Purgatory by Michael Taylor, S.J.

This began as an Amazon review but then it grew into a fuller reflection on the mercy – that’s right – of purgatory. I’m posting it now, without any serious revising, so please forgive its rough stylistic edges or (theo)logical warts.

Fr. Taylor has written a very basic, but surprisingly moving, primer on the doctrine of purgatory. I give this book three stars because Taylor’s thesis (cf. pp. 51 & 62) is riveting and, again, quite moving, to wit: purgatory is the loving process of God by which he brings even the most impure of his beloved children into the so-called “fullness of emptiness” so they, in turn, can be truly filled with God’s love in heaven. Stated more simply, purgatory is kenosis. Kenosis is the biblical term for the self-emptying of Christ which Christians must imitate (cf. Php. 2:5ff.). Insofar as many of us die far short of this emptiness, and thus sorely unprepared for the fullness of God, purgatory is there to finish the task of sanctification. Part of this self-emptying consists in our mutual support of one another, before or after death, which is pretty much the whole meaning of the mystical unity of the Church on earth, in purgatory and in heaven (cf. p. 28).

I was very pleased to see Taylor emphasize (along admittedly more Eastern lines) the nature of purgatory as the therapeutic, rather than punitive, removal of all obstacles – the uprooting all weeds of selfishness in our souls — that block God’s love from filling us. As Taylor notes, and quite pointedly, purgatory assures us, and quite vividly, that God in Christ will ultimately destroy *all* evil, even the last speck of resistance in yet-to-be-purged Christians. “[Be] confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus” (Php 1:6, a verse Taylor did not cite but should have, says I!). Taylor is dead-on when he asks why God should hold up such a high standard for the living but then suddenly turn tail after they die and admit he doesn’t “really” expect them to be Christlike.

This view of purgatory as God’s unrelenting, ever-burning love for us sets the stage for the best line of the book. After admitting the “hard” scriptural “evidence” for purgatory is slim and contestable (p. 26), Taylor catches us off guard by answering the question whether there is a theological basis for the doctrine with these bold words: “Yes — the gospel message itself!” (p. 53) Heaven consists in enjoying God in complete Christlikeness, a state which prefaced by complete surrender to the cross that crucifies our sin (cf. Lke 9:27 etc.). Purgatory is nothing less than God’s “Christifying” love healing us even beyond death. Purgatory, fundamentally a school of hope in coming glory, is the fire of a God who refuses to let us go.

Having said all that in its favor, I give this book only three stars for two reasons: 1) he often repeats himself, sometimes even at whole paragraphs’ length; and 2) while Taylor provides a nice select bibliography, he never cites the works in the text itself, thus impairing the reader’s ability to explore cool (or problematic) ideas. I would have especially liked to see him deal more closely with the theology of a “final option,” according to which each person has a final “moment of clarity” in which she can either reject or accept God, thus rendering the need for further purification pointless. A free and full rejection simply merits hell; a free and full acceptance of God merits heaven. As Taylor rightly notes, in terms of the Bible and Catholic Tradition, this notion of a final option is poppycock. But he never cites who pushes the idea. I would also have liked Taylor to draw more explicitly from magisterial teachings, but that’s just the papist in me. 😉

Allow me now to branch off my review into a more personal reflection on the significance of this book for me lately. I read this book day only hours after I had a discussion with an Evangelical friend about purgatory (yes, it’s a very quick read). In that discussion, my basic point about purgatory was that, if we face the biblical picture honestly, it is the only doctrine that solves a basic conundrum of the Gospel. On the one hand, we must be pure to enter heaven. On the other hand, we are not pure, and dying does not magically erase that fact. How then can we, the impure, attain heaven, to live forever with the pure?

My friend kept insisting we are pure “in Christ.” This is true as far as it goes. But my friend was trying to make it go too far. As with so many issues, the Catholic truth, versus the Protestant error, rests on a difference of emphasis rather an outright dispute. Consider the mutually affirmed claim that we are pure in Christ. Protestants emphasize the idea that we are pure *in Christ*, but then have a hard time explaining where we fit into the picture after that. After all, as hard as it is to admit, when we sin, we are no less impure inside or outside Christ. Sin is sin, in Christ or not.

