On the Glory of Purgatory

Originally at: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/standingonmyhead/2014/09/on-the-glory-of-purgatory.html

by Fr. Dwight Longenecker

Saved from Sacrifice: A Theology of the Cross by S. Mark Heim is a fascinating exposition of the thought of Rene Girard to the theology of the atonement or “what really happened when Jesus died on the cross. I’m reading it as part of my research for a book I am working on called The Sacred Sacrifice which will be an explanation and expansion of Girard’s thought for a popular audience.

Toward the end of the book Heim meditates on an element of Anselm’s thought on the atonement, and records this dialogue in Anselm on the need we have not only for forgiveness, but for participation in forgiveness.

Anselm: But suppose it were true that God forgives him who does not pay what he owes, because he cannot

B: That is what I should wish

A: But as long as he does not repay, he either will or will not wish to repay. But if he wishes to do what he cannot do, he will be in want, and if he does not wish to do it, he will be unjust

B: Nothing is clearer than this

A: But if he is either in need or unjust, he will not be blessed

An example will clarify: Let us say that Johnny throws a baseball through old Mrs Brady’s window. He is very sorry for having broken the window and he apologizes to Mrs Brady. She is a nice, rich old lady, and not only forgives Johnny, but can pay to have the window repaired. Johnny has no money and cannot pay for the window to be repaired.  But if Johnny is really sorry and is a good boy he would want to pay for the repair of Mrs Brady’s window. His own virtue has made him unhappy. If, however, he does not want to pay for the window then he is not virtuous after all.

Mrs. Brady could pay for the window and be done with it, but she would be truly wise and virtuous if she insisted that Johnny pay for the window and assisted him to do so, “I’ll tell you what Johnny,” says Mrs Brady, “I know you can’t pay for the window, but if you wish to pay for it, why not mow my lawn for the rest of the summer once a week and we’ll call it done.”

By participation in the restitution Johnny is not only granted the dignity of being fully responsible for his actions, but he is also granted the dignity of being engaged in the forgiveness process. He is not just “let off” instead he is integrated in the process and so fully forgiven once the price is paid.

This is the reason for penance and purgatory.

After genuine repentance the soul is completely forgiven by God unconditionally. However, the price for the sin must still be paid and this is where penance and purgatory come in.

I cannot forget the scene from the film The Mission in which the slave trader Roderigo, played by Robert deNiro, is given the penance of lugging his weapons and the tools of his slave trading on the long journey up the waterfall to the settlement of the aboriginals. In his violence and lust he has killed his own brother, and at one point, when the Jesuit brothers feel sorry for him and attempt to ease his load he himself insists on completing the terrible purification.

So it is that the truly penitent soul embraces his penance. So it is that Dante wisely reveals that purgatory is a joyful place. The pain is severe, but it is a severe mercy.

No other religion but Catholicism has such depth of understanding of the human condition and the tender justice of  God.

Some triumphalist Evangelicals (bless them) with their cheap grace, instant sanctification, ticket to heaven and eternal security have no concept of the reason for penance and purgatory. They think this all has to do with Catholics “earning their salvation by works”.

Not true.

We believe that it is all by God’s grace but that we co operate with the work of grace in our lives, and that this gives us dignity and responsibility. God has granted us the significance that our choices really matter.  Our involvement matters. Our actions matter. Each one of them matters eternally. Each little step towards God is an important step and a joy. Each little step away from his light and mercy is a tragedy and a danger.

Penance and purgatory are the pains we embrace as we run the race.

The athletic or artistic analogies are apt. The athlete training to run the race does not eschew the disciplines of his craft. The artist or musician preparing for some great accomplishment does not despise the disciplines of his art. Instead they embrace and endorse the disciplines. They train and they feel the pain. They sacrifice all to win the prize. They joyfully endure the suffering because the trophy is set before them, and the trophy would be meaningless if they did not go through the pain to get there.

When the young man steps on to the stage of the concert hall in his tuxedo and strides to the piano to play Rachmaninoff’s third concerto he pours into the bravura performance a whole lifetime of practice, study, patience, endurance and suffering. That is why the music tears you up and brings tears to the eyes. That is why the music is great, because Rachmaninoff himself endured such suffering and poured it into his art….and the music would not be good unless the pain on the part of the composer and the performer were part of it.

missionThe exhilaration and joy that comes with winning the race would be completely absent if we were not involved in its completion. Although it is totally a gift the greatest part of the gift is that we are given the chance to win the prize and to share in our redemption. The redeemer grants us this dignity and  this joy: that we will complete with him and in him and through him, the long, hard journey.

The joy of our hard won release is remembered in The Mission  at that moment when Roderigo’s burden is cut loose. At that moment he breaks down and weeps like a child–for the hardened man of war–the murderer of his brother has become a child again.

So with penance and purgatory we embrace the pains of our purification. Through them we co operate with the tender justice of God and his severe mercy.

This is a glory not a grim punishment, and through this we will one day be an unimaginable work of art–an icon of the resurrected One–Adam and Eve restored–children alive again in a new age of innocence, standing on the edge of eternity.

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