The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein once made an observation that I’ve often repeated in seemingly endless contexts: a picture can hold you captive. He meant that how we envision a thing can either limit, or expand, our understanding of it. Take, for instance, your body. Before you begin to count calories, or grey hairs, or lack of any hair; before you feel that tightness in your back or think about the stiffness in your knees, perhaps a more fundamental picture needs to be challenged: is it really your body?
“Who else’s would it be?” You ask. Consider this excerpt from a New Yorker article by Michael Specter entitled, “Germs Are Us.” It’s about all of the bacteria that live within us. We now know that many of them are quite essential to our health:
We inherit every one of our genes, but we leave the womb without a single microbe. As we pass through our mother’s birth canal, we begin to attract entire colonies of bacteria. By the time a child can crawl, he has been blanketed by an enormous, unseen cloud of microorganisms — a hundred trillion or more. They are bacteria, mostly, but also viruses and fungi (including a variety of yeasts), and they come at us from all directions: other people, food, furniture, clothing, cars, buildings, trees, pets, even the air we breathe. They congregate in our digestive systems and our mouths, fill the space between our teeth, cover our skin, and line our throats. We are inhabited by as many as ten thousand bacterial species; these cells outnumber those which we consider our own by ten to one, and weigh, all told, about three pounds — the same as our brains. Together, they are referred to as our microbiome — and they play such a crucial role in our lives that scientists...have begun to reconsider what it means to be human (Oct. 22, pg. 33).
In other words, to adapt a line from Hillary Clinton, it takes more than a village to be you. It takes a metropolis. Your body isn’t the chassis your mind drives around the world, the picture bequeathed to us by the philosopher of the Enlightenment, René Descartes. It’s more akin to a grand hotel.
That wasn’t the only unhelpful picture given to us by the Enlightenment. The other is the notion that what is most real about yourself is a mind, one uniquely your own, standing over and against the world. One can understand how the picture got its legs. Close your eyes and the world disappears. Open them; there it is again.
The German Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner warned that we mustn’t think of ourselves as ending with our skin. He was picking up a helpful corrective from the philosophy of Martin Heidegger. None of us really stands over and against the world. In fact, none of us can explain ourselves, even to ourselves, without immediately summoning up our cares, our concerns, our interests and our dreams, and all of these are drawn from the world around us. As Rahner and Heidegger saw it, trying to pull a human person out from the world is like peeling an onion in search of its core.
If I’ve given you slightly richer pictures of your body and your soul, allow me to try for a third. Purgatory is not a prison where you go to do time until you’ve earned a ticket to heaven. It’s much better to think of purgatory as the process by which God gathers up the pieces of yourself.
Begin with that epic injunction of Deuteronomy: “Hear, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord alone! Therefore, you shall love the Lord, your God, with your whole heart, and with your whole being, and with your whole strength” (6: 4-5). There is a fundamental difference between ourselves and God. God is, as Saint Thomas Aquinas would say, “Pure Act,” meaning that everything God does, God does completely. There’s nothing partial or tentative about the way God knows and acts. Likewise, God’s love lacks for nothing. As Hebrews puts it, speaking of Christ, “He has no need, as did the high priests, to offer sacrifice day after day, first for his own sins and then for those of the people; he did that once for all when he offered himself” (7: 27).
That’s not the case with us, is it? As long as we live, we’re still learning, hopefully! That means that what we currently know — even about ourselves — is partial. All of our actions are likewise incomplete. We make decisions about the future only to discover that there are parts of ourselves we haven’t yet met. Indeed, to be human is constantly to discover more of ourselves each day, and each discovery prompts a new decision: what will I affirm and embrace? What will I reject?
If “body” is our word, and our picture, for an ever-changing metropolis of living matter, then “soul” really designates a vast, unknown country of care and commitment. We “discover and decide” ourselves in an endless cycle, until death claims us. Put another way, a soul is something we forge.
Of course the saint is the one who, as Kierkegaard so aptly put it, “wills the one thing.” In other words, the more the saint encounters and discovers interacting with the world, the more she brings all of that under her desire to give herself totally to the God. Hence the life of a saint is marked by a singleness of purpose, a unity of self, that most of us can’t match. Put another way, the saint is much closer to being what Aquinas would call a complete and single act. The rest of us are still strewn across of fields of desires and fragmentary designs.
However it is accomplished, in a realm of reality we will never adequately picture, purgatory is the merciful intervention of God into the disparate realm we call ourselves. The very metaphor “purgation” says as much. That which is our deepest, our truest, self is purged away from all that is dross.
In the gospel, Jesus tells his young interlocutor, “You are not far from the kingdom of God” (Mk 12: 34). To bring the soul to that kingdom is the sole purpose of life, but the soul isn’t simply an object we port. It’s a world of diverse and often divisive desires, which must be won for God. In a way, a soul becomes a kingdom when all is ordered toward God. That’s the very task of life.
If death comes before that work is complete, then the mercy of God mends. It knits together the partial and the broken in a manner we can never imagine. Purgatory is nigh impossible to picture, but nevertheless essential to proclaim.
Deuteronomy 6: 2-6 Hebrews 7: 23-28 Mark 12: 28b-34
Rev. Terrance W. Klein