After Mass, a few Sundays ago, I stood chatting to an elderly lady I know and she was telling me about her husband, who had died some months previously. She obviously missed him very much and she told me that she thought of him as looking down on her and that it would not be long before she died and, as soon as that happened, they would be together again. “Because”, she added, “I don’t believe in that …. er…. Purgatory – I think that the Lord just takes you straight to heaven.”
It is comforting to think that once we die the Lord will not allow us to undergo any more pain and separation and will take us straight home to heaven. However, such a comforting thought raises a question – if the Lord can do that, then why did he not do it in the first place and so avoid the pains and difficulties that all of us have to face in this life? If Purgatory is not necessary, then neither is this life – but if this life is necessary, then so is Purgatory.
To grasp why this life is necessary, we need to ask what “salvation” is. We often tend to think of it as a “thing” given by God and, as such, not intimately connected with life I lead, but if we see it, instead, as a transformation that happens to us as we live with God, then, a new insight emerges. The Vatican Council put it this way: “Out of his great love for us, the invisible God speaks to us as friends, to invite and take us into fellowship with himself.” This invitation is for us to become involved with God in his love and care for the world – and should we accept it, we are gradually changed as we journey with him through the experiences, difficulties and challenges of our daily lives.
This change comes about in us in basically two ways: through prayer and through actions. When I am inspired to reach out to others in prayer or action, I am opening up something like a “road”, along which the Holy Spirit can pass – and, in that passing, I am slowly transformed into the likeness of God. Thus, “being saved” is about being re-created in God’s image, not just being given something, but this demands my cooperation, for love has to be freely chosen.
This does not mean, however, that my prayers or actions must be loving word or deeds; at the beginning they will not, for the source of love is not in me. My spiritual life begins with rather empty words and actions, which I do, because I have heard God’s whispered invitation to me and I want to be one with him, but as the Spirit moves through those prayers and actions, they slowly become prayers and actions of true love, for I am becoming a truly loving person through the power of the Spirit moving through me.
For example, each Sunday at Mass, we say prayers of intercession for the needs of people throughout the world – but am I really concerned about those I pray for? At first, most probably we are not. Then why do I say them? I pray, because I believe that God cares for them and, as I pray, the Spirit, moving through me by means of my prayer, slowly changes me and I come to discover, in me, a growing concern and love for those I pray for. The same is true of my “good deeds”. At first, I do them, because I believe God wants it, but as I reach out to others, I find my heart changing and my deeds slowly becoming true acts of love. This is why our Catholic Tradition says that prayer and good deeds are vital – not because they make me good, but because through them God creates me in his likeness.
You may say, however: if God can do everything, can’t he change me without these prayers and actions? The short answer is, “No!” The coming of the Spirit is rather like the wind trying to get into a room when all the doors and windows are closed. If I only open the door, the wind cannot enter, because there is no way out. Only when I also open a window, will the wind blow through the room cleansing and refreshing it. If I want the Spirit to blow through me, I have to open the door to him, but I also have to open a road, by prayer or action, for him to move through me onto others – and without this he cannot enter. This brings us back to the basic Christian truth that if you want to serve God – then you must serve your neighbour.
So, back to my old lady and her qualms about Purgatory: when I look at myself now and the things I do – and don’t do! – I realise that I am more generous, more understanding, more caring than I was some twenty or thirty years ago, but, I also know, there is still a way to go before I am completely transformed into the likeness of my Lord. Moreover, I also know that if I were to die today, the project that I am would not be complete and I do not think that God would allow that – and I would certainly not want it. So, somehow, in some way, there must be an opportunity for God to complete what he has begun in me through his Spirit – and this opportunity is what we call “Purgatory”. We do not know what it is like, but I do know that if my love is to be real then such an opportunity must exist. I feel it must be rather like the night before the wedding – a touch of anxiety, a feeling of hope and the excitement of what is to happen tomorrow on the wedding day. The teaching about purgatory is an insight into love: God’s love for me is real – and one day mine for him will also be!
I am back from a four week holiday in Europe: UK, Ireland and Italy. I really enjoyed the people, the colours of autumn and the cool weather. The highlight was my time, however, was the time I was able to spend with my brother and his family in Ireland, where my brother lives. My sister also joined us there and that was the first time we had all been together for some years. My heart went out to my brother, for he has always been a strong and able man ready for anything, but now his world has got much smaller due to the cancer. However, his sickness has also brought us closer together and I now chat with him by telephone and sms much more than I did previously. We made plans for what we hope to do together when his course of treatment is completed.
I came back to a fairly hectic programme. On the weekend after my arrival, I was booked to give a retreat to the SVP and the following week to give a five day retreat to our catechists – and all this was alongside my normal teaching. It all went well, but left me rather tired – but that was due as much to my jetlag, which lasted rather longer than usual, as it was to the busy programme.
I have decided that it is time to get myself a new desk chair for my room. I have been using the one I have for about five years, but it is reaching the end of its life. One arm is hanging off, the raising and lowering mechanism has broken and I have to pile up cushions to reach the right height and today I notice it has begun to lean to one side. So, it will be a race to see whether my new chair comes or I end up looking like Quasimodo, due to sitting at an angle in my chair! (If you have forgotten who Quasimodo was: he was the Hunchback of Notre Dame)
Before I went to England, I managed to get to Bali for a couple of days. I had to sign the papers for the selling of my house and I also wanted to visit my friends in the prison. However, I had no time to visit my many other friends in Bali, so I tried to creep in unseen, but met one of my friends at the prison and word went around that I had been seen – with, I am told, a grumble because I had not visited others. Since then I have heard rumours that I will not be going to Bali any more – BUT, I will. Friends are far too important to let them drift away. So, to you, my Bali buddies, I will see you in January.
For those of you who live in Kuching, I shall be giving a course of seven talks on Catholic Social Ethics at St. Joseph’s Pastoral Centre on Tuesdays from 7.30pm – 9pm, starting 11th October.