Many times as a priest, I encounter people who are greatly suffering. This suffering may be physical, mental or emotional pain, disunity and brokenness in their family, troubles at work or illness. In the midst of such sufferings, when answers are hard to come by, people at times say to me, “Well, Father, I guess I am just going through my purgatory here on Earth.”
Let us first acknowledge the foundation in faith of this statement, as the believer tries to reconcile God’s love with the circumstances of pain around them.
God hasn’t caused or sent these sufferings to the believer. Indeed, if we believe the message of love of the cross, we know people in love seek to alleviate, not cause pain for their beloved. The same is true of God. In His love, He doesn’t purposely hurt us or cause pain just to see if we can handle it. Instead, He permits sufferings in the life of the believer for a purpose.
The purpose behind the suffering is to call us closer to Him. He uses suffering for this purpose in different ways.
When we experience illness or pain, it reminds us that our lives here on earth will pass away and to prepare for everlasting life. In the midst of disunity in our family, we unite this suffering with that of the suffering Christ on the cross, who had only a few faithful followers stand by Him while the rest of the crowd taunted Him. Troubles in employment call us to trust not in our own strength, but on that which comes from the Father for our daily needs, even if we need to humbly ask for help from others.
This is where the truth of the statement made in faith from which “life is a purgatory” comes. The believer experiences and accepts their sufferings. They then use them to purify themselves of things that distract or fail to satisfy. With a great longing, they desire God’s love most deeply and seek it through prayer and the good things of this life that remind us of His love.
Father Dwight Longnecker, a blogger in Greenville, S.C., said that purgatory is like summer school. Typically, someone needs summer school to repeat a subject that wasn’t mastered the first time. If everyone passed every subject, there would be no real need for summer school.
The same is true with purgatory. God gives uniquely to each of us the full means here on Earth to become a saint. This is so we might become the person Christ calls us to be. If we don’t complete the work in this life, God, in His mercy, gives us the chance to make it up in purgatory.
This column appeared in a previous edition of the Review.
Father Mayo is pastor of St. Raphael Parish in St. Louis.