Purgatory: Healing the Brokenness of Christ’s Body

Purgatory is a word haunted by ghosts: the ghosts of Reformers rightly objecting to Tetzel’s alms-box, the spirits of my pious grandparents, praying from devotionals filled with prayers promising days and years remitted from purgatorial punishment. Hearing this word, some see Dante’s seven-story mountain, while others envision disembodied souls writhing in flame. Still others call to mind a particularly bad summer vacation from Family Guy

The magisterial descriptions of purgatory are rather sparse. The 1992 Catechism of the Catholic Church devotes six paragraphs to it: purgatory is the “final purification” (no. 1031) to gain “the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven” (no. 1030). Often described as a “cleansing fire” (no. 1031), it “frees one from […] the ‘temporal punishment’ of sin,” which is described as “an unhealthy attachment to creatures” (no. 1472). The Church’s reserve regarding purgatory encourages a variety of images to spring up and fill out these descriptions.

I want to suggest that these images of purgatory are inevitably reflections of our spiritual journey in this world. The images which we use to describe conversion and union with God in this life are often the images used to describe purification after death. Specifically, how we understand sin’s “temporal punishment” in this life affects how we imagine our postmortem cleansing. After all, the remedy must fit the disease.

Purgatory which understands forgiven sin to have no effects

Two contradictory notions of sin’s effects seem to predominate today. The first notion is that forgiveness of sins “undoes” our sins: this confuses forgiveness for a state in which our previous actions have no effect on how we think, act, and relate to others now. If forgiven sin has no effect on the present, then purgatory is very difficult to imagine. The other notion is that sin entails physical punishment of the individual: this comes from earlier spiritual ideas which understood practices like disciplining the body through fasting or self-flagellation to be aids to conversion.

Purgatory with a physical, individual sense of sin's punishments
Purgatory with a physical, individual sense of sin’s effects

Thus, to re-imagine purgatory includes understanding sin’s effects differently. Rowan Williams perceptively writes that the resurrection accounts in the Gospels teach us that conversion means accepting one’s sin and its consequences in the transforming vision of God’s love:

The gospel will not ever tell us we are innocent, but it will tell us we are loved; and in asking us to receive and consent to that love, it asks us to identify with, and make our own, love’s comprehensive vision of all we are and have been. That is the transformation of desire as it affects our attitude to our own selves—to accept what we have been, so that all of it can be transformed. […] Grace will remake but not undo.[1]

In other words, sin has real consequences which cannot be “taken back,” but the sinner can be remade by God’s love.

Scripture powerfully illustrates this “remake but not undo” aspect of conversion in the story of Joseph (yes, the one of Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat fame). Here, Joseph and his sociopathic brothers seem unlikely to be transformed, redeemed, and reconciled. Joseph is hated by his brothers who—in the Hebrew text—cannot “speak shalom [peace] to him” (Genesis 37:4). Ambushing Joseph, the brothers strip him of his status symbol—the cloak which his father Jacob gave him—and make him descend into a cistern (37:23-24). (One of the most chilling details consists in the simple sentence of 37:25a: “Then [the brothers] sat down to eat,” presumably while listening to their brother’s agonized screams for help.) The crafty Judah convinces his brothers to sell Joseph into slavery in Egypt for twenty pieces of silver (37:25b-28). Even if Joseph somehow returned to Canaan, it is almost impossible to imagine any kind of reconciliation between him and his diabolical brothers that does not involve complete undoing.

Purgatory's Poster-boy?
Purgatory’s Poster Boy?

