“Let me be punished by a kiss.” That is a prayer Therese of Lisieux used to say.

What a curious, paradoxical phrase! Few of us, I suspect, pray that way, but it is a prayer rich in insight, containing within itself the rich theology of purgatory.

What can change a heart? What can melt bitterness, bring on remorse, and give us the courage to finally give up all the rationalization we do? What can move us beyond the moral muddles that so confound our lives? What single thing can move us to admit the misery and sin we live in? Not any kind of threat or punishment. The heart is moved, and purified, through a kiss. This, in essence, is the theology of purgatory.

Purgatory, as we know, is not a place separate from heaven. Protestant theology has always been right in rejecting purgatory when it is conceived of, precisely, as a place somewhere between heaven and hell where souls go to undergo some kind of punishment still due them because of sin. Scripture is clear, as is the teaching of Jesus: that in the end there are only two places or states, heaven and hell. One is either at God’s left or right, goat or sheep. Hence purgatory may never be conceived of as a separate place.

Neither may it be conceived as a place or state within which something punitive occurs. What happens in purgatory is not that God positively punishes us for our sins thus readying us for heaven. Punishment, conceived in this way, never readies anyone for anything. Purgatory is not about paying a debt for anything or leveling accounts before getting to enjoy a just, earned, reward. Rather, as the word itself suggests, purgatory is about purgation, purification, about a cleansing of the heart and soul that is at once moral, emotional, psychological, intellectual, aesthetic, and spiritual.

What has to happen in purgatory? What readies a heart for heaven? Bitterness must melt, violence must be renounced, sin must give way to remorse, jealousy must be transformed, rationalization must be let go of, fears must be moved beyond, moral muddles must be clarified, anxiety must turn to peace, restlessness to restfulness, anger to forgiveness, compulsiveness to freedom, hostility to perfect hospitality, and the insubstantiality of being just one single lonely inadequate person must give way to the sense of being held in a great communion. There is also the painful adjustment needed to let go of an earthly life for a life beyond.

And all of this can happen only through love, through an embrace, a purging kiss, as Therese so rightly intuited. The Father’s embrace of the prodigal son is a picture of purgatory. And we should not naively romanticize the scene. What the prodigal son would have felt at that moment was not pure, unadulterated joy for much of his heart would still have been far from his father. In the unconditionality of that embrace he would have become, for the first time really, fully aware of all that was wrong with him. Thus, on the one hand, he would, undeniably, have felt an overwhelming sense of relief and release, knowing that he was overwhelmingly and unconditionally being embraced by heaven. However, given his history and where this would have left him, there would have been, along with the relief and joy, a lot of other things too in that embrace.

The embrace would have contained considerable agony along with the ecstasy. In it, he would have also grasped his own misery, his sin, his ignorance, his distance from his father. The kiss would have been like a bright light shining directly into his soul, revealing all, good and bad. It would have been, initially, almost as painful as it was joyful, but it would, in an instant or over a period of time, have completely purified his heart. It would have been purgative, purgatory, melting his bitterness, enlightening his ignorance, bringing true remorse for his sin, turning his anger to forgiveness, his lust to admiration, and his restlessness into restfulness. It would too have purged him from the root cause of what drove him from his father’s house to begin with: the deep fear that ultimately he was insubstantial and needed to seize life for himself. Purity is being content within God’s embrace. Eventually, though not immediately, that embrace becomes pure ecstasy.

Purgatory is the pain and the joy of being purged by God’s kiss. The mystics used to tell us that we can already, now before death, choose exactly how much purgatory we want. Thus they used to pray for it: “Let me be punished by a kiss!”