Catholics also proclaim we are pure new creatures in Christ. However, they emphasize the fact that *we* are pure in Christ, that we, as real human beings, truly do become holy. The Protestant notion of being pure *in Christ* is not an ace in the sleeve that exempts us from, or even mechanically conforms us to, holiness. Rather, we in Christ must strive in cooperation with Christ, by the help of his grace, to enter the holiness God has already prepared and into which he calls us (cf. Mth 5:48, 7:13-14, 16:27; Jhn 8:31, 15:1-14; Rom 8:1-14; Gal. 5:16-25; Php 2:13; Col. 3:1-8; 1 Tim. 6:11-12, 1 Pet. 1:13-17; 2 Pet. 1:3-11, etc.). Biblically, far from giving us an “express pass” straight to heaven despite our rank sinfulness, being in Christ actually raises the stakes. This is why the Bible consistently emphasizes the scandal of sinful Christians versus the fate of non-Christians (cf. 1 Cor. 5:9-13; 2 Cor. 5:9-11; Heb. 3:6-4:7, 6:4-12; 1 Pet. 4:17-19; etc.). Far from getting a “pass” in Christ, Christians will very likely be subject to an even more rigorous judgment for the simple fact that they had a higher calling (Lke. 12:47-48; Eph. 4:1ff.; etc.). Can any of us say we always live worthily of the Gospel calling, let alone do so at the moment of our death? If not, then, praise be to God, the mercy of purgatory awaits us like a final session of spiritual chemo.

Enough theological abstraction. Let’s look at the cold, hard pastoral facts of life in Christ. Let’s return to our conundrum, which, by the way, has two faces: a face seen by God and a face seen by us. We have just looked at the conundrum from God’s eyes. God sees – and sees all too well – how exactly we do not line up with the image of Christ. Fortunately, however, and he is determined to keep conforming us to that image (cf. Rom. 8:26-38; Col. 3:9-10; etc.).

But from our eyes? What do we see when we at life look through the conundrum of promised eternal bliss for sinners? We see remorse, guilt and the need for repentance. This fact seems obvious to the point of being trivial but it is crucial for the purpose of purgatory. If we are truly and irrevocably pure in Christ, as if he were a mask or a costume, why do we grieve over our sins? If, viewing life after death in Christ, Protestants glow with the assurance they are and always will be pure *in Christ*, why then do they worry about their sins now, before death? If our purity *in Christ* exempts us from post-mortem purgation, why do we dread our sins now? If we need purifying now — and scarcely seem to get enough this side of the veil — how can we deny the reaity of a final purgation in God’s fiery love?

A typical answer is because we want to love God more and glorify him. This is true! But we must recall the other Protestant tenet that all our works are like filthy rags. The question, then is, “How *could* we, sinners always traipsing around in filthy rags, ever glorify God at all, let alone more?” The answer is, “By grace of course. We can glorify God because we are pure in Christ.” “So we are pure beyond any recrimination?” “Well, no, we all sin.” “So we would need to be purified if we died a sinful disciple?” “Well, no, because we are pure in Christ.” And round and round it goes.

Fortunately, at this point, the Catholic Church steps in and says, “Well, yes, of course, all of our works, in and of ourselves, are filthy rags. But in Christ, *we actually* become aligned from the inside out with his person, which, in turn, actually transforms our filthy rags into holy offerings. Alas, given the freedom of our wills, we can, and often do, resubmit to the yoke of slavery. Assuming we are under that yoke – a yoke that displaces the yoke of Christ and therefore blocks the fullness of God’s love which is heaven – then, clearly, we are still in need of purifying. Praise be to God that he will purify us, even if only in a twinkling of a metaphysical eye, and we, *we ourselves*, shall indeed be pure in Christ. This is final mercy of perfection is called Purgatory.”

The fundamental problem for a Protestant is that somewhere between the impurity of our final days and the purity of our eternal days in heaven, there is a crucial gap. Somehow the gap between an impure death and a pure eternity must be filled. The love of God demands it be closed for us to enjoy full union with him; the holiness of God demands it be filled for man to honor God inculpably. Protestants admit as much by claiming in one breath that we all die impure, while in the next breath insisting we are pure after death forever “in Christ”. But, obviously, at some point, in some way, we went from *being* (and not merely feeling) impure in Christ to *being* pure in him. From God’s eyes this is a real, ontological, moral and metaphysical transformation. In our eyes, it is a psychological liberation from the sense of shame and guilt, such as our first parents enjoyed (cf. Gen. 1-3 and Rom. 6-7). From either perspective, however, a transformative intermediate phase – call it purgatory – is logically and biblically inescapable.

About The Codgitator (a cadgertator)

Catholic convert. Quasi-Zorbatic. Freelance interpreter, translator, and web marketer. Former ESL teacher in Taiwan (2003-2012) and former public high school teacher (2012-2014). Married father of three. Multilingual, would-be scholar, and fairly consistent fitness monkey. My research interests include: the interface of religion and science, the history and philosophy of science and technology, ancient and medieval philosophy, and cognitive neuroscience. Please pray for me.
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