What is that pious place of provisional punishment and pain that psychs out our Protestant brothers and sisters? The Catholics know it as purgatory. It is off kilter to refer to it as a place or location; it is rather a condition or state of being, much like being Hispanic, Polish or constipated. You take it with you wherever you go, so infers the Catechism of the Catholic Church.
Let me digress, the Catechism aforementioned is not for the faint of heart. Meant to be read by all, the Catechism is to the general reader as a nuclear explosion is to the mixture of vinegar and baking soda, it’s a bit complex. Most priests and bishops have never read the entire book since it’s A) complex; B) boring; and C) it interferes with meetings where nothing continues to get done. Fortunately for wannabe theologians and scholastics everywhere, there is a Cliff Notes version known as the Compendium; much shorter and of the familiar question and answer format of the Baltimore Catechism.
Returning to topic, purgatory is a condition, not a place. For that matter heaven and hell are plights of the afterlife. “Father don’t we say people GO TO heaven, hell and purgatory?” Yes, in the sense we only think in spacial terms. However the utterance, “Go to hell” is never followed by directions or preloaded in a GPS. If we’re looking for a path to heaven, the directions read “Love the Lord your God…and your neighbor as yourself.” This a hardly a map and frankly it’s easier to do night land navigation in the Army with nothing but a compass and already crabby NCO than to love some people. People that have followed this charitable route are in the presence of God and experiencing the Lord face to face in eternal love. These we call saints, whether recognized by the world or not.
Digressing again, the Catholic Church has a Congregation for the Causes of the Saints. This group in Rome investigates the lives of people that are put forward for saints, their writings, their martyrdom if applicable and miracles attributed to their intercession before Jesus. Notice that we don’t have a Congregation for the Condemnation of Bad People. No one can say definitively that Hitler, Mussolini and the kid who stole my pencil in second grade are in hell. God’s mercy always confounds us and limits us to conjecture. I still pray for the thieving classmate in grade school, a troglodyte; mea culpa.
So what is hell? The absence of God? That would certainly be hell, except for atheists who would point at the void and exclaim, “We told you so!” However, isn’t God everywhere? At least that’s the Baltimore Catechism taught me in elementary school ( I was reading that very section as the pilferer purloined my precious, pointy pencil; fortunately I’ve gotten over it). So God is in hell, how is that even possible? Suppose the pirate who plundered my pencil grows into a life of greater crimes; pocketing other people’s papermate pens in high school, mugging the masses for markers in college, eventually initiating a hostile takeover of the ink industry and robbing the public with overpriced printer ink? One day he is found dead with a goose quill through his heart; he goes to hell. There is Jesus, with perfect love and mercy, but the dark soul can’t stand the presence of something he’s never known before; it becomes an eternal burning, the punishment of love.
Perhaps being in purgatory is also in the presence of divine love? The person in this condition has known charity and love but has some residual hatred or grudge. The presence of Jesus is not a punishment, but a cleansing or purification where the person can fully accept his or her shortcomings and know the mercy of Jesus. The purgation becomes a transition to heaven, the full face of the ecstasy of eternal love. The pencil purloiner and person just described are in the same divine presence, but they experience it differently due to their choices in life. In other words, God doesn’t send us anywhere, we choose which finish line to pursue in life.
A last digression; this is only one of the theological explanations for the next life. Some would say that the Congregation for the Condemnation of Bad People (CCBP) did exist in the form of the Inquisition, however the historical facts are different from the popular notion of this entity (“No one escapes the Spanish Inquisition…” says Monty Python). If there were an actual CCBP what terms would they use instead of Venerable, Blessed and Saint? Bad, Evil and Damned? “Mom, the Vatican just declared Uncle Rick Bad.” “OK dear, we will pray for the two catastrophes required for Evil and Damned status.”
There were more good ideas to share, but the printer ran out of ink and my pencil is missing.