Heaven - Purgatory - Hell
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We cannot know much about Heaven, only the little we have been told. Yet every time we look at a crucifix we are reminded that Christ was stripped of everything men hold dear and opened his arms on the Cross to gain for us our everlasting future of unimaginable happiness.
This does not mean that we should not try to think about true happiness, but only that we should always recall that the real thing will be far greater than anything we can think of. We can never make a mistake by exaggerating the happiness of Heaven. We can make a great mistake by thinking of it too little. An even greater mistake would be to make Heaven sound boring.
Living close to God prepares us for Heaven in many ways. Not only does it merit reward, but as the years go by we become more attuned to God and the things of Heaven, and that increases our desire to reach Heaven and our confidence that we will get there. "Taste and see that the Lord is good!" (Ps 34:8)
The purpose of your life and mine is to see God in Heaven someday. But that is not something that is easy to imagine: in fact, we cannot imagine God, since he is a pure spirit and we can only imagine things we have seen. So how can you get an idea of it? You can get an idea about it by thinking about the beauty and design and order and truth and goodness and power of the world about you. Whatever God is, he is greater than all these. He is more beautiful, he is more powerful, he is more good, he is more true. Is the world exciting? It gets its excitement from him, just as it gets it goodness and beauty and power from him.
So now we can ask ourselves this question: What is Heaven? And we can say this: Heaven is being with God forever and loving God and living God's own life - which means seeing what God sees, doing what God does, knowing what God knows and loving and enjoying what God does to our fullest capacity. It means being like God!
We will not be bored; not for a moment. Eternal life, therefore, means not only living forever, but living God's life for ever! God says: "My people will be filled with my good things."
It's easy to waste time out of thoughtlessness. We should use the minutes, hours, and days to grow in the spiritual life, to come close to God. Our spiritual life begins at Baptism, which removes the punishment for original sin but leaves us still with wounds in our nature. Our life after Baptism, if it is a life of prayer, sacraments, and good works, will heal our wounds even more; if it is a life of sin and vice, it will deepen them.
There is a book about the spiritual life called Ascent of Mount Carmel, by St. John of the Cross. Growing spiritually is compared to climbing a great mountain. The higher we climb, the more we change. Some people climb all the way to the top and are rewarded with such union with God that they go straight to Heaven when they die.
Purgatory can also be compared to the ascent of Mount Carmel. Those who die as God's friends - in the state of grace, free of all sin or attachment to sin, free of all debt to make up for sin - go immediately to Heaven when they die. But what about those who die as God's friends, in the state of grace, but with unpaid debts for past sins, all forgiven but not yet worked off? They are not yet ready for Heaven. Only what is completely holy can enter Heaven. What happens to them? They go to a place of purification and penance called Purgatory where their souls are cleansed and freed of the unpaid debt of sin.
Being purified hurts, both here and hereafter; there is no way to be healed and grow that is free from pain. But we can avoid a Purgatory in the hereafter by working off our Purgatory here. We can be healed and purified and make up for our sins by doing penance and by humbly accepting the difficulties and sufferings that come to us in life.
In Purgatory, there is one thing on everyone's mind: God. The soul there desires God with a greatness that is hard for us to imagine. The souls in Purgatory know with absolute certainty that they are saved and are going to Heaven. They fear no more danger to their salvation. They are being made ready for union with God, and so they must be cleansed of any obstacles to that perfect union. These obstacles to union are like rust, remains of sin that hinder the soul from enjoying God. St. Catherine of Genoa tells us that the rust diminishes as the soul becomes healthier under the rays of divine sunlight. So there is great happiness as well as great suffering in Purgatory.
The saints in Haven are called the Church Triumphant, the souls in Purgatory are called the Church Suffering, and the faithful on earth are called the Pilgrim Church. All together we form the one Church of Christ. We on earth can help the souls in Purgatory by praying for them, sacrificing for them, and offering Masses for them.
Jesus told us that just as those who do the will of the Father will receive the reward of eternal happiness, those who reject the Father and refuse to do the will of God will be condemned to eternal punishment. "Out of my sight, you condemned, into that everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels" (Mt 25:4). The condemned are those who die without repenting of their mortal sins.
Many people like to think that Hell does not exist. They say that God would never send anyone to a place of everlasting torment since he loves us so much. It is true that God does not want people to go there. But he made us with a free will so that we could choose whether we would love God or only ourselves. Any persons in Hell have freely chosen to love only themselves; they are, of their own choosing, utterly alone.
The loss of God is the greatest pain in Hell. We were made for God, but since the souls in Hell have totally rejected him there is nothing left for them to hope for. And what makes their suffering in Hell even greater is that each one there will realize that he alone is the cause of his own damnation.
God offers everyone the grace to repent and turn to him. We should always remember to pray for those who are near death so that they will seek the mercy that God extends to them.
"What profit does a man show who gains the whole world and destroys himself in the process? What can a man offer in exchange for his life? If anyone in this faithless and corrupt age is ashamed of me and my doctrine, the Son of Man will be ashamed of him when he comes with the holy angels in his Father's glory" (Mark 8:36-38).
Used with the permission of The Ignatius Press 800-799-5534
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