One image of purgatory that was presented during my time in the seminary has stuck in my mind due to its vibrant, fearful description. In it, Mary is pictured with a scapular fishing souls out of purgatory, which is depicted as a sea of fire tormenting those occupying it. Needless to say, such an image wouldn’t inspire anyone to want to go there.
While no one wants to go there, purgatory remains a truth that we can’t escape. Popularly speaking, God is often viewed as too good to permit anyone to go to hell, let alone purgatory. This thought is only partially true, though.
God is so good, yes, but His goodness lies in respecting our use of the gift of freedom. Our use of freedom may lead us straight to heaven or to experience the result of our desire to not return God’s gift of love in hell. But as we stand before Christ without rationalizations, we may find there are small habits of sins that we still need to correct or sins that we haven’t fully atoned for.
True, Jesus could simply snap His fingers, complete our purification, and then welcome us into heaven. But in our life when we ask for a cross to be taken away, He oftentimes answers this prayer by giving us strength and inspiration to carry the cross rather than take it away. In the life that lies beyond the grave, He desires us to walk with Him on a journey to be purified.
But what is it like? In a popular biblical reading at funerals from the Book of Wisdom, “As gold in the furnace, he proved them, and as sacrificial offerings he took them to himself” (Wisdom 3:6). Gold is put in a furnace to be smelted: a process that removes impurities so one is left with pure gold. In a similar way, God puts souls that love Him, but still have some impurities, into the fire of purgatory.
Having been in Jesus’ presence and experienced the awesome experience of being touched by the love of God, the soul in purgatory is filled with a deep desire. This desire is to experience this moment for all of eternity. This desire, in the words of author Susan Tassone, causes a spiritual fever in the soul. Just as a fever from illness may cause us to suffer here in earth, this spiritual fever causes suffering in the soul as the soul is freed from its attachment to sin and atones for the wounds caused by their sin.
Though this image may cause us to wince, there is a silver lining to it. The pain of purgatory is more like working toward a goal, such as getting fit or studying to pass an important test. In such cases, there is a sweetness to the pain, for it means we are getting closer to our goal. The same is true in purgatory; the pain of purgatory is sweetened by the joy of soon reaching the goal of heaven.
This column appeared in a previous edition of the Review.
Father Mayo is pastor of St. Raphael Parish in St. Louis