Last week we meditated a little on the great mercy of God in granting us the time after death for further purification that is necessary to enter into heaven (Purgatory).
While we are on the brink of another Lent, it might be good to try to understand how the three destinations (Heaven, Hell and Purgatory) may actually begin here on earth. These realities will be different depending on where we are in our development. I have met people who are in the midst of a hell of their own making: they are very angry, sad, and manifest proudly all the sins that deform us.
I have also met people like Mother Teresa and some lay parishioners who have one foot already in heaven. They are centered in God and one can feel their sanctity by the gentleness and kindness that is the unerring proof of their sanctity.
But many are in the process of purification. Hopefully we are in this preparatory stage where the only difference between Purgatory on earth and Purgatory after death is that people who are in the later are all going to heaven. Unfortunately, with us on earth, we can still slide backwards!
The great spiritual masters of the spiritual life see that some on earth go through the needed purification while in this life. They divide the journey into three stages and two periods of darkness: the Purgative stage followed by the dark night of the senses; the Illuminative stage followed by the dark night of the soul; and finally the ultimate goal: the Unitive state when the person is one with God. This is heaven and can briefly be experienced on earth for the hardy few that make the climb while in this life.
This journey is far too complex and subtle to be explained in a brief essay. For a full understanding of this reality, one should read the great works of St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross, both of whom are Doctors of the Church.
So, most of us are somewhere in the Purgative State. Just as the poor souls in Purgatory are being purified, we can also be purified while still on earth by Prayer, Good Works, Sacrifices, etc. This period is usually seen from two separate vantage points. Some of the purification is voluntary. The Saints term this kind as ‘Active Purgation’. This is when we choose different ascetical practices to train ourselves in denying our wants and needs for higher purposes. The time most of us do this is during the season of Lent. It is during Lent that we give up things and take on more prayer and sacrifices. Traditionally, our active purgation is threefold: Prayer, Fasting and Almsgiving.
On the other hand, there are times that God moves in and puts us into situations that include an internal purification of motives and concerns. In this stage, we merely cooperate; God leads us into the darkness of life. This is termed Passive Purgation. This could include the loss of a loved one. It could mean a disappointment regarding some plan we have for ourselves or our family. Sometimes it is merely a long patch of spiritual dryness or aridity in our daily prayer.
This last is to be distinguished from the psychological state of depression. In depression, one loses all the natural energy to accomplish even the minimum in this earthly life. In the dark night, we still have the energy and will to do God’s work, it is just that He doesn’t reward our feelings (Dark Night of the Senses) or He seems to disappear from our lives (Dark Night of the Soul). Depression is often a chemically-based deprivation that needs the help of medication or psychiatric assistance to rebalance the psyche. The dark night is also to be distinguished from feelings of disappointment when we do not get what we want or, even more tragically, when we commit a mortal sin and refuse to repent.
All this happens within us. While therapy can be helpful with earthly concerns, it has only a slight impact on the spiritual issues. For that one needs a Spiritual Director.
For most people, these facts are not only not apparent, they are not seen or understood. They have no idea that the pain they are feeling is part of an overall plan of purification. All that is necessary on the part of the human subject is a willingness to do the will of God in all its endeavors. While conscious awareness of the process is ideal, God still will accomplish what is best for each person as long as they do not ‘clog the works’ with sin. Sin is always the ultimate enemy and the only thing that can nullify the will of God for the person.
So, let us seek to do the will of God and let us simply do what is right and just in our lives of faith. God will do the rest!
“Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God — what is good and acceptable and perfect.” – Romans 12:2