A purgatory of love

There is an allegory often falsely attributed to C.S. Lewis that in the life to come we will only be able to eat with spoons, forks, and knives that are more than a meter long. Those who are in hell will be tortured by this because they will never be able to feed themselves, while those who are in heaven will feed each other.

The fairly obvious point is that hell is made of selfishness while heaven is made of selflessness. Those in hell see only themselves, while those in heaven see only each other. The big problem with the illustration is that neither group seems all that interested in seeing God. Presumably, if anyone is getting fed at all in heaven, it is the Lord who will feed us.

That said, as I was pondering this image recently, it occurred to me that it works far better as an image of purgatory rather than heaven.

I went back and forth on my thoughts on purgatory before I was Catholic. I could accept the idea that there might be a state in which God removes from us the remaining stains of sin before we are able to come into His presence. This was, in fact, the understanding of purgatory that Lewis held, as he wrote about in his Letters to Malcolm. It did not distress me that such a state was not explicitly described in Holy Scripture (or at least not described in a part of Scripture that would be acceptable to Protestants). It seemed to me to fit well with the general thrust of how the Bible describes God’s interaction with us. God’s holiness is so bright and powerful that we sinners cannot walk into His presence lest we be destroyed. It is only when we are transformed and our sin is removed that we can stand before God.

But what still bothered me, at least for a time, was the gnawing suspicion that purgatory as the Catholic Church describes it adds to the completed work of Jesus Christ on the cross. If we can serve time in some sort of supernatural prison to shave off our guilt, did the sacrifice of Jesus really atone completely for us? If I can say prayers that somehow help a soul in purgatory along the path to heaven, am I not adding my own effort to that of Our Lord?

“That there should be some fire even after this life is not incredible,” said St. Augustine in the Enchiridion of Faith, Hope, and Love, “and it can be inquired into and either be discovered or left hidden whether some of the faithful may be saved, some more slowly and some more quickly in the greater or lesser degree in which they loved the good things that perish, through a certain purgatorial fire.” Love lives right at the center of the doctrine of purgatory, but it is not only the love that comes directly from God but the love that God diffuses in and through us. The extent to which we have given and received love determines the degree to which we suffer as we move towards our ultimate union with God.

Believing my prayers for a person in purgatory are effective is no more an addition to the work of Jesus than it is to believe my prayers for a friend in the hospital are effective. It is my own union with God, forged in His love, that makes such prayer effective. I operate not as an independent agent, dispensing my own graces, but as a part of the Body of Christ, humbly assumed as an instrument of His love. Could He do it without me? Sure. But He chooses to do it through me, by means of my prayers, and in so doing He purifies me as well by making me look outside of myself. As I become more loving in this life, I grow closer to a fully realized communion with God in the next.

Sometimes we envision the purifying fire of God as something external, burning away impurities in much the same way that a flame burns off rust or melts wax. But if all purgatory is good for is changing our external appearance, to hell with it. The purity we need is in our hearts, as Our Lord so aptly points out (Matthew 15:10-20). That is a transformation that cannot happen in an individualistic way. It cannot just be me and Jesus. It must be me in Jesus, loving those whom He loves, losing all sense of self-possession in favor of a new identity as one who loves in Christ.

I have dear friends who have died who were true and lively believers. They may already be in heaven. Or they may be in purgatory. I do not know. I rejoice for them either way since either ultimately leads into God’s embrace. Sometimes I pray for them and sometimes I ask them for their prayers for me. If they are already in heaven, I imagine my prayers for them do them no harm. If they are in purgatory, perhaps my prayers for them might do them some good. But even if they are in purgatory, I am sure that they benefit from the opportunity to offer prayers for me and others. Every calling out of the self, every calling to use the long forks and spoons to feed others, is a small act of purification, offered not in competition with the completed work of Jesus but in continuity with it as a genuine fruit of the Spirit.

That Jesus would live as one of us and die for us is the ultimate blessing. That we get to participate in the manifestation of that grace, not only in our own hearts but in the hearts of others, is as deep a love as I can imagine.

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The elusive freedom of Chris Cornell

Chris Cornell performing at the Montreux Jazz Festival in 2005. By Simon Jacquier from Vernayaz (near Martigny, Valais), Switzerland.