The later encounters of Joseph—now second-in-command to Pharaoh—and his brothers seem at first glance like cruel revenge tricks. However, Joseph is testing his brothers by a situation which echoes the situation leading to his own enslavement.[2] Joseph plants a silver cup (like the silver for which he was sold) in  the pack of the beloved youngest son, Benjamin; upon discovery, Joseph threatens to keep Benjamin as his slave in Egypt (Genesis 44:2, 11-12, 17). It is significant that Judah—the one who suggested selling Joseph into slavery—intercedes for Benjamin (44:18-32), offering himself as the slave instead (44:33). This transformation of the slave-seller into the one-offered-into-slavery causes Joseph to reveal his identity (45:3-4) and to actualize a reconciled life with his father and brothers in Egypt (45:9-13). Joseph sees—with God’s vision—that even the transformed brothers’ past cruelty need not keep them from living together now (45:5-8). The community of Jacob’s family can only be re-established when the crucial scene of the original offense is repeated—not undone in its memory or its effects—and the offenders demonstrate transformation.[3] They are remade, not undone.

Purgatory is being fully integrated into the Body of Christ
Purgatory is being fully integrated into the Body of Christ

I want to suggest that this communal and transformative story is an appropriate image of purgatory’s purification. Like Joseph’s brothers, we need to undergo again the situations of our sin, demonstrating our transformation and effecting our perfect communion with the Body of Christ. A medical analogy may fit here: Blaise Pascal famously said that Jesus will be in agony even until the end of the world, but perhaps this is because the limbs of Christ’s body twist, break, and injure themselves and others through sin. Purgatory is our encounter with Christ the Physician, who confronts us with our sinfulness and thus straightens the twisted limbs, sets the broken bones, and tends to the wounds of the Body of Christ (wounds which are healed but don’t disappear even after the resurrection). This healing involves our reintegration not only with the Head (Christ) but also with the other members whom we have wounded and with those who already enjoy that perfect community (the saints). As we are confronted with these situations and respond with our choice for communion with God and others, we are purified and set in right relationship both with Christ the Head and the members of His Mystical Body.

As we prepare to celebrate All Souls’ Day, perhaps we can remember and pray for those undergoing purification as they are being healed and set in the Body of Christ. In praying for the healing of those who have left this life, we pray for our healing too, for we too are limbs out-of-kilter with the Body. Our conversion in this life is analogous to their purification in the next. May the Lord set and heal all the limbs of the Body of Christ!

[1] Rowan Williams, Resurrection: Interpreting the Easter Gospel, rev. ed. (Cleveland, OH: Pilgrim Press, 2002), 81.

[2] Many narrative similarities between Genesis 37 and 42-44 emerge. Joseph once descended into the cistern (Genesis 37:24) and into Egypt (37:28, 36), and now Joseph’s brothers descend into Egypt to encounter Joseph (42:3; 43:15). As Joseph was sold into slavery, so the brothers mistake Joseph’s hospitality as a ruse to capture them as slaves (43:18). The earlier cruel meal in 37:25a echoes the meal Joseph sets before his brothers—as he eats separately from them (43:31)—and in which the favored Benjamin receives much larger portions than his brothers (43:34).

[3] Joseph’s story bears a more than coincidental similarity to the responses of those meeting the risen Jesus and His disciples. Having denied Jesus three times, Peter is asked by Jesus three times, “Simon, do you love me?” (John 21:15-19). Having been perhaps among the crowds that demanded Jesus’ death (Luke 23:18-24), the crowd at Pentecost is confronted by Peter with their evil deeds (Acts 2:22-23 and 36) and—asking what they should do (2:37)—finally respond with repentance as they should have initially (2:41).

Michael Rubbelke

Michael Rubbelke is a doctoral student at the University of Notre Dame. He received his Master of Theological Studies degree from Notre Dame (2010) as well as a B.A. in English and Theology from St. John’s University (2008). He also previously taught at St. Mary’s Central High School in Bismarck, ND. His research interests focus especially on the relationship of spiritual practices and saints’ lives to systematic theology. He especially appreciates the work of Rowan Williams, Herbert McCabe, Gustavo Gutierrez, and Sarah Coakley. After three years of marriage, he still delights in the fact that his wife Rebecca remains the best conversation partner he’s ever met.