far to the side. “If purgatory did not exist, we would have to invent it.” These words of our Bavarian pontiff hint to what I mentioned above: the incompatibility of grief with the unorthodox belief in instant heaven-or-hell after death. We who remain need to pass through grief as a forest must pass through showers and thunderstorms to live. But we also know that the forest must burn in order to purge the thickets and fertilize the hard seeds. For those who have died: purgatory is this purging. “The person will be saved; but only through fire.” The trial will remove the thistle and weeds from our souls so that the tiny mustard seed of heaven (another of Our Lord’s bizarre parables) may grow. Saint Augustine assures us that these fires of purgatory “are more grievous than anything that man can suffer in this life.” We are right to weep for a soul in purgatory; for we weep for a person in this life under the knife of a surgeon, even though we know rest and recovery await. Ought we not also weep for a soul under the knife of the Divine Physician, even as we wait with confidence for their eternal rest?

I know that those who insist that their loved one is in heaven think themselves to be kind. But we must not imagine that the acme of kindness is disregard. Disregard may mask itself as faith, (“I just know John is in heaven”) but this is still a mask. There is no greater unkindness to a person than to act as if their death was a matter of little importance: just God collecting one of his favorites. Jesus wept at the tomb of Lazarus. Death is the real enemy, and its temporary victory over our bones is tragic. Death will not have the last word, but it has not yet fallen silent. We wait for the life of the world to come and the resurrection of the dead, but we must sow in tears to reap in joy. The words of our Lord unveil the difficulty, not the ease, with which a soul enters heaven. Indeed, it is almost hopeless to pass from this life to the Life that is to come. But we needn’t despair. “Hope means hoping when things are hopeless or it is no virtue at all.” Such is the hope of the souls in purgatory. Let us pray, weep and suffer for them.

  • John T. Goerke

    John T. Goerke is currently pursuing a Master of Arts in the field of Catholic Studies at the University of Saint Thomas in St. Paul, MN. He blogs at Juicy for the Institute on Religion and Democracy.

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