Thursday, April 23, 2009

Evangelical Protestants and Purgatory

Recently, a catechumen confided in me that she was frustrated by her inability to explain the truth of Purgatory to an Evangelical Protestant family member.

My heart goes out to her. I remember what it was like to discover the teachings of the Church, knowing that I had found solid ground, true terra firma, but frustrated by my own inability to give a convincing defense of the faith to someone I love.

At first, the truth just makes sense in the quiet of our hearts. The trouble for new converts is that the ability to articulate what we are "sensing" takes time.

There is a great distance between understanding and being able to help someone else understand.

I'm posting my response to her here in the event that some reader is struggling with this same thing:

Dear Friend,

I wanted to encourage you today, especially in the area of Purgatory.

I think you are closer to understanding this teaching than you may realize. As evangelicals, we believed that we would be changed when we see Jesus. We knew that we weren't ready to come into the full presence of God - because we were familiar with the scripture passage that tells us that only the righteous one can stand in God's presence.

So, we talked about (and sang songs about) being changed when we enter eternity.

The thing of it is, as former Evangelicals, we said "changed in an instant" (which still implies time, though very, very short and quick). Outside of space and time, even the word instant doesn't make sense. And Catholics believe that purgatory is a place outside of time (maybe even outside of what we understand as "place"), something like the narthex of heaven. It is in this non-time place that we are made perfect.

Some Catholics have put time frames on it, saying that someone had so much "changing" or "cleaning up" to do that they would probably be in Purgatory for a certain number of years. But really, that is placing an earthly rubric on something that cannot be defined by or confined within the perameters of earthly terms. It can only be vaguely understood - because of our own limitations of seeing everything as part of time and space.

So, we always believed that we would be changed. Evangelicals said "in an instant" and some Catholics put a time frame on it. But really, it isn't about time. It is about a process. Being made ready to meet God, being made fully holy and righteous.

This change begins now, in this faith journey. We are being changed. We are not being covered over by the holiness of Jesus. We are being changed into the likeness of Jesus. And whatever still must change when we enter eternity, in God's infinite mercy, he will take us through that final process. Purgatory is a word for that process. It speaks of more grace, not less. It speaks to the importance of being completely righteous. . . completing the work that He began in us. And that is why I think you are closer to "getting" it than you realize. For that matter, evangelicals are as well.

I think it is the word Purgatory (and a whole set of baggage from the Protestant Reformation) that puts stumbling blocks in the way.

It is enough to know that we will be changed. It is a process beyond time and place. It is a final helping of mercy and grace from our Lord of justice. It is a necessary process so that mercy and justice and grace can prepare you for a face-to-face with God for all eternity - and not be completely destroyed in the process. Only the righteous will see God.

I think I sent the quote by C.S. Lewis on Purgatory in a previous letter. In case I didn't I will put it at the end of this email.

Don't lose your balance when you are questioned by your friends and family. It is an opportunity for you to ask questions of your parish priest, RCIA instructor, sponsor, and me so that you can get answers that your soul needs/wants. The deeper you dig for those answers, the more you will find that you have answers for others. The difference is that you are ready to receive the answers and they may need more prayer and more time.

I see that my note has become rather lengthy. And so, I leave you with C.S. Lewis and the joy that whatever remains unfinished in us, will be completed - for He is faithful. Even so, strive to be holy in all that you do. Let grace change you this day, and every day that you are given air to breathe.

Blessed Easter,

From Letters to Malcom by C.S. Lewis
Our souls demand Purgatory, don’t they? Would it not break the heart if God said to us, “Is it true, my son, that your breath smells and your rags drip with mud and slime, but we are charitable here and no one will upbraid you with these things, nor draw away from you. Enter into the joy”? Should we not reply, “With submission, Sir, and if there is no objection, I’d rather be cleaned first.” “It may hurt, you know.” – “Even so, Sir.”

I assume that the process of purification will normally involve suffering. Partly from tradition; partly because most real good that has been done in this life has involved it. But I don’t think suffering is the purpose of the purgation. I can well believe that people neither much worse nor much better than I will suffer less than I or more. “No nonsense about merit.” The treatment given will be the one required, whether it hurts little or much.

My favourite image on this matter comes from the dentist’s chair. I hope that when the tooth of life is drawn and I am “coming round” a voice will say, “Rinse your mouth out with this.” This will be Purgatory.


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