Wednesday, 22 April 2009

Perhaps 'purify' is a better image than 'purgative'

Yesterday was the RC observance of the feast of the Benedictine Anselm (Archbishop of Canterbury in the 11th century, of blessed memory.) Here is a quote which I found very appealing: "Lord my God, you gave me life and restored it when I lost it. Tell my soul that so longs for you what else you are besides what it has already understood, so that it may see you clearly... apart from what it has seen already, it sees nothing but darkness. Of course, it does not really seek darkness, because there is no darkness in you, but it sees that it can see no further because of the darkness in itself. Surely, Lord, inaccessible light is your dwelling place, for no one apart from yourself can enter into it and fully comprehend you. If I fail to see this light, it is simply because it is too bright for me. Still, it is by this light that I do see all that I can, even as weak eyes, unable to look straight at the sun, see all that they can by the sun's light.... O God, let me know and love you so that I may find my joy in you; and if I cannot do so fully in this life, let me at least make some progress every day, until at last that knowledge, love, and joy come to me in their plenitude. While I am here on earth, let me learn to know you better, so that in heaven I may know you fully; let my love for you grow deeper here, so that there I may love you fully. On earth, then, I shall have great joy in hope, and in heaven complete joy in the fulfilment of my hope."

Coincidentally, and this the very week after I aired my irritation about "Divine Mercy" (see previous post - I don't mean divine mercy), I stumbled upon an old RC prayer book yesterday. Heavens, did it bring back memories - and I don't mean only those which move me to tears, of which admittedly there were more than a few. A number of devotions begged 'give me my purgatory here on earth' (because apparently there was good authority that the punishments God inflicts after we are dead are worse still than what we have here... and, though there is suffering in all lives, I am shuddering at the thought of the hell on earth many have... and trembling the more at the horrid idea that God sends them.)

In volume four of my books on the spiritual life (which do not exist - it's a little literary licence, more a joke), I "began" with a great truth: In successfully draining the swamp, one must accept the inevitable point of being up to one's arse in alligators. Those of us who don't, for example, spend evenings with those such as Anselm (...slight pause for some of my more irritable readers to say 'get a life!,' since they may not realise that this is precisely what some of us are seeking), may picture 'sin' as being either heinous crimes or something worthy of News of the World - fortunately, most of the world's population have never had any inclination to the former, and would view the latter with either a mere sigh or envy. Yet anyone who pursues the spiritual life, in whatever form (since we follow God as precisely what is real for the individual), inevitably will have some times of major conversion. In fact, all too often those of us who are very devout are in deep water now and then, because, until we feel that nip from the alligators, our self deception convinces us that our worst traits are virtues.

(Cheer up - though one shall always have those exasperating traits, they aren't only forgiven but sometimes are the flip side of what will become one's strengths.)

Classically, the 'three stages' of growth in prayer had the 'purgative' as the first. Considering that the alligators above filled my quota of earthiness for one day, I'm not about to draw any vivid pictures of what might come to mind with the word 'purgative'... though honestly forces me to admit that whatever images came are all too true an analogy for what it is like to grow past the ... ah, inward deception. Pleasant it isn't. It does not matter that God has forgiven us, and that we do not need to placate him or appease anger (since he had none in the first place). We have spiritual damage from our major errors, and the time of recovery is blessed, joyous - but painful.

However, I really loathe that 'purgatory on earth' business - it was mentioned in many prayers in my youth, and indeed some private revelation or another, I cannot recall which, gave the reassuring promise that one would have purgatory here. (Yes, I know about Augustine's punishment as remedy, but he had odd ways of defending the concept of omnipotence. Deep down, Augustine was a bigger idealist than I am - always pining for paradise, though his illustration of what specific control that would have involved makes my alligators seem rather tame.) It presents an image of a God of punishment, fear, appeasement.

Anselm, in the quotation above, shows a far brighter image. If anyone still promotes 'purgatory on earth', may I recommend one substitute the word 'purification,' which, after all, is what purgatory is in the first place.

Purify me on this earth, so that I'm stripped of my blindness, which keeps me from loving God and neighbour. Purify me, so such virtues as I have become a source of joy and love for myself and those with whom I deal. Develop this as you wish - but is it not a better image than a God who sends suffering?

Jesus' own suffering is a powerful and important image for us, because it underlines how fully one who is God accepted the fullness of being human. He remained steadfast in his vocation as prophet, healer, and one who offered a message of reconciliation to outcasts - and, when this led to conflicts with the Establishment, in the ultimate irony of creation the Son of God and Second Person of the Trinity would be condemned to death for blasphemy. (In case this wasn't obvious, I think that I first fell in love with Him because he wasn't tender to the Establishment...) In the course of his Passion, and throughout his ministry to a lesser extent, Jesus experienced the full scope of human pain. But it was humans who rejected and punished Jesus of Nazareth. The triumph, not the horror, was the Father's will - the resurrection that miracle which it took divine power to bring about, since we mortals sadly can handle betrayal, abandonment of a friend, torture, death, and the like very well on our own. It wasn't that God the Father looked down from heaven on his Son and pushed a button, "Yo! Judas! Caiaphas! Pilate! I've got an execution for you to handle this week..."

This is rather a silly entry, I know - crude versions of purgatory are not in vogue in any camp, to my knowledge. Yet many of us first were introduced to Christianity as little children and, providential though that was, we were still at a stage of development where most of what we did was focussed on pleasing those in authority, or avoiding punishment (how could a tiny child understand virtue?), or not getting caught. Forgive me the lack of political correctness, but little children, who have no understanding of danger and the like, probably don't jump into the lake because they know they'll be smacked. We wouldn't get very far in our maturity, in any area of life, if fear of punishment in some way was our motivation (though some Internet groups I've visited show me that, indeed, many adults are 'motivated' only by fear of abuse.) Why must we not only ignore God's call to maturity, but turn him into a punishing Father?

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