Catholics have a purgatory (and imagination) problem

Photo by Greg Rakozy on Unsplash

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?

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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

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Philip Pia
1 month 1 week ago

Father Terrance, thank you for the thought-provoking article. I would like to be able to hear your homilies some time. The issue seems to be the inadequacy of any natural theology. God is transcendence and mystery, but the only way to know God has been the possibility of access to him through the positive elements of reality, that is, through some type of affinity.
So it continues to be true that we human beings want to dictate to God what he he should be like, even though in that form God is not as he really is. Do we have the right to imagine a God which is ours? I would reply, yes, especially from the standpoint of the downtrodden, those who suffer the most, the little ones called by Jesus of Nazareth. Those who suffer have every right to imagine a God who is theirs, who rights their wrongs, who confers life on them, and they have that right because God is like that; that is how he has been revealed.

Edward Gallagher
1 month 1 week ago

If we are made in the image and likeness of God, if the incarnate Word took on human flesh and human nature, then God isn't really all that alien. Likewise, the very idea that Christ had to suffer and die to appease the Father for the transgression of Adam and Eve is not at all an alien idea; it's a very primitive human view of crime, punishment, and redemption. The idea of purgatory is equally primitive. If you are on a quest, you've got to undergo ordeals and you've got to suffer and be purified. There's nothing alien about that idea, but then again there's nothing about it that suggests a loving God.

Philip Pia
1 month 1 week ago

Point well taken. Father Terrance claims we have "an imagination" problem. Jesus' humanity would seem to resolve this problem. He writes that Christianity, Judaism, and Islam insist that we know little of God beyond his existence. This comparative argumentation is strange coming from a Catholic priest. A central fact of our faith is Jesus' divinity, and this sets Christianity apart from other religions. Once Christianity affirms that a man is at the same time God, it stands alone in the world. If Jesus Christ is always our starting point, then why does Father Terrance want to introduce quantification into God's transcendence by stating that God remains more alien than familiar? It is a small dangerous step from there to monophysitism. I would like Father Terrance to give us a little more credit for our piety. It was in a human being that the primitive church discovered God. Jesus of Nazareth revealed greatness and profundity in his humanity. Only God himself could be so human! That sounds awfully familiar to me.

John Walton
1 month 1 week ago

Wisodm " As gold in the furnace hath he tried them, and received them as a burnt offering.". Malachi 3:1-9 "For he is like a refiner's fire" -- Malachi 3:1-9. Anyone else sing Handel? Maybe too much "inside inorganic chemistry" -- but there is a precise eutectic point when silver and gold are refined that the surface becomes absolutely reflective -- a time at which the refiner's image could be seen as if in a mirror. That's when it is cooked enough. Thanks Fr. Terrance.

John Chuchman
1 month 1 week ago

All goes back to a childish image of God and an outdated irrelevant theology.

John Chuchman
1 month 1 week ago

All goes back to a childish image of God and an outdated irrelevant theology.

Crystal Watson
1 month 1 week ago

There's no scriptural back-up for the idea of purgatory - it's an idea created by the church. When Jesus was on the cross, he didn't tell the thief that after a stint in purgatory, and if enough people prayed for him, eventually he's get to heaven. He told the thief that he would be with him in paradise that day (Luke 23:43).

rose-ellen caminer
1 month 1 week ago

I can't imagine anything more beautiful then the world. And when I l look at people who are beautiful; handsome, intelligent men, and women with beautiful faces, or observe the gracefulness and beauty of moving bodies, human and animals, I feel the awesomeness of Being. But then when out of the mouths of these so beautiful people they are talking nonsense [as I do too ] I experience the disconnect between God and humanity. Then I imagine, if instead of talking nonsense, these beautiful people would be talking about God. Then imagining them talking about God, instead of all the nonsense that people speak, I then think they would then be their true selves, holy and good as God is.Then,I imagine, they would be whole, where now they are out of touch with their own true selves, with the only thing that can really matter; the presence of God , therefore of the holiness of their own and all of existence. That's when I feel like I am "on the porch of heaven", in purgatory getting a glimpse of a heavenly reality; the full radiance of Being, of beings created in the image and likeness of God. It's a glimpse into the fullness of life that Jesus promised us.

Ann DeMarle
1 month 1 week ago

Thank you. Hope through a foggy mirror.

Ken Osis
1 month 1 week ago

C S Lewis did quite a good job at exploring the alien.
Out of the Silent Planet was peopled by three distinct species who were sentient and imbued with a moral conscience but had not made the mistake which is characteristic of our single species on this planet. He also included spirit beings utterly other than the incarnate ones and they were of two aspects, good ones and corrupt ones and specified that the one true Absolute being was unique.
The Great Divorce explores purgatory brilliantly.

Frank Peretti has masterfully depicted the realm and inhabitants thereof interacting with human beings and the tide of human affairs in a way I have found nowhere else.

Bruce Snowden
1 month 1 week ago

Is it that God is so different from us. I think not as every artist leaves a touch of self in what he/she produces. For God to create humanity means there is something human about God and in the human swirl the Face of God is visible. We are God-like and yes, the Word became Flesh! At least so it seems to me to be.

Bruce Snowden
1 month 1 week ago

Is it that God is so different from us. I think not as every artist leaves a touch of self in what he/she produces. For God to create humanity means there is something human about God and in the human swirl the Face of God is visible. We are God-like and yes, the Word became Flesh! At least so it seems to me to be.

Frank Pray
1 month 1 week ago

Our evolution drives us to make sense of our environments. The brain is a compulsive “sense-making” machine, quickly making connections even between disparate unrelated events. In other words, we create stories, both personal and collective. These stories are partly factual, mostly subjective, and highly imaginative. They are so embedded in our unconscious, we aren’t aware of them as the presuppositions of our actions. It’s virtually impossible to start with a true beginner’s mind when reflecting on death, God, and “afterlife.” The Bible then is mostly a compilation of stories, leaving the reader to form his or her own conclusions [until we get to Paul, who is a true rationalist]. That is why I prefer the parables of Jesus to the dogmatism of Paul. Jesus uses creative imagination not to provide answers we couldn’t even comprehend, but to point us in the direction of the next small step toward understanding. Feed the hungry, visit the imprisoned, forgive your neighbor, even love your enemy. It is like the analogy of the driver on a narrow mountain road at night. He need only see what his headlights reveal just ahead.

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