Heaven, Hell & Purgatory

Brian Cleeve 2001

 

“Abandon hope, all ye who enter here.” The writing over the entrance to Dante’s Inferno is not a popular message today, nor one much considered by Church or people. Only the very poor of the Third World understand it, and the slow process of abandoning hope. The baby, the child, even the teenager of a family living on a rubbish dump outside a sprawling Third World slum has some kind of hope; of escape from the life his parents endure. Until hope gives way to growing despair.This is the image of Hell.

If you have read other documents in this series you know how unrepentant spirits enter Hell via a false Paradise, the comforting certainty that they deserve the good life. Then comes disillusion, the false Paradise dissolves into a gray desolation that deepens and darkens. And still the spirit refuses to believe, to accept, that this is all it deserves, all its human life of selfishness has earned.

The poor child of a Third World slum deserves far better. Its whole life is an injustice. The wretched spirit descending the long corridors of Hell deserves exactly what it is enduring, yet its constant thought is that this is unjust. How could I have deserved this? Until at last truth breaks in with the realization that he did deserve it. “But I did nothing really bad!” No. Nor nothing really good.

Oh my God! If only I could have another chance! Go back. I would be good, I would give my life to you! Oh please let me live a second lifetime!….. But there is no way back. Every effort to find a way back leads to new failure, new desperation. Down and down into the darkness. Empty. Alone. And cold. Cold to the bone.

Until, far down in the dark, in the distance, there seems to be a shadow of someone living. Another lost soul? Even that would be a gift of hope! Someone to speak to, ask if there is a way back. The shadow gathers substance and reveals its face, a grave expression, watching the approaching spirit. “Oh tell me, tell me! Is there a way back?”

And at last there is. There is God’s Mercy. “Do you know now what you failed to do, to be, in the life God gave you?”

“Yes, yes! Oh God forgive me, have pity on me, I am in despair.”

Then turn that way. See that candle flame in the distance. Follow it and it will lead you at last to where you long to go, to God’s Eternal Rest.”

And is that Hell? This gentle descent towards God’s Mercy?

Endure it first, before you call it gentle. Hell is a state of mind, and if you have never yet experienced despair, pray with all your strength that you never do. Nor is what I have described the entirety of Hell. This is the Hell of those who have wasted their lives in idle selfishness. Of society ladies and couch potatoes, of the lazy, the self-satisfied, the unthinking who assume that Heaven is their right, like their old age pension. They have never done anything bad. They have never done anything at all, nor ever thought for one moment that they should. Yet despair, that gray desolation is waiting for them.

What then is waiting for those who have really sinned, not simply by wasting God’s gift of life, but by abusing it, in lust, in greed, in cruelty? Is that all that they must endure, that despair? The murderer, the child abuser, the tyrant’s willing servant, the secret policeman and the torturer?

What you have sown, so shall you reap. Every act of cruelty, every sin, must be paid for in tears of agony. The broken bodies, the inflicted pain. The torturer to endure torture. The abuser to endure abuse. Surrounded by the bloody shadows of his victims, ears ringing with their screams, that are now his own.

Oh no, oh no, the kind-intentioned cry. God would never do that to anyone! Perhaps a soft rebuke, a moment’s hesitation before the torturer is given a harp and the key of Heaven! But no more than that!

No? Have you ever glimpsed God’s anger? Then why does God permit the cruelties to happen? This question is as old as religion. How can God permit evil to exist?

There have been a thousand answers and the answer offered here is that if we are to have the freedom to be good, we must have the freedom to be bad, to serve evil instead of serving God. Otherwise if God were to intervene, to prevent our sins, we would be robots, programmed only to obey God’s commands.

Or, if you were God, would you leave us our freedom, yes, but limit it, so that you would allow Miss X and Mr. Y to be selfish, but you would prevent Mr. Z from abusing that child? It is an attractive idea, but where exactly would you set the limits? Would you allow Miss X and Mr. Y to get drunk and fall into bed together? Oh yes. Why not? But if you were God of course you would forbid diseases to exist. No one would get AID’s nor cancer.

But would you allow them to get measles? Influenza? A bad cold in the head? Arthritis? Become old and lame? Would you allow people to be bad-tempered, cranky? Selfish? Poor? Once you began to set limits the temptation must be to make everything perfect, everyone young and beautiful. To forbid ugliness. Even plainness. And everyone would have to be intelligent. It would be grossly unjust to allow anyone to be stupid, or behave foolishly. Or be unhappy. Or in anyway unequal to everyone else. Everyone must have perfect happiness, perfect health, never ending youth. Because if they didn’t, if you were to allow any inequality, you would surely be unjust, an unjust God?

In brief, once you set out to limit evils, you would end up creating Heaven. But perhaps that is what God is already doing? Only where your heaven would be automatic, undeserved – because there would be no means of deserving it, no evils to oppose, no temptations to overcome – God’s heaven can only be reached by those who strive to deserve it, who do oppose evil and overcome temptations.

