As a child, raised on the old catechisms, I was taught to believe in purgatory. In that concept, after death you went to heaven, hell or purgatory. Heaven and hell were final. Once there, you went to no place else. Purgatory was a transition state, a place separate from heaven. It was understood to be a place of suffering, of very intense suffering. We were constantly reminded to pray for the souls in purgatory. Suffering there was nearly as intense as in hell itself. However, unlike hell, purgatory was not permanent and the pains suffered there were purifying and not further embittering. This belief was more specifically Roman Catholic. Protestantism never quite bought into the concept. For them, there was no intermediate place between heaven and hell.
Today, many persons, Protestant and Roman Catholic alike, are benignly indifferent to the question of purgatory. It is seen as a remnant of an older system of thought that is not Scripturally based and that has nothing vital to say about our relationship to God and each other. Occasionally, though with an increasing rarity, one still hears the question: “Does purgatory still exist?” Purgatory does exist, not because it is dogmatically nailed down in any single Scripture text, but because it is impossible to formulate a science of love and community without it. Likewise, it is impossible to speak of the paschal mystery without mention of purgatory. But these statements imply a certain understanding of what purgatory is.
Purgatory is a stage of loving, the initial pain of entering into community. Mystics have classically defined purgatory as the pain of letting go of a lesser love and life in order to accept a deeper love and life. What is interesting in that definition is that purgatory is not a place separate from heaven, a place you go to in order to be punished for your sins so as to prepare you for heaven. Purgatory is the pain of entering heaven.
This can best be explained by way of an example. Several years ago, a young man came to see me. At the time, he was also seeing a psychologist who had, in fact, sent him to me, a priest, to help him deal with some of his guilt. His guilt centred on his past life and had been triggered by his falling in love. He was in his mid-20s and had, more than a year before, become engaged to a young lady whom he deeply loved and who deeply loved him. She was an attractive and exceptionally good lady. She was his first serious love… and his first moral love. In the four or five years just prior to meeting her, he had lived irresponsibly. Although he had come out of a good family background, he had, during his university years, drifted away from the church, from prayer and from the church’s teachings on sexuality. During this period he had lived primarily by the pleasure principle
What is curious is that during this period of irresponsibility, his threshold of inner conflict and pain was minimal. He had been self-confident, cocky, seemingly without excess anxiety, solidly convinced of his own goodness and not particularly given over to guilt. That self-confident world collapsed soon after he fell in love. In love with a very good and moral person, he became aware of himself in a new way. Initially, he simply felt guilty about his past sexual affairs, disappointed that in the light of meeting and falling in love with such a beautiful person, he had not previously been faithful to that relationship. Eventually, his inner conflict became more encompassing. To his credit, he sensed that he needed help to deal with this. He postponed plans to marry until, as he put it, he could get a better grip on his own selfishness and could work through some of his past and his guilt. What seemed strange at the time was why he should be in such pain now, just when he had so beautifully fallen in love. But his pain was necessary, purgative and redemptively produced by the love itself. Her love was saving him. It was a light that was showing him the dark corners of himself and it was also a power that was enabling him to face that darkness. This is the experience of grace. Grace is eventually ecstatic, but initially it can literally be as painful as hell.
Purgatory, as this story illustrates, is the redemptive pain that follows falling in love. It is not an arbitrary punishment for sin. It is the pain of entering community. The pattern of love, community and salvation is not loneliness-falling in love-ecstasy, but loneliness-falling in love-a brief taste of ecstasy-a long painful conflictual purgative experience-ecstasy. Morris West once remarked: “All miracles begin with the act of falling in love.” Salvation begins there. Purgatory sits between initial and final salvation.