I was in my room in Dublin one bitterly cold January day, getting ready to fly to South Africa to give a retreat to the Pallottine Seminarians there. Travelling light had become second nature to me and the case on my bed was fairly small but while I was packing it a voice inside me said, “you don’t need all this stuff.” But I ignored it because anything in it was actually essential – my bible, notes, just enough clothes.
And I arrived at Heathrow for the flight to Johannesburg, checked in my little suitcase and boarded the flight. By now the temperature had dropped to minus 7 and we were left sitting a long time in the plane while they made up their minds to fly or not. When they decided they would fly they discovered that there were no baggage handlers to put our luggage on the plane and after another long wait the pilot announced that we would fly without the luggage. There was a discontent murmur among the passengers but I just smiled as I thought of the voice I heard back in Dublin.
In Johannesburg they took our details and promised to send on our bags. My destination was a farm out in the country a good distance away. The temperature was thirty degrees and by the third day my bag had not arrived and I was in a bad way. My clothes reeked!
On that third day one of the students, Cosmas, came to me to say he would give me some of his clothes to wear. He is much taller and bigger than me and I thought I’m going to look ridiculous but there was no other option. So, he gave me his clothes and took away my own to wash them. Every second day he did the same. He was an angel of mercy and I looked ridiculous! And my bag never arrived!
This journey has become a parable for me of my journey home to eternal life, a symbol of what might happen to me in death when I pass from this world into the next. It is a process of being carried, an experience of letting go of the unnecessary aspects of my life, a stripping away of the old clothes, the washing away of the sweat and grime of the journey and being clothed with something new.
Purgatory is the name given by the Church to the stage in between death and our arrival into the fullness of life in heaven, an experience of purification in the fire of Divine Love, that fire desired by the mystics which is spiritual and not a physical burning. It is the stripping and burning away of what is imperfect so that we can put on what is perfect, not a legal perfectionism but the perfection of Love, the perfection that comes from Christ that we cannot attain by our own efforts.
My sister and I were talking about purgatory and she was surprised when I said that I will spend time in that state after I die. She thinks I should go straight to heaven but I know that I am not ready and will not be ready for full communion with God because, as it stands, only a miracle would break my attachment to sin.
I will need to let go of my resistance to God himself; I will need to be stripped of my resentments and desires for revenge; I will need to divest myself of and make some recompense for the hurts I have done to others; the injustices towards others that I have tolerated; for my disregard for God’s earth, the ways in which I have participated in its destruction. These are some of the things I will need to shed and let go of and I hope too that I will be consoled for the hurts inflicted on me in life, that the wounds of life will be somehow transformed or glorified.
One of Ireland’s most demanding pilgrimages is St. Patrick’s Purgatory in Lough Derg, an island on a lake in County Donegal, a place of penance and prayer. Once you get on that island there’s no getting off and no avoiding of what must be done but at the end there is a real sense of having been purified and it serves me as a good example of what Purgatory might be like. It is devoid of pleasure and devoid of sleep for a day, a night and another day. The one moment of pleasure is getting into bed after 36 hours of wakeful penance. And then it’s done!
Getting ready for God to me is like getting ready for my wedding and I see myself as a fisherman coming home on his trawler after a long labour at sea, with salt and grease and the odour of fish embedded in my flesh. I would not go directly from this noble labour to my wedding without meticulous preparation, a deep immersion in a thorough cleansing, because I would want to look and smell and be my best for the one I love. I want at least the same and more for God.
And in order to become our best selves in the presence of God we need others to help us, the souls of our loved ones need us to help them by our prayers, especially by the Mass. That’s why we dedicate ourselves to this during the month of November.