One of the most responding, human impulses that St. Paul describes in his letters to the early churches is the idea of wanting to do what he doesn’t do.
“For what I want to do, I do not do,” Paul writes in his letter to the Romans.
In this, Paul captures something so profound that scholars and poets alike have spent the last two millennia working to unpack it.
The want to do something other than what we do and, sometimes, the mere want to want.
Purgatory is like this.
I’m reading a book right now by Reformed philosopher and theologian James K.A. Smith called You Are What You Love. In it, Smith takes a decidedly Catholic approach to orienting our lives towards God. In the course of the book, he refers to a 1979 Russian film called The Stalker. It’s an admittedly obscure film depicting the journey of three men in a post-apocalyptic world, trying to reach something called The Room—a place in which their innermost desires will be fulfilled.
After a harrowing journey the three stand on the cusp of The Room in a place called The Zone and, suddenly, have what Smith describes as some serious reservations.
What if what we really desire in our hearts isn’t what we should desire?
What if what lies behind that door, in The Room, uncovers our secret, hidden wishes? The true call of our heart that we didn’t even realize was there?
Because The Room reveals to us—gives to us—what we desire most; what we love the most.
Even if we don’t know it.
This is a picture of purgatory.
In the teaching of the Catholic Church, we believe that God doesn’t simply wave a magic wand when we die and make us fit to live, with Him, in Heaven.
In Heaven no imperfection can exist—nothing but perfect love—and, with that, no remorse, no wishful thinking, no hesitation or changing our mind.
Our loves and desires are perfected and oriented towards God. The Ultimate Perfection. The Ultimate Love.
In the Catechism of the Catholic Church, purgatory is described as this,
All who die in God’s grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified, are indeed assured of their eternal salvation; but after death they undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven (1030).
Like our characters’ hesitation to complete their journey and reveal the true loves of their heart in The Stalker, we too pause at the precipice of Heaven—we must—before we can charge the gates because when we die we’re not perfect, despite the very real sacrifice of Christ.
While we’re certainly saved, by Christ alone, we still have our hurts and hang-ups, don’t we? We still sin, and become frustrated, and like St. Paul, do things we do not want to do.
And we want to do better.
And, sometimes, we simply want to want to do better, and on those days when I’m a miserable, sorry mess, I’m absolutely unfit for Heaven even if my salvation—my faith in Christ—remains utterly unshaken.
I surely want to be perfect, but I’m not.
If I were to die on one of those days, or even on a good day, would God simply wave a magic wand and make all my insecurities and struggles vanish the second I kicked the bucket?
The Catholic Church says no.
This is purgatory: What St. Paul, and the Church, calls a kind of slow burning fire to purify us of whatever we’re still hanging on to.
To orient our desires fully to Christ—to ensure that what we really love is God and when we open the door to The Room it’s God on the inside.
Ultimately, how we explain purgatory is simple.
God can never bend our will. He refuses to wave a magic wand and change who we are because that would negate our ability to exercise free will. Instead, God designed a process to help slowly and surely transform us into images of Himself. This is life; this is the goal of our everyday existence on earth.
And this, too, is the purpose of purgatory.
A way to finish the job, on the precipice of Heaven, so once we enter into those lofty gates what we love is, ultimately, what we should love and we can enjoy eternity in the presence of God without hang-ups, hurts, or hesitation.