Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Purgatory and punishment

The question of Purgatory has vexed Christians throughout the ages. The Romans have it as part of the doctrine, yet it is rejected by the Orthodox and the Protestants. This in itself is quite reasonable: the Roman doctrine of Purgatory is largely 12th Century in origin. There are allusions to an intermediate state by Origen (whose doctrine on the Last Things was not renowned for its orthodoxy), St Ambrose, and St Gregory the Great. This is not exactly what one might call a Catholic consensus as demanded by the Vincentian Canon.

Yet, I don’t think one can just throw the concept away as easily as that. There are some very puzzling thoughts in Holy Scripture that suggest that there is an intermediate state or rather, perhaps, mode of being that will test the soul and for whom the prayers for the dead will be efficacious.

St Luke says: For nothing is secret, that shall not be made manifest; neither any thing hid, that shall not be known and come abroad. Take heed therefore how ye hear : for whosoever hath , to him shall be given; and whosoever hath not, from him shall be taken even that which he seemeth to have. (viii.17-18)

St Matthew says: But when they persecute you in this city, flee ye into another: for verily I say unto you, Ye shall not have gone over the cities of Israel, till the Son of man be come. The disciple is not above his master, nor the servant above his lord. It is enough for the disciple that he be as his master, and the servant as his lord. If they have called the master of the house Beelzebub, how much more shall they call them of his household? Fear them not therefore: for there is nothing covered, that shall not be revealed ; and hid, that shall not be known. What I tell you in darkness, that speak ye in light: and what ye hear in the ear, that preach ye upon the housetops. And fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul: but rather fear him which is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.  (x.23-28)

And St Paul, famously, says on the issue: According to the grace of God which is given unto me, as a wise masterbuilder, I have laid the foundation, and another buildeth thereon. But let every man take heed how he buildeth thereupon. For other foundation can no man lay than that is laid , which is Jesus Christ. Now if any man build upon this foundation gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, stubble;  Every man's work shall be made manifest: for the day shall declare it, because it shall be revealed by fire; and the fire shall try every man's work of what sort it is . If any man's work abide which he hath built thereupon, he shall receive a reward. If any man's work shall be burned , he shall suffer loss : but he himself shall be saved ; yet so as by fire. (I Corinthians iii.10-15)

Scripture seems to be quite clear. Human beings will answer for their deeds. Even in Psalm xcix, we have:

O magnify the Lord our God : and fall down before his footstool, for he is holy.
Moses and Aaron among his priests, and Samuel among such as call upon his Name : these called upon the Lord, and he heard them.
He spake unto them out of the cloudy pillar : for they kept his testimonies, and the law that he gave them.
Thou heardest them, O Lord our God : thou forgavest them, O God, and punishedst their own inventions.
O magnify the Lord our God, and worship him upon his holy hill : for the Lord our God is holy.

I mentioned below about how ferocious God is about Evil. There is war even in Heaven, but it is a foregone conclusions. The issue at hand is God’s justice as well as His mercy. Only God is capable of wielding these two ideas with appropriate deftness so as to make all things new. We really have to get out of the courtroom here. Justice is not quite the same as we might understand from the point of view of the Crown Court. Justice is synonymous with Righteousness and Righteousness burns with Pure Love. The mercy that God has shown us is that we can indeed be saved from Evil, yet if we reject His salvation, His justice cannot allow us into His Eternal presence.

What we read above is that the Lord knowest the secrets of our hearts, and that these will be revealed to the company of Heaven, and to us. Oh who may abide the day of His coming?! This should make us very uncomfortable. If we have any shame at all, then we will burn with it when these secrets are revealed in Heaven. It will be unpleasant and distressing, and yet, completely transforming! This is God at His most merciful. Just as we undress in front of the doctor, so will we be stripped in front of the company of Heaven so that the salvation of our soul can take place. It is the only way that our transformation can occur and it requires our repentance for it to work. This is probably what Purgatory is – at least in my humble reading of things.

It seems that we must be aware of this process so that we may indeed be ashamed of our sins, yet we find complete and utter acceptance in the arms of a forgiving God. We see the consequences of our actions, yet we are given the strength to bear those consequences through the love of God and the support of the Church. It seems to me that our prayers for the dead are precisely an expression of that support for all those standing before God weeping for their sins, as we all must.

Yet, Scripture is quite clear. God will wipe every tear from our eyes. He only does this because He loves us and wants for us all to be reconciled.

As I look back at my life, I see people that I even now struggle to forgive. I bear them no malice. Indeed, I pray earnestly for their eternal presence in Heaven with God, enjoying unending bliss and joy. I have absolutely no wish for them to spend even a microsecond in The Other Place. However, if I want the same for myself, then I will have to share God’s presence with them. Thus, this transformation, this final theosis, becomes vital both for me and for them if we are to spend Eternity in God’s presence and in mutual love. There will be people who will regard me in the same way, I’m sure. Reconciliation and the healing of harms have to take place for love to be perfected in us. For me, this is a comfort.

Of course, this is speculation on my reading of Scripture, and thus unlikely to be completely sound doctrine. Yet, it seems the most reasonable reading if there is to be any true notion of Justice at the end of time. For our part, we must cleanse our way even by ruling ourselves after God’s word. We must also continue to pray for the dead. That, too, is an expression of Christian Charity for we are in solidarity with all who die. Likewise, we will stand in solidarity with them before the face of Almighty God on that dread day!

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