…he has killed his brother, and at one point, when the Jesuit brothers feel sorry for him and attempt to ease his load he himself insists on completing the terrible purification.
So it is that the truly penitent soul embraces his penance. So it is that Dante wisely reveals that purgatory is a joyful place. The pain is severe, but it is a severe mercy.
No other religion but Catholicism has such depth of understanding of the human condition and the tender justice of God.
Some triumphalist Evangelicals (bless them) with their cheap grace, instant sanctification, ticket to heaven and eternal security have no concept of the reason for penance and purgatory. They think this all has to do with Catholics “earning their salvation by works”.
We believe that it is all by God’s grace but that we co operate with the work of grace in our lives, and that this gives us dignity and responsibility. God has granted us the significance that our choices really matter. Our involvement matters. Our actions matter. Each one of them matters eternally. Each little step towards God is an important step and a joy. Each little step away from his light and mercy is a tragedy and a danger.
Penance and purgatory are the pains we embrace as we run the race.
The athletic or artistic analogies are apt. The athlete training to run the race does not eschew the disciplines of his craft. The artist or musician preparing for some great accomplishment does not despise the disciplines of his art. Instead they embrace and endorse the disciplines. They train and they feel the pain. They sacrifice all to win the prize. They joyfully endure the suffering because the trophy is set before them, and the trophy would be meaningless if they did not go through the pain to get there.
When the young man steps on to the stage of the concert hall in his tuxedo and strides to the piano to play Rachmaninoff’s third concerto he pours into the bravura performance a whole lifetime of practice, study, patience, endurance and suffering. That is why the music tears you up and brings tears to the eyes. That is why the music is great, because Rachmaninoff himself endured such suffering and poured it into his art….and the music would not be good unless the pain on the part of the composer and the performer were part of it.
The exhilaration and joy that comes with winning the race would be completely absent if we were not involved in its completion. Although it is totally a gift the greatest part of the gift is that we are given the chance to win the prize and to share in our redemption. The redeemer grants us this dignity and this joy: that we will complete with him and in him and through him, the long, hard journey.
The joy of our hard won release is remembered in The Mission at that moment when Roderigo’s burden is cut loose. At that moment he breaks down and weeps like a child–for the hardened man of war–the murderer of his brother has become a child again.
So with penance and purgatory we embrace the pains of our purification. Through them we co operate with the tender justice of God and his severe mercy.
This is a glory not a grim punishment, and through this we will one day be an unimaginable work of art–an icon of the resurrected One–Adam and Eve restored–children alive again in a new age of innocence, standing on the edge of eternity.