Catholics have a purgatory (and imagination) problem
Contemporary science fiction shares a fundamental flaw with current Christian piety. It is a failure of imagination. Neither of them gives the alien its due. In science fiction, creatures from outer space are all too typically like we are, with, perhaps, an odd facial or skeletal feature thrown in.
The word “alien” comes from the Latin alienus, meaning “other” or “stranger.” Yet in so much of our older science fiction, humans immediately begin to speak with aliens, who evidently master English faster than any immigrant. (Aliens never seem to worry about learning to speak Mandarin.) In contrast, some of the best contemporary science fiction tries to take the alien more seriously. Should aliens be biped? Should they communicate by way of language as we know it? Would they even necessarily be carbon-based forms of life?
Of course, science fiction’s challenge is familiar to theology’s as well. If the alien were totally alien, meaning utterly different than we are, how would we even recognize its presence? Put it this way: You cannot be in the same story and not share some similar features.
Purgatory is rooted in the teaching that we live this life in order to prepare ourselves for one yet to come, one with God.
Yet Christian theology—Judaic and Islamic as well—insists that this is precisely the case with God. No one could be more alien to us. Each of these faiths insists that we would know precious little about God, beyond being able to affirm God’s existence, if God had not chosen to enter our history by way of revelation.
Christian piety, however, has many ways of ignoring how utterly different God is from us. Some of this is quite proper. We can and do receive a real knowledge of God in Christ, from the saints and from all the forms of revelation given to us in the faith, especially sacred Scripture. Even here, though, there is always the danger of thinking that we comprehend God, that God is simply one more thing or person that we know all about. Yet God remains more unknown than known, more alien than familiar.
The problem many people have with purgatory is a failure of imagination about how different God is and how alien the life to come will be. Purgatory is rooted in the teaching that we live this life in order to prepare ourselves for one yet to come, one with God.
As gold in the furnace, he proved them,
and as sacrificial offerings he took them to himself.
In the time of their visitation they shall shine,
and shall dart about as sparks through stubble (Wis 3:6-7).
If at the time of death we have clearly chosen for God, if we have set our face toward heaven but are not yet ready to receive God, to understand God, in short, to enjoy God, who is so utterly alien to us, then God in his mercy purifies us, transforms us.
There really are saints among us who are becoming truly alien, who are living a truly different way of life.
The church makes no assertions about how God does this or how this relates to time and space. Only that our prayers and pious acts aid the process. To use a spatial metaphor, purgatory is essentially the porch of heaven. There is no doubt about the deceased soul’s destiny. This is why folks are smiling in Dante’s “Purgatorio.”
Our problem in contemporary piety is that having reduced God to something more akin to the Wizard of Oz when he was still behind the curtain manipulating the image on the wall we think of heaven as no more than a new and better zip code, where we will enjoy in paradise that which we have lacked in this life.
This can be seen in contemporary funeral practices, even among Catholics. The deceased still clasps a rosary, but her favorite deck of cards is also in the casket. Johnnie Walker is buried with grandpa, though hopefully out of sight. We have quite literally returned to pre-Christian burial practices. We send our dead off to a better place but certainly not a radically different place, a completely alien way of life.
Too many of us do not take seriously how different God is from us, how wonderfully alien the halls of heaven are.
The thinking seems to run: If God is merciful, then most everyone goes to heaven, and why would a merciful God want to bother with some sort of further payment for sin? If a country club is your idea of heaven, all of this makes sense. But that takes us back to the original problem. We do not understand how alien, how different, God is from us, from our way of life.
Our faith tells us that each day of our lives we ready ourselves for the world to come when we expand our lives through acts of charity, mercy and compassion. There really are saints among us who are becoming truly alien, who are living a truly different way of life.
Yet most of us do not live by way of constant surrender to mystery, which is why most of us will most certainly rely upon God and the prayers of God’s people mercifully to make us ready for the one thing that is absolutely alien to us now: a love, a truth, a beauty and a goodness far beyond what we can conceive.
Prayers for the dead are not about works of righteousness. Understood properly, they heighten rather than diminish our understanding of God’s mercy. The contemporary challenge is that too many of us do not take seriously how different God is from us, how wonderfully alien the halls of heaven are.
Readings: Wisdom 3:1-9 Romans 6:3-9 John 6:37-40