There is indeed a modern theory among some educationists that any idea of better and worse is elitist, utterly to be rejected. No one must be allowed to win anything because that means some people not winning. This is an attractive theory, but in the world as it is it is a very poor preparation for adult life. It is an attempt to do for children what you, taking God’s place, want to do for everyone.

Is it possible that just as the anti-elitist teacher is preparing children for disaster in their adult lives, you would be preparing everyone for disaster in the Real World to come? That much as your idealistic good intentions might attempt to forbid Reality to exist, it does exist, and needs to exist. And ultimately is good, and infinitely better than the false Heaven you have striven to create. That difficult as it may be to accept, God’s plan is the only one that can truly satisfy Reality.

But could God, being all powerful not change Reality?

As well as being all powerful, God is surely all-knowing, and therefore knows that the Reality which governs creation is the best Reality there can be? Even though it includes evil and the weeping of countless children? The only real alternative, the only other Reality would be for Creation not to exist, never to have existed, for God to be forever alone, self-sufficient for eternity.

Would you prefer that? If you were God would you choose that? No children weeping, but no Heaven to dry their tears? No Hell for torturers, but no Heaven for saints? No evil, but no goodness? No ugliness but no beauty? And no hope. No hope of good overcoming evil. No hope of evil and ugliness and cruelty fading away, vanishing like shadows in the sunrise.

In God’s Reality even the torturers will find Mercy in the end. And the children will find God’s Love.

All this can happen because in God’s reality there is Purgatory, the purging away of evil, of darkness, until only the golden Light remains.

Some people, some spirits, need to enter Hell before they can find their way to Purgatory. Some people discover Purgatory here. People even speak of it in casual terms, saying that their lives are like a Purgatory, or some experience they are enduring is. They may be right, and what they regard as horrible, scarcely endurable, is what they need above all else.

Like Hell, Purgatory is a state of mind, of terrible remorse, an agony of contrition, grief at the realization of what one is, has been, has done, has failed to do. How one has offended God. Seeing one’s own filth, vileness. How can I ever kneel before God in this condition? How can God look on me without disgust?

Yet where in Hell, in the Hellish state of mind there is only despair, the death of hope, in Purgatory hope exists, the hope of being cleansed, of being able to clean one’s self. Oh my God, burn away my vileness, burn away my sins, burn away my very self, all that I am, leave only an emptiness for your Love to fill. God forgive me, God forgive me. And forgiveness comes.

For each person, each spirit, Purgatory is different. As we sow, we must reap. There is a medieval carol that speaks of this. The naked soul is shivering on the brink of eternity, naked, cold, hungry, a great desert of jagged stones and thorn bushes to journey across, in its starving, frozen nakedness – unless, unless.

If ever you gave a poor man shoes, so shall you be shod against the stones. If ever you gave a poor man clothes, so shall you be clothed. If ever you gave the poor to eat, so shall you be fed.

What have we ever given to guard us against the icy winds and the stones and thorns of Purgatory? Oh now, oh now I would give! If only I had known! I meant to give. That was Dives’ despairing cry to Lazarus. If only I had known! A drop of water for the love of God!

But surely you who are reading this have given – given from your heart and soul? Given wisely, under God’s direction? You will have strong boots and warm clothes and a staff for the journey, a full satchel of bread and water to drink. Even so the journey is terrible. Every sin, every fault, every folly, every failure will accompany us in all their horror, weigh on our stooped shoulders, make us stumble and fall onto our bloodied knees, torment us with remorse, tear at out flesh with iron claws.

Yet there is hope. A glimmer of light on the far horizon. Can it be the Dawn? Oh my God, let the Light come. The sky lightens, and the desert comes to an end. Oh my God. My God, I would travel this journey a thousand times over for the Glory of this moment. What then? Heaven? What is Heaven? Surely also a state of mind. In which those who ever arrive there see the Beatific Vision, the Glory of the Coming of the Lord. “And God was not in the storm, nor in the great wind but in the gentle breeze.”

St. Paul wrote of a third heaven into which a man he knew was caught up, “though in what body I know not.” Jesus spoke of there being many mansions, and Dante in the Paradiso describes the levels of heaven, ascending to the Throne of God.

St. Therese of Lisieux when she was a child was anxious at the possibility of inequalities in Heaven. Her sister Pauline reassured her. She took two wine glasses of different sizes and filled each to the brim. “Now, Therese, which wine glass is the fuller?” So she taught Therese, it is in Heaven. Each saint will receive all they can receive, filled to their capacity with God’s Love, God’s Glory.

Is this true? What might you hope to receive if you win your way to holiness and enter Heaven? What must you do to increase your capacity for receiving God’s Love?
First of all, surely increase, deepen, intensify the passion with which you strive to achieve holiness, to obey, to serve God, to love and serve God’s children. Passion of obedience, passion of love. And passion of patience. “Is this the agony?” Therese asked in her last extreme of suffering. “Not yet child.” “God’s will be done in me, mother.” Passion of acceptance.

The End