Have you ever had a magnanimous moment where you begged for the fire of God’s love to consume you, only to find in short order that it’s burning the hell out of you?
Somehow, I’m always surprised when I pray for holy fire to fall, and its flames begin to burn me to death. I’m not referring to the kind of death that ends earthly life, but instead to the painful death of my egocentric plans and programs, and especially the death of my unholy determination that life will unfold according to my will.
I’m a firm believer that purgatory—the purification from disordered attachments that all humans must undergo to be perfectly united to God—begins on earth. For some, though God alone knows who, purgatory will be completed during their earthly sojourn as they are “salted with fire” (Mark 9:49), allowing the flame of God’s love to burn away the dross in their souls until love is perfected in them. For other souls (at least for those who are heaven bound), this purgation will be completed after death, as they pass through the fire of God’s purifying love to behold him face to face (1 Cor. 3:10-15).
While we tend to think of purgatory as a “place” we enter after death. St. John Paul II said that “the term purgatory does not indicate a place, but a condition of existence,” where Christ “removes … the remnants of imperfection.” (General Audience of Wednesday, 4 August 1999). Surely, such a condition should be part and parcel of our daily walk with Christ.
In Crossing the Threshold of Hope, John Paul II explained it this way:
The ‘living flame of love’ of which St. John (of the Cross) speaks, is above all, a purifying fire. The mystical nights described by this great Doctor of the Church on the basis of his own experience corresponds, in a certain sense, to Purgatory. God makes man pass through such an interior purgatory of his sensual and spiritual nature in order to bring him into union with Himself. Here we do not find ourselves before a mere tribunal. We present ourselves before the power of Love itself. Before all else, it is Love that judges. Love judges through love. (St. John Paul II, Crossing the Threshold of Hope, 186-187)
I spent the past few weeks praying with St. Therese of Lisieux for the fire of God’s love to come upon me as I prepared to make the Little Flower’s Consecration to Merciful Love on the Feast of the Most Holy Trinity (Fr. Michael Gaitley, 33 Days to Merciful Love). “O my Jesus, let me be this happy victim; consume Your holocaust with the fire of your Divine Love!” I’ve mimicked St. Therese with gusto.
Sadly, it only took one episode of overt rebellion by our resident teenager for me to be burned by Love’s fiery flames. It wasn’t pretty to find myself completely unable to pray the words thy will be done for several excruciating days, as I shook my fists at heaven and demanded that God do things my way. My outburst revealed a lingering lack of trust both in God and his goodness, along with a need for deeper healing and conversion.
You see, it’s one thing to say that we believe in God but another thing entirely to trust completely in in his unwavering goodness. It’s one thing to claim that we love God but another thing to truly trust in his infinite love for us—and for our children. It’s one thing to say that we have faith in God but another thing yet again to yield to him in a faith-filled act of surrender.
Life on this earth gives us ample opportunities to surrender to God’s love, and in so doing, to be stripped of our sins, doubts and mistrust. This stripping is the painful “condition of existence” that may just constitute “purgatory on earth”—the suffering that breaks our attachment to the disordered love of self.
While such trials by fire may put us on the hot seat, they shouldn’t surprise or scandalize us, but instead cause us to rejoice. For it is Love alone that is capable of sending such holy fire, and an encounter with Love’s holy fire that can heal us.