Reflect on Purgatory and Increase Your “Longing for Heaven”

By Br. Stephen, MIC

An elderly man sat up in his hospital bed, surprised to see himself surrounded by doctors. He rose to his feet and asked what was going on, but they ignored him and still seemed focused on the bed. He turned to look, marveling at his restored strength and eyesight, and faced another shock: His feeble body lay there still. The doctors were applying a defibrillator to his chest. Once … twice … with a sudden jolt, he found himself awake and in the bed again, just as he had been.

This is a scene from the new movie Purgatory (2021), co-produced by the Marian Fathers. Directed by Michal Kondrat and narrated by Drew Mariani, the well-known Relevant Radio talk show host, the film is a docudrama that helps to answer the question of what happens to people after death.

Purgatory opens with an astonishing statistic: Twenty-five percent of patients who are restored from “clinical death” report experiences like the one described above. “Near-death” experiences, as they are called, indicate a state of being outside of our scientific description of human life. Many report heightened awareness; color-blind people report seeing colors; some travel through physical boundaries such as closed doors. Some, however, have gone further from their deathbed and begun to experience a life that has a clearly different quality than this one. 

This “after life,” despite some ambiguous testimonies, clearly resembles the Catholic doctrine of the Four Last Things, a timely topic for the month of November, when we remember in a special way the Holy Souls in Purgatory.

The Church teaches that the soul undergoes four things at life’s end: death, judgment, Heaven, and hell. Death and judgment come to every soul; Heaven and hell, however, result from the soul’s definitive choice for or against eternal life with God. Saint Faustina describes this vividly in an early passage of her Diary:

Once I was summoned to the judgment seat of God. I stood alone before the Lord. … Suddenly I saw the complete condition of my soul as God sees it. I could clearly see all that is displeasing to God. I did not know that even the smallest transgressions will have to be accounted for. What a moment! Who can describe it? To stand before the thrice-holy God! (36)

Two elements become tangible to the soul in its particular judgment: the perfect holiness of God, and our own imperfections, however small. It is the final and decisive “examination of conscience.” The only two ways to “fail” this examination and fall into hell are to remain obstinate in sin and to despair of forgiveness. To “ace” the test, however, a soul must perfectly cooperate with grace, entering Heaven at once. In between are all who “pass” — those who have not decided ultimately against God, but who still struggle to be perfectly united with Him. For these, there is Purgatory, a state of purification from sin, of which the chief suffering, as St. Faustina testifies, is “longing for God.”

How many times have you heard someone quip, “I’m just aiming for Purgatory?” This joke has long bothered me, and for two reasons. First, by all accounts, Purgatory is remarkably painful. The joy of Purgatory is so great that, especially for souls nearing the end of their time of purification, it is already like a foretaste of Heaven, while for those just beginning a long and deep purification, their pain to begin with is only surpassed by those suffering without hope in hell.

The other reason is best offered as an analogy. Imagine an archer who says, “I’m not going to aim for the bulls-eye or the inner ring, just the outer ring.” If he excludes the center of the target from his intended range, he’s more likely to shoot wide, and maybe miss the target altogether. Even for an archer with multiple arrows, this is not very good practice. For a human soul with a single shot at Heaven, it’s preposterous.

To correct our “aim,” I would recommend a serious meditation on Heaven. Father Matt Holladay, MIC, said in a recent homily, “Everyone wants to go to Heaven, but a Heaven of their own design.” His point was that our understanding of Heaven is often tied to our experience of the good things of earth. Sometimes, we imagine that Heaven is an endless succession of earthly pleasures. However, to enter the real Heaven involves suffering. When it seems that God will deny us what we want on this earth, we are tempted to resist Heaven, to resist growing toward fuller, truer happiness. Now, the real Heaven does contain everything the soul desires. It is there, but in a perfected form. This is because every good we know in creation is present perfectly and infinitely in the One who is its Source.

When we meditate on Heaven, we can also increase our “longing for Heaven,” and thus we can better identify with and more effectively intercede for the suffering souls in Purgatory. To practice meditating on Heaven, I recommend a strategy that the medieval fathers called the “triplex via” (“three-fold way”). First, take some good thing from your experience, from hiking to ice cream to dancing to delightful conversation. This is the first, “positive” way: we affirm goodness in creation. Then, try to imagine it “not as we know it,” but stripped of every limitation, particularly sinful limitations (for example, hiking without losing strength, ice cream without gluttony, etc.). This is the second, “negative” way, and you can take it pretty far into the abstract without losing the goodness of the thing you envision. 

Finally, with every limitation on the good thing removed, imagine it elevated far above any earthly desire or pleasure. This is the third way, the “super-eminent” way, by which we seek God’s help in transcending even our own understanding of the good. 

A brief formulation of this triplex via would go: “Eternal life is good (positive), not as we understand goodness (negative), but in a supreme and infinite way (super-eminent).” 

May this practice increase your “longing for Heaven” so much that you will be purified of earthly attachments even in this life and so enter Heaven as directly as possible.

Photo: Malgorzata Kozuchowska stars in Purgatory, a new film co-produced by the Marian Fathers, directed by Michael Kondrat, and narrated by Drew Mariani.

You might also like...

As we look forward to celebrating the Solemnity of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary into Heaven on Aug. 15, I wish to share a witticism I once read regarding Mary’s Assumption. The reason Mary was assumed, body and soul, into Heaven was because she always took herself so lightly.

[Jesus said,] “Let the children come to me, do not hinder them.” (Mk 10:14; see also 1 Tim 2:4).

On Dec. 28, the Church celebrates the Feast of the Holy Innocents, those children in Bethlehem whom Herod slaughtered in fear of the newborn King (see Mt 2:16-18). And every year, we are reminded to pray both for those children who die before being baptized and to ask their prayers for us and for our intentions.

Let me say that again.

Did you know “The Rock” had a brother? And that he owes him a huge debt of gratitude?