“If this doesn’t make you free, it doesn’t mean you’re tied,” sang Chris Cornell on the title track from Superunknown, Soundgarden’s 1994 breakthrough album. I have been listening to Soundgarden pretty constantly in the wake of Cornell’s apparent suicide two weeks ago. Superunknown is lyrically stream-of-consciousness, like James Joyce and Jackson Pollock had a musical baby. Yet listening to it again now, after many years of having it up on the shelf, it is clear to me that there is an emergent theme. These are songs about freedom. Or, to be more precise, these are songs about a longing for freedom that seems impossible to fulfill.

After a suicide, it is easy to read into everything someone ever did as a sign. This is particularly tempting with Superunknown, given the dark melancholy in much of the lyrics. The album ends with the song Like Suicide which is hard not to hear now as chillingly prescient. But this was an album that came out more than twenty years ago. It was neither Soundgarden’s first nor last record, and I would argue that it was not even their best. I did not know Cornell and I cannot even begin to understand what was going on inside of him on the night that he died. I certainly do not think I will discover the answer by reading the tea leaves of his discography.

Nevertheless, listening again to Superunknown has been its own reward. It hangs together as a whole surprisingly well, despite being a collection of disparate songs. It is reminiscent in some ways of the Beatles’ White Album. Like much of Soundgarden’s work, the songs on Superunknown have the intense energy and guitar work of hard rock and metal but with a deeply pleasing melodic core. Soundgarden spent the eighties pioneering the Seattle based sound that would later be referred to as grunge, and Superunknown displays that genre at its best.

“Let it go,” Cornell sings over and over again on the album’s opening song, Drown Me. “Won’t you let it drown me in you.” Over and over again, the album expresses this same elusive desire, to be released, unchained, allowed simply to be. My Wave, for instance, is about people feeling whatever they need to feel and doing whatever they have to do in order to get through the day, so long as they do not hold anyone else back in the process. It is a vision of libertarian individualism that is worthy of the postmodern world we live in.

Yet even as Cornell cries out for freedom, he is deeply vulnerable and realistic about the costs. In The Day I Tried to Live, he follows the advice of the voice in his head that tells him to “seize the day, pull the trigger, and watch the rolling blades,” but it does not give him the sense of strength or happiness he expects. “Words you say never seem to live up to the ones inside your head,” he sings. “The lives we make never seem to get us anywhere but dead.”

The tension that so much of Cornell’s music describes is not a new one. It is the human experience ever since the fall. We sense that we are not free, that there is an unseen force in this world that holds us captive. We rebel against it, hoping to shatter the chains and find the peace in our own skin that we have never been able to find. But then we discover that the real enemy oppressing us is not outside of us at all. It is our own brokenness, driving us both to long for deep union with others and simultaneously to push others away. Our own suffering hearts enslave us in patterns of self absorption and abuse that we cannot escape, no matter how many external threats to our freedom we eliminate.

The answer to this is found in Christ, but not in a glib way. I do not for a second think that Cornell’s life would have been all flowers and rainbows if he had followed Jesus (and if I did think that, I would be as guilty of self-deception and self-righteousness as the Christian interlocutor that Cornell describes in the song Jesus Christ Pose). For all I know, Cornell may have been a Christian. In most interviews, he said that he was a “spiritual free thinker” and refused to be pinned down, but he did become a member of the Greek Orthodox Church when he married his wife in 2004.

There are moments of deep spiritual insight in many of the songs that Cornell wrote over the years. The hound of heaven was certainly on his heels, and it seems that at least on some level he knew that. Cornell told Mark Maron in 2014 that he had no idea what Soundgarden’s major hit Black Hole Sun is really about, but it is hard for me to believe that all the snakes and masks that show up in that song, only to be thwarted by the coming of the dawn, are there at random. “Heaven send hell away / no one sings like you anymore.”

The freedom that so many of us long for, not only from external threats to our liberty but from the interior tyranny of our own hearts, is a freedom that can only be found in the cross. What Jesus offers the world is a hard sell. It is not freedom from suffering. It is, rather, freedom in and through suffering, or more precisely it is freedom that gives suffering a meaning and a purpose. What Jesus takes into His own body on the cross is not merely our rule-breaking but the very substance of our broken hearts. In a godless world, suffering would be meaningless and random, but in a world in which God has become man and died and risen, our own suffering becomes the means by which we enter into the mystery of God’s grace. As we allow our suffering to be united with Christ’s on the cross, it is transformed. No longer does it define us or contain us. Thanks to the miracle of Easter, even death itself becomes a doorway to the infinite rather than a looming curse.

