There is a mystery called the Last Things. Again, it is a mystery because you cannot know it or know about it apart from being told and trusting the one telling you. The content of the Mystery of the Last Things can be understood but understanding it as truth is a matter of faith (that believes the messenger of the truth, reasoning that it is good to know this truth, and consenting to call it truth and pursue it).
To all people, the experientially known last thing is death. But actually, what is experientially known is not your own death as the last thing. It is, rather, experientially knowing the death of others. That is the end of mutual contact with an “other”. So it is the last thing of that other that you experience. No one, upon dying, can start speaking to us and say, “Yes, death is the last thing for me.” We can’t report back when we die.
But to the Baptized, there is the promise and hope of eternal life or life everlasting.
The term “Heaven”, or the phrase “going to Heaven”, is almost universally used by all, yet with varying ideas of its reality, from harps and angels and clouds to many ideas strange to western minds. But all refer to some idea of a reality that follows death, whether meant as a myth or as a means of consoling those who mourn someone or meant as a deep religious conviction of life after death.
The following series of explanations of the mystery of the Last Things is meant for the Baptized and will not attempt to convince those outside the Church to choose this understanding. But I mention the various notions because of the impact of those outside the Church on those who confess Christ. Living in the midst of the world while sojourning to our last end, we do not always distinguish who is talking about Heaven when we hear it described. And with this we can develop many confused notions that conflict with the revealed mystery from the Person we trust, yet without thinking we join the notions to the revelation for a distorted image.
There are other mysteries tied in with the Mystery of the Last Things, such as the mystery of God, the mystery of your own soul, etc. If you read the earlier description of the Trinity, and if you tried out the experiment there, you perhaps had some level of recognizing your own soul animating your conscious thinking, your soul giving to your conscious thoughts the right words at the right time, one after the other and making sense as they appeared in your thoughts. The soul, the invisible source of the words or images that appear in your consciousness, and the source of all your movements as a living human, is what separates from your physical or material body when you die. This soul, this source of animation of your thinking and doing in the world, leaves. And when it leaves, it has no longer any way to express itself in words or deeds by informing a “body” to think specific thoughts consciously, or speak specific words, or move specific ways, such that what the soul understands and wants within itself might become real outside itself. Also in that mystery of the Trinity was presented an understanding of the Persons of God, Father, Son, Holy Spirit. Upon death, these are the objects of interest, and in the resurrection of the dead, the body again returns as an object.
When you die, you are either in a relationship of mutual friendship with God, or at enmity with God. This is true of everyone, whether Baptized or not. Friendship with God might be visualized by thinking about the ability to look someone in the eye, and both of you are able to be happy in that gaze, glad to see each other, and concealing no hidden animosity about the other. You both consider the other to be “good” and “good to be with”. This is what the Church considers “being Justified” – being “good” in the presence of God who is “Good” and understanding it is true.
Also when you die, you in your soul are either debt free or in debt. This requires perhaps greater explanation. Your soul is the place where satisfaction happens right now. It is the place where your will is and your emotions, your appetites. When you say, “Aaaahhh..” as you sink into a nice hot bath, it is in your soul that the actual satisfaction happens. Your soul understands the bodily sensations that are happening in the aching muscles as the water warms them, and moves your thoughts and your speech to express outwardly what it knows inwardly, so you say, “aaahh.” In effect, your soul is moving your thoughts and body to stop all movement now and remain in the water so that the water can do its warming and “heal” the aching muscle tissue. This is “satisfaction” in the soul. Satisfaction or pleasure or joy happen whenever there is success at some activity that the soul wills the body or mind to act out. It is a good thing.
There are times when we “sin”, doing things contrary to what is right, contrary to correct reasoning, sometimes evading any reasoning. When we have success at those things, our soul is “satisfied”, the appetite or emotion or will is successful and now is at rest in enjoying the results. If I steal a candy bar from the candy store successfully and find a secluded spot to sit down and begin eating it, I am enjoying satisfaction and at rest. How does this fit in with my soul being debt free or in debt? I am enjoying a satisfaction that was never meant for me, that specific candy bar and the pleasure it gave. If I suddenly understand it was wrong, if in contrition I go to confess my sin, and if I receive forgiveness, still I am the “possessor” of an experience that should not have been mine. In my stomach perhaps the candy is still being digested when it should never have been there in the first place. The guilt of my sin was forgiven me at confession, God has refreshed me with his Grace and the Virtues, and God and I are again friends, but there is still an “injustice”. My stomach has something which does not belong to it. My soul has a moment of satisfaction in its history that does not belong to it. And someone else’s soul (the candy store owner’s soul) has sadness at the loss of part of his livelihood. If I now go back to the store and repay him (plus interest at my joy of being forgiven by God), I have restored the justice, the equality of satisfaction, between us both. If I do not go back, I carry this excess with me when I die, this fruit of sin, in my soul. While the sin was forgiven, the damage done was not repaired. I am friends with God, but I cannot yet be in his presence while I have in my possession what does not belong to me, and how do I part with it?
