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 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.

God’s memory

cross of christ built into a brick wall

The Lord has remembered us. He will bless us. He will bless the House of Israel. He will bless the House of Aaron.
– Psalm 115:12

We have a funny relationship with memory in western culture today. There is a massive market for nostalgia. Old television shows and movies are remade constantly. We have at our fingertips more ways of photographing, recording, and documenting life events than ever before. There is a constant craving to capture the past, to bottle it and dip our toes in it from time to time.

Yet this great nostalgia does not include a desire for continuity. We dislike the idea of tradition in any form. If an idea cannot be demonstrated to be useful by contemporary sensibilities, it is instantly tossed aside without a second thought. The same past that we view with misty-eyed sentiment when it comes to things like pop culture and fashion is seen as a tyrant when it comes to how we live our lives, our values, and the seeking of life’s true meaning.

Memory is far more than what we think it is. Memory is not just an assortment of images and recollections. To remember is to know something and make it real. It is to bring a person or an idea into the narrative of life. If I remember you, I know you. You are a part of me, and I am a part of you. This is what makes memory loss so tragic, not that it just robs us of our past, it robs us of our present as well. If I cannot remember you, I cannot know you.

Fr. Stephen Freeman, in this wonderful reflection on prayers for the dead, remarks that the divine memory is an important and central part of the Orthodox burial service. He says, “Funeral services conclude with the ancient hymn, ‘Memory eternal!’ in which the Church prays that God will forever remember the departed. To be remembered by God is nothing less than life eternal.”

This is ultimately what salvation is. It is to be remembered by God. Our memories are finite. They eventually give out. When we die, our memories die with us. Even the most famous and well known people will eventually be forgotten by history. But God remembers eternally. When He remembers you, you live. When He calls you to mind, that very action calls you into being. God chooses not to remember your sin, only your light, which is ultimately His light shining through you. Your sin is forgotten through the blood of the cross, but your life is remembered eternally through the love of God.

This is the power of the biblical concept of memory. Whenever God “remembers” someone, blessing follows. When God remembers Noah, the waters subside (Genesis 8:1). When God remembers Ruth, He opens her womb (Genesis 30:22). In remembering Ephraim, despite his sin, the Lord’s heart is warmed and He has mercy (Jeremiah 31:20). Examples abound. Whenever God remembers His covenant with Israel, He restores Israel. When He remembers us, He restores us as well.

On the cross, the thief who has faith in Jesus says to Him, “Jesus remember me when you come into your kingdom!” And Jesus replies, “Today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:42-43). He doesn’t say, “Sure thing, Buddy. I’ll think about you all the time.” He tells him that he will be with Him. That is the power of memory for God. That is what it does. It makes things real.

This is also one of the many reasons why the mystery of the Eucharist makes no sense to the world. Jesus takes bread and wine. He tells us that they are His Body and Blood. And then He says, “Do this in remembrance of me.” Remembrance – the biblical word is anamnesis – is far more than just a nice reminder. Jesus is not asking us to think sweet thoughts about Him whenever we gather for a light snack. He’s telling us that as we remember Him, He remembers us. The bread and the wine may not look any different than they did before they were blessed, but they are different. Remember Him because He is what we receive at the altar, regardless of what our senses are telling us.

And this, of course, is also why we pray for the dead, not because we expect to change God’s mind about a sentence already passed, but because we long to know that those whom we love are alive in the mind and heart of God. We pray for the salvation of the dead for the same reason that we pray for the salvation of everybody else, because it is only in the light of the eternal memory of God that we live forever. His memory is our future.

Image from here.