My Ultimate Purgatory Fear

Note: TCT Editor-in-Chief Robert Royal will appear on EWTN’s The World Over with Raymond Arroyo this evening at 8 PM ET to discuss D.C. Archbishop Wilton Gregory’s reaction to the president’s recent visit to the John Paul II Cultural Center in Washington — and other current issues. The segment will be rebroadcast at several times on EWTN and will also be available on the EWTN YouTube channel shortly after the initial broadcast.

We all have our fears about the afterlife and what may lie in store for us.  My college friend Dan Brennan, a cradle Catholic (unlike me), used to say that he would be relieved just to find that he had made it “under the wire” into Purgatory.  I’m with him on that, but I still have my worries.  I have a terrible dream about it.

In my dream, I come through a long passageway to a door opening out into the sunlight, and as I come through the door, I am greeted by a priest with very elaborate, well-combed hair, wearing a 100 percent polyester-rayon blend green chasuble, who holds open his arms to me and says: “Hi there!  I’m Fr. Tim.  How about a big hug!”

In my nightmare, I look askance at him and try to find a way around his big outstretched bear-hug arms, but he says: “Can’t go up ’til you’ve gotten a big hug from Fr. Tim.”  Just beyond, I see a little seating area where people are listening to music. Fr. Tim explains to me that, after my hug, I’ll have to go sit and listen to some 1970s St. Louis Jesuit church music for an undetermined amount of time, and I won’t be ready to go on until I can sit there without squirming and wanting to tear my head off.  I’m getting anxious.

There are, as is well known, two kinds of people in the world: those who are delighted by 1970s St. Louis Jesuit church music — they want to listen to it, perform it, pray with it, receive Communion while its dulcet strains are squawking through the church — and those who, upon hearing the guitars strumming, feel as though alien creatures were eating their way from their ear canals inward to the frontal cortex of the brain, leaving them with a dull buzz, a whopping headache, and a sense that light may never return to the world.

It is the latter group, of course, who must suffer in Purgatory as I have described.  I won’t hazard a guess as to what the former group must suffer.

In my dream, I commit the cardinal sin of trying to “bargain” with God’s judgment.  “Can’t I be crushed with heavy rocks instead of this?” I ask Fr. Tim.  “Or perhaps have my eyes sewn shut with iron wire?”  Looking around, I add: “In fact, didn’t I already do this liturgical penance on earth?”

“You need to learn to be at peace with whatever God sends your way,” Fr. Tim explains to me in a soothing, “pastoral,” and totally annoying voice.  Seeing me about to object, he adds:  “No, not merely tolerate it arrogantly, but be at peace.”

“I’m in trouble now,” I think to myself, as I break out into a cold sweat.

Sensing my unease, Fr. Tim steps aside, and motions toward the “confessional,” a room that obviously used to be a broom closet, now tarted up with some cheap religious trappings and a big poster of Jesus being baptized by John the Baptist. That is to say, I think it was supposed to be Jesus because His back was to the viewer, and the whole thing was soft and fuzzy, as though someone had put hair spray on the camera lens.  I recognize it as a reproduction of the baptismal tapestry inside Roger Mahony’s $200-million-dollar square, disjointed modernist cathedral in Los Angeles.

Fr. Tim tells me that instead of the cathedral of Los Angeles, he calls it “the cathedral of Lottsa Angles.”  “Get it?” he asks, chuckling and giving me a wink. “It’s not ‘angels,’ it’s ‘angles.’”  I don’t recall Dante mentioning anyone making bad puns in Purgatory, so now I’m really starting to get worried.

Glancing around, I see one of the beautiful, old wooden confessionals in the church so I ask Fr. Tim, “Can I confess in there?”  “Oh no, no,” says Fr. Tim, slightly perturbed at my question, “we don’t use that anymore.  You need to come into the reconciliation room, where we can sit across from one another, so that I can stare at you while you uncomfortably look down or up at the ceiling or at the cracks in the paint on the wall while you narrate to me your darkest secrets and the things you are most ashamed of.  Then I tell you none of those things were really sins, you feel rather stupid, I give you absolution, and you go away feeling uneasy.”

Then Fr. Tim motions me over to the little wooden table they are using for an “altar,” as he explains to me excitedly, “The bread and wine are made locally by two of our parishioners.  They’ve been experimenting with various ingredients.  The sourdough bread and nice Chianti they gave us last week made a terrific combination.”  It’s usually at this point that I wake up in a nervous sweat with a terrible headache.

I know what you’re thinking.  “Why would you assume you were in Purgatory and not in Hell?”  I sometimes find myself asking that same question during long university committee meetings:  What if this is Hell and I just don’t know because nobody has told me? Maybe the entrance to Hell isn’t marked with a sign that says, “Abandon hope all ye who enter,” but just a little plaque that reads, “Meeting Room B24.”

That makes perfect sense, of course, but I have to have faith that it isn’t Hell, just an unfortunate stage on the necessary road of purgation – merely a dreadful, albeit (one hopes) temporary, form of punishment intended by the God of all Wisdom to purge me of my pride, arrogance, and sinful dispositions.  I mean, no one ever said Purgatory would be easy.

But it does make one wonder: If that’s Purgatory, what would Hell be like?  I’m quite certain I don’t want to know.

Randall B. Smith is a Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas. His latest book is From Here to Eternity: Reflections on Death, Immortality, and the Resurrection of the Body.