On All Souls Day, the Day of the Faithful Departed, El Dia de Los Muertos, I thought a word about Purgatory would be in order. There’s a theologian named Gerry Walls who styles himself “a Protestant who believes in Purgatory.” He’s written a book called Purgatory which is subtitled, “The Logic of Total Transformation.” I
t’s what, in Ignatius’ language, we might call being freed from all our inordinate attachments. But what is Purgatory? Is it a place of punishment? Or is it a time of purification? And why did the Reformers reject the doctrine of Purgatory?
At the time of the Reformation, the time of Thomas More and John Fisher, Catholics had begun to speak of Purgatory as a place of punishment rather than of purification. Even Catholic Shakespeare has the ghost of Hamlet’s father consigned to purging fires. This may be one reason the Reformers rejected the idea.
Another reason is that it seems to have no foundation in Sacred Scripture. The Catechism of the Catholic Church puts a footnote to its very brief article on Purgatory pointing us to 1 Corinthians 3:15, where Paul speaks of being tested and saved by fire. But this still sounds a lot like hell, though perhaps hell with a shelf-life, hell with an expiry date.
I believe there is a Scriptural foundation for the doctrine of Purgatory, and that it is found in the parable of the Prodigal, what Kenneth Bailey calls “The Parable of the Father and the Two Lost Sons.” There we see the elder son outside the father’s house, refusing to go in.
If the father represents God and his house represents heaven, where is this son? If he should refuse ever to come in, we would have to say he is in hell – not a hell to which the father has consigned him (the father pleads with him to come in), but a hell of his own choosing.
But the parable is left unfinished. Its structure suggests that, if the younger son, who has also found himself in a hell of his own devising, was able to come to his senses and return to his father and ask to be part of the household again, if only as a slave, then perhaps the older son can also come to his senses and ask to come in.
The difference between the two sons, however, is enormous. Both have put themselves in a shameful position by accepting their share of the inheritance (the father divided his property between them, we’re told, though the older son could have said, “I want no part of my brother request”).
But in doing so the older son, though he has remained with his father, has put himself in a new relationship with him: that of servant to master, for whom he now works like a slave and whom he never disobeys. He feels he has thus earned his master’s love, yet he complains that he never treats him like son (how could the father show him any special favour without seeming to confirm that this son has earned his love?).
Yes, the older son could come to his senses and admit that he was wrong to reject his brother, wrong not to forgive him, wrong not to come into his father’s house, wrong to judge his father as foolish, and wrong to force him to come outside and there berate him in front of all the guests and servants, but how can such a transformation occur when the older son is so convinced that he is in the right and his father and brother are in the wrong?
The total transformation that Gerry Walls calls for, and which is possible with God’s grace, will likely be a long, slow, and very painful process. And so we are forced to admit that the older son has not just a single choice before him, a simple Yes or No! to his father’s pleading, but a whole series of choicest by which he begins to admit to himself that he may have been wrong after all. It is probably the ceaselessly pleading love of his father that may set the wheels of conversion in motion, but all of this, though painful, is not punishment.
The really frightful truth in the parable is that we too, any one of us, could say “No!” to God, if we were angry enough or hurt deeply enough. The really hopeful truth in the parable is that we too can learn how to be freed from all the disorder in our feeling and thinking and judging, in this present life, and, if not, then even in the next. “Here as hereafter,” T.S. Eliot has said, “the alternative to hell is purgatory.”