Suicide is a very serious sin in as much as it is a rejection of God’s love, but more often than not it is motivated not by a conscious choice but by issues of mental health, addiction, depression, or any of a host of other factors beyond our control. I wish that Chris Cornell had not killed himself, both because I lament the loss of his musical genius and because I am sad for the loss to his family. Suicide is never the answer. It does not stop the pain. But I pray that God will be merciful to him and to those who love and miss him.

I am thankful for Superunknown and for all the other beautifully sad works of art that Chris Cornell put out into the world. Despite the temptation to hear everything he did now through the lens of his suicide, I still feel a giddy roar of life in these songs. The words are cryptic and often conflicted, but the music shimmers with the energy of new life and creative hope. And that is Easter too, that a suffering song can make you want to get up and dance, that an introspective and confessional lament can be turned outward and become the very stuff of love.

The gift of grieving

Screenshot of Edward Herrman and Kelly Bishop from Episode 5 of Season 6 of the original series, from Wikipedia.
Screenshot of Edward Herrman and Kelly Bishop from Episode 5 of Season 6 of the original series, from Wikipedia.

“Gilmore Girls” was a staple in our household when it was airing a decade ago.  It was a coming of age story, filled with lots of quirkiness and charm but grounded in an unvarnished view of the challenges of human intimacy. I was skeptical going into the recent reunion show, “Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life” on Netflix. Having been disappointed by just about every attempt at rebooting a show after a long hiatus that I have ever seen, I was pleasantly surprised to find that this was different. It had the expected fan service–the call backs to obscure moments in the original series and cameos from almost everyone who ever even walked by the set–but it was something different and special all on its own. It was still a coming of age story and a story of complex relationships, but now it was also a story of mourning.

Edward Herrman played Richard Gilmore in the original series. Richard was an important character but not absolutely central. In fact, Herrman’s name in the credits of the original series was always introduced with the words “special appearance by,” as if to underline the tangential nature of his character. However, Herrman died in 2014, meaning he would not appear in the reunion show. His absence would have to be addressed.

From all reports, this show was percolating in the mind of creator Amy Sherman-Palladino for many years. She knew what she wanted to do with it long before Herrman’s death was a factor. She could have easily dealt with the absence of Richard by saying he was off on a fishing trip or that he had run off with his secretary. She chose instead to make the death of Richard a central aspect of the show. Far from just a quick moment of sadness, the absence of Richard Gilmore colors the entire four episode arc. He is arguably more central and more important here than he ever was in the original series.

Grief is like this. It is not a momentary endeavor, an interlude of sadness in an otherwise productive and happy life. Mourning is a lifelong discipline. It colors and changes us. As a priest, I have been at many bedsides of the dying and seen many people mourn. Grief is as unique as a snowflake. Every person experiences every loss in a different way. The losses do not recede with time the way that people say that they will. Instead, they slowly work their way into the fabric of life, changing the way we love, the way we trust, and the way we see the world.

My maternal grandmother died in 2003. She was just shy of 78, not tremendously elderly by today’s standards but old enough that no one would have said that she died without ever getting a chance to live. She was a complicated woman whose life was not always easy and whose choices were not always good, but to me she was always a figure of pure love and support. Her absence from my life, even after all these years, still feels something like the soreness in the gums at the place where a tooth has fallen out. Something is missing that belongs there, something that could easily be overlooked when it was still there and functioning but that is immediately apparent when it disappears.

Recently, my good friend and colleague in ministry, Fr. Brewster Hastings, died quite unexpectedly. I had no idea how important he was to me until he was suddenly gone. He had been my spiritual director, my mentor, and at times even my confessor. He walked me through a good many difficulties. I did not thank him enough. I did not appreciate him nearly enough. I am quite certain that I will still be feeling his loss in a decade.

We live in a society that tries to deny death. Part of that denial includes the denial of grief. We see it as something to get over or get through. We try to psychologize it. We expect it to get better. We tell people that it will get better. But it doesn’t get better. And here’s the real kicker, it shouldn’t get better.

