There are some flashbacks to the death of Willy Lincoln, in the White House, but most of George Saunders’s Lincoln in the Bardo is set in Georgetown’s Oak Hill Cemetery. That is because most all of its characters are dead, though some, as yet, cannot admit to that. “Bardo” refers to the Buddhist notion of an intermediate state of existence between lives on earth. It is a sort of waiting place for souls who have died, before they are reincarnated. For some souls, the Bardo is a place of illumination; for others, it is a more frightening experience, a hallucinatory return to a previous life, one not well lived.
It is hard for a Catholic not to think of purgatory in reading this creative novel, and indeed one sinful group of characters enunciates an essential element of our belief in purgatory: our relationship, as humans, to time.
We were as we were! the bass lisper barked. How could we have been otherwise? Or, being that way, have done otherwise? We were that way, at that time, and had been led to that place, not by any innate evil in ourselves, but by the state of our cognition and our experience up until that moment.
“By Fate, by Destiny,” said the Vermonter.
By the fact that time runs in only one direction, and we are borne along by it, influenced precisely as we are, to do just the things that we do, the bass lisper said.
And then are cruelly punished for it, said the woman.
We humans do more than dwell in time. We are made in time. We grow into ourselves as we move through time and the experiences that it brings. For other animals, the date on a calendar makes little to no difference. Not so with us, for whom, as we sing, “What a difference a day makes”—much less a year!
We humans do more than dwell in time. We are made in time.
As we move through time, we cannot not be changed. One way or another, and in myriad of ways, we either blossom or decay in time. Typically, we do a bit of both, depending upon the aspect of our lives under consideration. This is what the church means in speaking of “the temporal effects” of sin. One lie does not make someone a liar, but all liars are created by a recurrent return to the sin. The first sight of pornography assaults us; if we return, we grow accustomed to looking at God’s creation like a beast, trampling flowers.
Nominalism was a late medieval error in philosophy. It rejected the idea that reality was anything more than a flux. The world around us was a collection of the names, which we humans assigned. Unlike Plato, the nominalists did not think that the eternal manifested itself in time, that something of God’s design was evident in the very stability of the world. Instead, even God became utterly capricious. Black or white, it all depended upon a divine whim!
What if death claims us before we undo the work of sinful time?
Bad theology begins with poor philosophy. Is it any wonder that Martin Luther, having imbibed nominalism, decided that God simply declared us to be righteous? Whatever we were in one moment could change in the next.
This sounded like a wonderful claim for the power of the Gospel, but it flew in the face of all human experience. Time does indeed move only one way, and as we pass through time we change. If the redemption Christ has wrought is authentic, it must undo the real effects of time. Yes, we can receive Christ in an instant. We can change direction in a single moment, but however far we have wandered down a path, we have still to turn around and return, in order to make reform something real within us.
This is why confession of sins has always been linked to penance for sins. Indeed for centuries, the penance, which was much more onerous than now, preceded the confession. It is one thing for us to open ourselves to Christ and for him to claim us in his mercy. It is another thing for mercy to undo the effects of time. Yes, God could arbitrarily trample upon time, as the nominalist envisioned, but that would violate God’s own creation, which exists in time and the human freedom it creates.
It is just that Christ does not save us from time or despite time. He saves us in time.
But what if death claims us before we undo, before we transform the work of sinful time? That is the deepest meaning of purgatory. That God, in mercy, finds a way “to turn back time,” to undo its effects. God does not destroy time in eternity. Everything we are in the afterlife was fashioned in time. No, God’s mercy simply finds a way to fix, in time, in us, what a time of sin has distorted.
We have no calculus to transform time on earth into eternity. And it is not a question of exchange ratios. It is more foundational than that. Eternity is the blossoming of time, not its uprooting. The only thing eternity uproots is sin, all of which comes from that time of freedom, which we call our human lives.
Both Scripture and early church practice witness to prayers for the dead. Our prayers can touch them; their prayers can touch us, just as in prayer one living person can touch another.
Luther was right about God’s champion, the Christ. He alone saves us. It is just that he does not save us from time or despite time. He saves us in time. While we live, you might call his action “the temporal effects of grace,” Christ renewing and refashioning us. After death, we call it purgatory. Either way, the work is his, and it is one of great mercy.
Readings: Wisdom 3:1-9 Romans 5:5-11 John 6:37-40