It is only when we get close to the light that we see how stained we are.
Take St. Peter, for example. Jesus was teaching the people from Peter's boat when he asked him to go into deep water and cast out his nets. So many fish were caught that the nets began to break and the boats began to sink.
Peter saw this as a sign of Jesus' holiness. "He fell down at Jesus' knees, saying, 'Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!'" (Luke 5:8).
Peter's recognition of the holiness of Jesus drew him to an immediate awareness of his own unholiness. It took more than this momentary awareness, however, to turn Peter into a saint. Ultimately, it took fire and blood -- the fire of the Holy Spirit and the blood of martyrdom. But Peter's epiphany by the lake was a key step in his spiritual growth.
It will take fire and suffering to raise us to holiness also. We can have it in this world or we can have it in the next. The great 16th century mystical writer, St. John of the Cross, wrote often of the purgation of sins that we must undergo before we can be fully open to the power of God's love.
One of John's works was titled The Living Flame of Love. In it, he writes, "When this flame shines on the soul, since its light is excessively brilliant, it shines within the darknesses of the soul." This is what Peter experienced when he witnessed the boats overflowing with fish. The divine light of Jesus shone brightly and revealed the darkness in Peter's soul.
John went on to say, "it is impossible to perceive one's darknesses without the divine light focusing on them. Once they are driven out a soul is illumined and, being transformed, beholds the light within itself" (1.22). For many Christians, certainly for myself, life is a matter of both running towards God and running away from his light. We love God and yet his light shows us more about ourselves than we want to see. It takes great courage to let the light reveal all our hidden darknesses.
But, before the moment of death, our actions and commitments in life have revealed the direction we have chosen for our lives -- to live for God or to live without him. Even if we have lived for God, however, we may not yet be able to withstand the full vision of his glory. We may need further purification; we may still need the light to reveal all our places of darkness to us.
Spiritual writers over the centuries have disagreed as to whether purgatory is a place of material punishment as well as purification. Sometimes one might gain the impression that purgatory is akin to a temporary hell.
While the Catechism of the Catholic Church does not exclude the possibility of material fire, it gives greater emphasis to the notion of purgatory as cleansing or purification. It states plainly that the purification experienced in purgatory "is entirely different from the punishment of the damned" (no. 1031). Purgatory does not represent condemnation; it is part of the path to holiness.
The existence of purgatory is one issue which divides Catholic and Orthodox on one side from Reformation Christians on the other. Protestants rightly look at Scripture and see great evidence for the existence of heaven and hell and virtually none for the existence of purgatory. The two main Old Testament texts used to support this belief are in books which Protestants do not accept as part of the Bible (Wisdom 3:1-9; 2 Maccabees 12:39-45).
The main New Testament evidence comes in Jesus' statement that sins against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven "either in this age or in the age to come" (Matthew 12:32). The Catholic Church sees this as implying that some sins will be forgiven after death, yet before one gets to heaven.
Thus, while there are hints of the existence of purgatory in the Bible, there is nothing approaching proof. The real basis for our belief comes from the constant practice in the church of praying for the dead. Those in heaven don't need our prayers and our prayers for those in hell are futile. Only in some other "place" -- a waiting room for heaven, as it were -- could there be the dead who would benefit from such prayers.
One of the main authors of the catechism, Archbishop Christoph Schonborn, writes frankly that we know purgatory exists because of the way the church prays. The church's prayers for the dead testify to the truth of the doctrine! (See Living the Catechism of the Catholic Church, p. 152.)
To those who believe in sola Scriptura -- that the Bible is the sole basis for Christian doctrine -- there is no solid basis for a belief in purgatory. And yet, as we have seen, sinners need purgatory. Either in this life or the next, we need to drag ourselves or be dragged into that living flame of love so that we may see the truth of our lives in the light of God's mercy and love.
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