Grief is not a bad thing. It is not a problem. It is one of the truly great gifts of human life. It is a hellish gift, to be sure, but it is a gift all the same. What the constant throb of grief reminds us is how important life is and how unfair death is. We act sometimes as if death is natural. We try to make friends with it. We comfort people by saying things like, “It was just his time” or “she lived a good, long life and she’s not suffering anymore,” or worst of all, “God called him home.” None of these sentiments tell the truth. Death is an aberration. It is completely without dignity. It robs us every time, whether the person in question lived a long life or not. God is not the author of death. God never intended for us to die. Death is the outworking of sin in the world. It is the warping of God’s plans and intentions.

Grief reminds us that death is our foe, not our friend. Grief can also give us clarity about what is important in life. In the new Gilmore Girls series, the grief experienced by Emily, Richard’s widow, completely changes her, making her realize that many of the things she once thought were important never really were. Living in the shadow of Richard’s memory eventually gives her an odd kind of courage to be kinder to people and to let go of many things that simply do not matter. In a strange sort of way, his death becomes a sacrificial offering for her. It allows her to live more fully, not because she gets over him but because she finds in the pain an untapped potential for beauty and human connection.

The grief I have known has had a similar though as yet less complete effect in my life. I cannot say that I have become a totally different person, but I have grown more sensitive to things I would not have noticed before, things like the difficulties of life for people as they age, the loneliness of widows, and the often unnoticed humanity of the very sick. Like all suffering, grief has tempered my soul. It has made me love more deeply even as it has made me more aware of my own failings to live up to love’s promise.

As a Christian, of course, grief takes on a whole different dimension. It is a reminder of the fact that the very love of God is borne out of grief. So God loved the world that He sent His only Son to die for us. His death on the cross is the ultimate example of fashioning love out of grief. When I encounter the crucifix, there is a dual feeling that often runs through me, a sense of shame at my own sinfulness and a corresponding joy at the fact that His death has lifted it from me. Sometimes in those moments, I suddenly realize anew that Jesus died for me and that I never really saw what I had before. In those moments, I become a Christian for real. It is a religion of bitter sweet love, a piety of grieving happy tears.

And of course, bound up in all of this is the promise of resurrection and the hope of the life to come. Those who have died are not gone, though they may be gone from us. I pray now for Fr. Brewster and for my grandmother and for all those who are on another shore. I pray for their repose in Christ. I hope they pray for me. I learn over and over again, every day, to trust them to God’s care. That too is a gift.

Edward Herrman was a faithful Catholic. I think he would have liked how “Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life” portrayed the loss of his character. There is another shore where Herrman and Fr. Brewster and my grandmother all see a horizon that I only catch glimpses of now. May their souls and the souls of all the faithful departed rest in peace. And may we who grieve never take the gift of our grief for granted.

We are not our brains

right_brainThe soul cannot be scientifically proven. That should not cause alarm for Christians. There are lots of things that cannot be scientifically proven, either because science has not gotten there yet or because science is not the right tool with which to explore that particular question. Science can tell me who my biological mother is but it cannot prove that she loves me. It can determine whether or not a person’s DNA was left at a crime scene, but it cannot determine whether or not he should be held accountable for committing a crime.

Nonetheless, for many people who have been heavily influenced by materialism–the philosophical conviction that matter and physical processes are all that there is–the lack of a testable hypothesis about the soul means that the soul must be an illusion. As neuroscience continues to advance, more and more research has shown that, physically speaking, we are our brains. All our memories are stored in the brain. All our feelings are generated by the brain. When we feel pain in our hands or feet, there is no actual pain there. Rather, our brain is interpreting reactions in our nerve endings as pain. Many scientists now believe that all that we call consciousness takes place in the brain and that it will not be long before we figure out just how the whole trick of it works.

The NPR program Intelligence Squared hosted a debate in 2014 on the question of whether or not there is life after death. Debaters on both sides were scientists, but those on the pro side argued largely from personal and anecdotal evidence of near death experiences. Those on the con side focused instead on the question of consciousness. They likened death to a candle being blown out. The matter and energy still exist, but the process is done. The flame was never really its own thing, but an illusion of perception. Likewise, what we think of as us is merely a set of complex chemical processes taking place in our brains. Everything about us from our sense of humor to our experiences of love is reducible to the firing of neurons. Once that firing stops, there is nothing left of us to live on. The soul was never more than chemistry and therefore has nowhere to go when the chemistry is done. This argument handily won the debate.

