An Angel Frees the Souls of Purgatory, c. 1610, Lodovico Carracci (1555-1619), Bologna
-by Br Thomas Davenport, OP (Br Thomas earned a PhD in Physics from Stanford prior to joining the Order.)
“I knew it was going to be one of those conversations. Maybe it was the way he eagerly, yet nonchalantly, edged over to the conversation as I was explaining to some teenagers on the Metro what a Dominican was. Maybe it was the subtle sort of smile that implied recognition of, not an oddity or a friend, but a challenge. Maybe it was the business card he handed me that said in big bold letters: “YOU CAN BE 100% SURE OF HEAVEN.”
On second thought, yes, it was definitely the business card.
After a brief introduction and assurance that he had written a book on Catholicism, thus proving he knew what he was talking about, this new acquaintance of mine launched into an interrogative form of the big bold sentence on his business card. When I displayed some hesitance about whether I would go straight to heaven if I died tonight, he assured me that the dozen or so priests he interviewed for his book all answered the same way, with the Catholic doctrine of Purgatory as the culprit for such a pause.
I’d like to say that my Thomistic disputation training kicked in and that in the course of four or five stops I had managed to assuage all of his concerns about the Catholic understanding of death and judgment and anything else that came to mind… but I didn’t. We had a lively yet cordial conversation over a range of Christian topics, without either one of us giving much ground. I’d like to think that I may have given him some things to ponder on, or that I at least gave a charitable witness to those around us in the train, but all I do know is that I left the train thanking God for Purgatory.
There is a whole host of ways to argue for the Catholic doctrine of Purgatory, and plenty of misconceptions about it that often need to be corrected. As always, the discussion is rooted in Scripture with its allusions to “cleansing fire” (1 Cor 3:12-15 and 1 Pet 1:6-7), of forgiveness “in the age to come” (Mt 12:31-32), as well as references to praying for the deceased (2 Macc 12:46), which only seems sensible if our prayers can still improve their lot.
These themes are taken up by the Church Fathers and confirmed both by the Church’s official statements and by the lived experience of the faithful over the millennia.
While I brought as much of this as I could remember to bear in my subway conversation, I couldn’t help but think that his conception of purgatory – as an impediment – was wrongheaded, and I tried my best to convey that message.
It’s not that I’m looking forward to actually being in Purgatory, or that I’m trying to avoid the beatific vision for a while. Rather, I’m thankful that God has provided a way to help me finish the job I have consistently proved so incompetent at, namely, being perfect.
Purgatory is both an assurance that God desires that we attain to our true end, our true perfection, and a means by which to get there. Of course, if we can, by his grace and mercy, attain to that perfection in this present life, all the better, but it is encouraging to know that while God will neither lower his standards nor turn a blind eye for us to be with Him, He still gives us every opportunity to finish the job or, more accurately, allow Him to finish the job.
As usual these gut reactions and inchoate musings have been expressed so much more beautifully and coherently, in this case by C.S. Lewis in his Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer:
Our souls demand Purgatory, don’t they? Would it not break the heart if God said to us, “It is true, my son, that your breath smells and your rags drip with mud and slime, but we are charitable here and no one will upbraid you with these things, nor draw away from you. Enter into the joy”?
Should we not reply, “With submission, sir, and if there is no objection, I’d rather be cleaned first.”
“It may hurt, you know.”
“Even so, sir.”
The idea that we could not stand to be before the face of God knowing that we were less than what He planned for us to be is what makes me so thankful for the doctrine of Purgatory. The added beauty of being able to unite ourselves to our deceased loved ones in prayer is a bonus almost as wonderful as the original gift itself.
I hope I was able to express some glimpse of that beauty to my companion on the train, although I’m not convinced that I did.
Nevertheless our conversation reaffirmed the very convictions he wanted me to question. While I plan to spend the rest of my life trying to cooperate with God’s grace in order to get to heaven as directly as I can, I will continue to thank God for Purgatory.”