This is the place or reason of Purgatory, and the topic of this first installment of the series on the Mystery of the Last Things. When speaking of the Last Things, “Heaven” is what is often thought of first, but there is also Purgatory. This is often misunderstood and caricatured. It is called a place of torment, but explanations of this often involve pain that only a “body” could experience, while the separated soul cannot feel pain through its body because it left its body dead. Sometimes it is called a purification, but again there is little insight into what the soul is experiencing with this purification. While it may seem strange, the word “punishment” will actually give us the key to understanding Purgatory.
Punishment seems like a very common word. We punish children by setting them in a corner or other ways when they misbehave. We punish criminals by sending them to jail for a time when they commit felonies. But what really is “punishment”? When a child is in a corner, that child is enduring an amount of time without satisfaction of the desire to move and act freely. When a criminal is in jail, that person is enduring a predetermined amount of time without satisfaction of the will to go where he wills and do what he wills. Our hope for both is that they would come out of that restraint with the understanding of behaving lawfully. But the actual reason we put them in these restraints is because they took satisfactions during their offenses that were not rightfully theirs. And they are now restrained to endure an amount of “dis-satisfaction of desire” that is somewhat proportionately equal to the satisfaction which they wrongfully enjoyed, and to experience some of the sorrow they caused for their victims. When the restraint time is complete, we consider the “satisfaction books balanced”. They “paid their dues” and there is equality in society or in the family, so that all can now be reconciled with each other.
Christian Law is much more all-encompassing than civil law or family behavioral requirements. Whenever we sin, even though not even noticed by the society in which we find ourselves as Christians, we are taking into our souls an undue satisfaction, and we are giving someone else undue sorrow. God’s justice notices it all. Even if we do things to reconcile some of the imbalances, we do not even notice much of it. This is the source of why the Church practices things like almsgiving and fasting. We consciously take time to endure loss of satisfaction in our souls through forcing our bodies (fasting) and minds (almsgiving) to give up good things from ourselves and give good things to others so that they have satisfaction restored to them. These are acts of our souls to recognize and eliminate injustice by returning just goods to others.
But, we do not know the whole picture that God knows in his justice. Rather than let us perish, God intends to finally purify us, his friends, to be fully justified and just in his presence. To this end is Purgatory. It is a “punishment”. It is a time period of being restrained without satisfaction of the desire of the will to be with God. In a way, its duration is not fully defined. If I hurt someone and that hurt continued past my death, and maybe unto several generations of descendants of the hurt person, that is the debt I bear – return of equality to all the sorrow or pain I caused by stealing satisfaction for myself. Purgatory is a place and time of restraint where you (your soul) are not able to move or do anything to satisfy your will to finally be united with God. It actually does nothing to help the people you stole satisfaction from, but only affects you, returning you to a state of justice where you have endured “your due share” of sorrow that is not outweighed by an undue amount of satisfaction. You will then not enter your joy carrying along a history that does not belong to you. St Paul phrased it this way: ‘If the work which any man has built on the foundation [which is Christ] survives, he will receive a reward. If any man’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire’ (1 Cor 3:14-15). You might say that the excess satisfaction and the hurt suffered by another are burned from your self-understanding by this restraint now endured in awaiting the end of Purgatory. Before purgatory, there has already been accomplished the making of the person “good”, yet there remain the effects of the sin (the person has in his possession what should not be in his possession, namely the “history” of the satisfaction, which history should not exist. These are the “works of straw” that are burned away. How? By a temporal “punishment” where a proper amount of “lack of satisfaction” balances the person to where they would have been had they not stolen satisfactions temporally. Why does God care about this? Simply stated, it is his Justice. He not only “makes us good” with justification (Grace infusing Virtues, and by which Virtues we understand we are his People and we act good, act as his People), but he also “reforms” our history to display that equality of justice, so that we do not “walk into heaven with riches that were not our due”.
