By Father Joseph Breighner
Just when the caterpiller thought it was the end, it turned into a butterfly. Or, as Hazel Norwell Ailor put it: “The longing for a warm cocoon recedes as new worlds beckon eager butterflies.”
Before this month of November ends, a month dedicated to praying for the “poor souls” or at least the “souls of the faithful departed,” I wanted to say a word about life and death.
There are many beliefs about what happens after death. There are many “best sellers” about near-death experiences and “life after death.” Consistently, there are similarities – meeting a Being of Light, of experiencing unconditional love, of beauty all around. These are anecdotal – individual stories that help us to believe that, like the caterpiller, life transforms. There is “something beyond” – there is Someone beyond!
As Catholics we have a slightly diffferent take, or belief, about the experience. We believe in a “particular judgment,” a personal judgment as we meet God after death. (This is the “private audience” before experiencing the General Audience, the General Judgment at the end of time!)
Then, before the soul enters into permanent oneness with God, into heaven. there may be a purgatory, a time of purgation. As a child I thought more of this time as punishment, but I realize now that any pain involved is simply my still being identified with things of the world. In other words, just as when we come in and out of the pouring rain, we first take off our raincoats and put down our umbrellas before we hug someone, so perhaps this is true with God. The “pain” is looking at all the things we have clung to that are less than God. The process of letting them go, a process of purgation, frees me to fully experience God.
Most of us have fairly strong attachments to various people, experiences, and things of this world. Our prayers for the dead are our efforts to send love to those people that they will be more easily freed from the attachments.
I’ve told the story before of the man who asked God if he could see heaven and hell. So God took him on a tour, first of hell. There were all these people, seated at long tables, the table piled high with delicious food, but all of the people had long utensils attached to the ends of their hands so that they couldn’t bring the food into their own mouths. All of the people we cursing and blaming God. It was a scene of misery.
Then God showed the man a scene of heaven. The setting was exactly the same – people seated at long tables, lots of delicious foods, long utensils attached to the ends of each hand. But, in heaven everyone was laughing and rejoicing and praising God. The difference was that, instead of trying to feed themselves, they reached across the table and fed the person across from them. We create our hell. We create our heaven.
Hell is total self absorption – no love. Heaven is total giving. Heaven is pure love. Heaven is seeing and loving God’s presence in everyone forever.
Purgatory is for those on the way to heaven. It is an experience, perhaps painful, of seeing all that we chose during life that was less than love. It’s a time of letting all that go.
Now is also our best preparation for eternity. We can see now in our lives all that is less than loving, and we can let those things go. It’s not always easy. Our habits and attachments can be very strong. The best part, however, is that I am not on my own. It’s not just me – the mind and the body. It is “I” the mind, body, and Spirit! There is a Higher Power – the Father above us. The Son, Jesus, with us. The Holy Spirit in us!
When we let go of holding on to the things of the world, and allow the presence of God to flow fully in us, through us, and around us, then heaven begins on earth! No purgatory necessary!
Copyright (c) Nov. 22, 2012 CatholicReview.org