Purgatory has a bad rap. Often it is considered synonymous with hell, and it is quite the opposite. Purgatory is not in Satan’s domain. Even when people understand that, they often label it as one of those “weird Catholic things.”
Let me ask you a question. Consider if, while you are reading this blog – heaven forbid – you were to have a fatal stroke. Are you ready to enter heaven right now? Put another way, what would you think of heaven if it were filled with people as they are at the moment (forgiven but carrying the weight of a lifetime of sin)?
You may be a saint and therefore good-to-go on immediately entering heaven. For me, being a saint is a goal to strive for – the Catholic Church calls on each of us to be one. I am not proud to report that I am still struggling to get there. If I die right now, I need something between where my soul is at the moment and where it must be. I do not want to lower the standard by entering heaven as I am!
The fix for this problem is purgatory. The word is related to “purge,” and its function is to cleanse us of the temporal remnants of the sins we have committed. Those who enter purgatory will enter heaven. It is cause for great relief! All this is, of course, totally foreign to my Protestant upbringing but is something that really clicked when I understood it.
I like to think of purgatory as a very special hospital. One in which 100% of the patients will have a successful outcome — guaranteed. However, like all hospitals, the treatment may be uncomfortable, and your stay will be as long as necessary. No one looks forward to a hospital stay.
In the old days the Catholic Church tried to figure out a formula for how long that stay might be. The truth is, no one knows. Nor do they know how painful it may be. However long it is, it is finite. In the scope of eternity it is but a moment.
Wait you say – stop right there. If I have been saved and am going to heaven, then are not my sins forgiven? Yes, absolutely. However the sins you committed, while forgiven, have left a scar on your soul. Sometimes this is compared to a nail driven into wood. The nail represents sin, and the wood is your soul. When the nail is removed (forgiven) it leaves the hole which represents the lasting damage. When you look back on the sins you have committed, forgiven though they are, how does that make you feel? That is what I am talking about.
Our time in purgatory may be mitigated through several avenues. One is the power of prayer. Do you believe that your prayers for someone in the hospital are heard? This is the same thing. There are also things we can do (e.g. good works) – or suffer – in life which have a curative effect on our soul. This makes complete sense to me.