The problem with this logic, of course, is that it assumes its own philosophical premise. The soul has to be a physical reality in order to be scientifically disproven in this way. If the soul is something different, something other than the stuff that makes up this world, then the tools of physics and biology might be able to catch glimpses of it but they would never be able to reduce it to a formula. The proponents of near death experiences sometimes do try to subject those experiences to scientific rigor, as they should, but the kind of scientific questions that can be asked about such experiences will not yield the kind of answers that strict materialists are ever likely to accept.

The Bible speaks of the soul in multiple ways. Sometimes the soul is simply a synonym for life itself, as when Jesus says “Greater love hath no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). The soul is also sometimes spoken of as inclusive of our whole being, including our bodies, such as when Jesus says, “What does it profit a man to gain the whole world and lose his soul?” (Matthew 16:26). Elsewhere, however, the soul is clearly a separate faculty altogether, as when He says, “Do not fear those who kill the body but are unable to kill the soul; but rather fear him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matthew 10:26).

If all this seems confusing, it should. When we speak of the soul, we are delving into a mystery. It is hard to speak of spiritual reality when we spend all our time in a world that has been scrubbed clean of it. To a materialist, appealing to spiritual reality will always sound like special pleading because it requires us to look at the world through a different lens than that of a microscope. It requires the same knowing that allows me to accept that my mother’s love for me is not merely a chemical reaction in her brain or that the “me” I am in my mid thirties is the same “me” that I was when I was only four or five years old, despite the fact that everything about me has changed during the time in between including the entire set of atoms and molecules that make up my physical body.

Yet it would be incorrect to say that we have no evidence at all of the soul besides the purely subjective experiences of religious people. Throughout the Intelligence Squared  debate, I kept asking myself how I would have argued the question if I had been on the pro side. What I would have said would have been something like this: The first, last, and best piece of solid evidence for the existence of the human soul is the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Of course, that probably would have made further conversation impossible, at least from the materialist point of view. It is unfair, they might say, to try to buttress one religious idea by means of another. We have to stick to facts after all, not faith. But the resurrection of Jesus is knowable, not through scientific testing, but certainly through the social sciences and the study of history. We can test the veracity of the resurrection the same way we test the veracity of the reign of Julius Caesar or the existence of Socrates or any of hundreds of other important historical events that happened in the ancient past. We look at the best evidence we have and draw likely conclusions based on that evidence, just like we do in a court of law. When we look at the evidence that way, the case for the historical veracity of the resurrection of Jesus is overwhelming. Do not take my word for it. There are plenty of good studies that have been done on the subject, the best in modern times probably being N.T. Wright’s The Resurrection of the Son of God.

Whatever the outcome, though, it has to be clear that the resurrection has a strong bearing on the questions of life after death and the true nature of the soul. If the resurrection is a fraud, then the materialist view may happily stand. But if it is true, then the reality of life beyond death for at least one of us has to be admitted and the rest of what Jesus claimed about Himself and about us, including what He had to say about the soul, becomes admissible as evidence. Near death experiences can be quite powerful and should not blithely be dismissed, but an actual death and return experience really ought to be decisive.

Naturally, I do not expect that argument to convince the staunch materialist. We simply live in different worlds. The world of the materialist is rational to a fault but dead even before it begins. It is a world where human beings lack not only a soul but also true freedom, the ability to love, the wonder of great art and music, the transcendence that comes from awe at creation, the intimacy of prayer. Not that a materialist cannot have some of these experiences, but they are reduced and diminished by not having access to their spiritual foundation.

We are not our brains. We are our souls. Neither the soul nor the body are in competition with each other. The theory of the soul does not require an incomprehensible brain for it to work. Each new discovery of neuroscience, far from being a challenge to the supernatural, is a wonderful and even awe inspiring glimpse into the way that God has put us together. The world is enchanted. The brain makes the body dance, but the soul makes the brain know that its natural end is the eternal dance of life with God.

Image by Allan Ajifo and made available through Wikimedia Commons.