“A common soldier dies without fear, Christ died afraid.” Iris Murdoch wrote those words. Among other things, theyunmask the simplistic notion that if one has faith and a clean conscience he or she will face death more serenely than someone who dies in bad conscience or dies lacking faith and virtue. Sometimes faith and good conscience do ease the passage into the next life, but the reverse can be just as true, people who are sick of heart or warped in conscience can welcome death as a friend, even as people who have faith and virtue fear death because, like Jesus, everything in them cherishes living.
Murdoch’s adage reveals something else too, about the old doctrine on purgatory. Purgatory? Yes. If Jesus was afraid of death then a healthy fear of death is indicative of something. Of what? Of a certain pain that comes with death and which Roman Catholics have classically called purgatory. What’s purgatory?
Protestants have always, for good reasons, rejected this notion, at least as it has perennially been understood in the popular mind, namely, that there exists, outside of heaven and hell, a third place, purgatory, where we go after death and spend time in painful purification, readying ourselves for heaven. Biblically, of course, this doesn’t wash. Protestants are right, there’s no state after death outside of heaven or hell. We’re either at God’s right hand or at God’s left hand, sheep or goats. There’s no third option.
But Roman Catholics are right too. While there’s no place between heaven and hell, there’s a painful, transformative experience that has to be undergone between enjoying the health and bloom of our natural lives and eventually bursting into full ecstasy within the embrace of God and the communion of saints in heaven. Purgatory isn’t a place, it’s an experience, that of enduring a necessary, purifying pain that readies us for the full joy of heaven. What does this pain consist in and why is it necessary?
The pain of purgatory is two things: First, it’s the pain of being unconditionally embraced by selflessness while we are still selfish, the pain of being enfolded by goodness while we are still sinful. We already experiences this, partially, in our daily lives where, as we know, few experiences are as humbling, painful, and purifying as is the experience of being undeservedly loved and gratuitously forgiven. Love purifies, that’s why love hurts.
But there’s a second pain too that makes for purgatory. Purgatory is also the pain of letting go of the every-day securities, attachments, and pleasures of this life. Purgatory is the pain of letting go of this life in order to live in the next. That’s not an abstract concept.
We see it in those facing death. The pain in dying is more about saying good-bye to this world and our loved ones than it is about facing the unknown on the other side. It’s hard to die because it’s hard to shake a hand and say good-bye for the last time to a loved one, a loved home, a cherished routine, a healthy body. Letting go like this isn’t like purgatory, it is purgatory.
Imagine dying a sudden death, by an accident or heart attack. One minute you’re alive, tangibly connected to family, friends, a home, a routine, a healthy body, plans for a future, an anticipated dinner that evening, your favourite sports team on a wonderful playoff run. Wham! Death! The next minute you’re on the other side, in heaven yes … but, in one instant, stripped of everything you’ve drawn your life from. You’re in God’s arms, secure, loved, forgiven, but with a lot of suddenly severed attachments and unfinished business on earth. You’re living in the eternal but it’s been quite a jolt exiting the natural. Full ecstasy doesn’t come instantly, even when it’s offered unconditionally.
The pain of purgatory is the pain of the ascension, the pain of standing where Mary of Magdala stood on the morning of the resurrection and hearing: “Do not cling to what was! Eternal life is infinitely richer, but it’s not your old life!” Letting go of this world with its joys, its beauties, and its wonderfully solid flesh, is the pain of purgatory.
And our prayers for our deceased loved ones need to reflect that. More immediately after their deaths, they still want and need our former contact. Slowly though, as time passes, our prayers must more and more invite the ascension and must work at freeing both them and us from how we once had each other (“Do not cling! Let the old ascend!”). Eventually our prayers must give our loved ones permission to be free from how things used to be with us and the world, so that they can enter fully into that final ecstasy of love which, though dimly glimpsed in faith, is beyond our imaginings and which we too will one day enter, though only after having, through purgative pain, ourselves let go of the marvels of earthly, natural life, with all its wonderful tangible solidity.