When a child is confined to a corner, he may be told it is for an hour, some amount of time, or some other factor (such as a change of attitude). But while sitting there, looking at the corner, time seems unending and, in a way, cannot be measured, cannot be sensed. The child may be so bold as to ask, “How much longer?” Without bodies to sense, we also will not sense time, so how long is it? How long has it been? How much longer will it be until I am able to be with God? That kind of thinking will actually not be present in Purgatory, either, because it happens in the brain, the analysis of time and of waiting. And the brain died with the body. Actually, there will be a desire for God, and a sorrow because that desire is not “do-able”. A human needs his body to do things, so it will be like frustration, like “dis-satisfaction”. But there will also be the understanding, the knowing, of the soul. And somehow it will come about that the soul will finally know only the grace, the goodness, the justice of God
While you are enduring the time of restraint from satisfaction in Purgatory, it may be that someone yet alive in the world remembers you and prays to God for you. That person may also enter a period of self-denial, enduring loss of their will’s satisfaction, and asking God that he take this instead of continuing to restrain you. And this is acceptable to God, that a person may restore equality of justice in place of the person owing the equality.
When the Spirit moves you from Purgatory to the presence of God, you will enter in the joy of friendship and bring with you the satisfaction of what he intends you to have rather than the satisfactions your sins procured. If someone else has made reparation for you, you will know their suffering as your own. In this end in the presence of God you are “pure”. That means you stand before God both as his friend, his child, his subject, and you will stand in an “ordered fashion” before him, for you stand as a person who has in his makeup, his history, only the equivalent of blessing that comes from God alone, and you do not stand with an understanding of yourself possessing self-acquired happiness apart from God.
Is it possible to forego Purgatory altogether, being immediately brought into the presence and friendship of God when your die?
It is possible, and Jesus himself told his disciples about it. When they asked him to teach them to pray, he gave them this phrase to address to their Father, “Forgive us our trespasses / debts, as we forgive those who trespass against us / our debtors.” At another time he told them about an unforgiving servant who had himself been forgiven. The unforgiving servant refused forgiveness to a fellow servant, but when his master found out this unforgiving servant was put into prison until his own debt was paid. The servant did not want to do without the “satisfaction” of having the money the other owed him, while his own master was willing to do without the satisfaction of having the money this wicked servant owed him. Jesus was telling his disciples when you give up your “rightful satisfaction” that someone stole from you (by their trespassing against you) you are being like your Father in heaven, and like his Son, Jesus, who did without his life so you would be forgiven.
Why would that enable full forgiveness of all experiences of satisfaction that we stole? Because when you give up your hope of satisfaction, your anticipation, you are actually giving up your life. We think we need to experience this satisfaction to be “fully alive”, but giving up this anticipation of the justice owed to you is letting go of life you had once wanted in order that another person would not suffer. You are suited for heaven because you are looking to your Father to grant you life in spite of the “death of not being fulfilled” with repayment from those who have sinned against you. Repeating a line from above, “You stand as a person who has in his makeup, his history, only the equivalent of blessing that comes from God alone, and you do not stand with an understanding of yourself possessing self-acquired happiness apart from God.”
Forgiving those who “owe you”, who have stolen goodness from you, is not as easy as simply saying, “I forgive everyone.” It means looking inside yourself to see what is missing in you. What happiness do you lack, what justice is missing? And who is the cause of this missing happiness or justice? If it were a matter of money, as in the story Jesus related to his disciples, if your actual net worth was one million dollars, yet part of that worth was a debt owed you of two hundred thousand dollars, and the debtor could not pay, forgiveness would mean you tell the debtor he is free of the debt, and then, more importantly you no longer look at your net worth the same, but you start your books afresh and declare your net worth to yourself to be eight hundred thousand dollars, with no more looks at the former debtor as a debtor. Forgiveness is in yourself, no longer believing you are missing anything, and being grateful to the God who says that He, as well, is missing nothing you had owed Him.
But, how will you “stand before God” when you have no body when upon death or from Purgatory you attain Heaven? How will you see God, to look him in the eyes when you have no eyes? How will you thank him without a tongue? And how will you ponder his goodness and majesty without a brain? That will be the next installment on the Mystery of Heaven.
John Martin (with collaboration of Mark Anthony)