Tag Archives: hell

Confessions of a Cynical Catholic: The Problem With Purgatory

Purgatory-Traffic-SignI was nine-years-old before I ever heard the word “Purgatory.” I playing some elaborate pretend game with a friend of mine when she announced that her character was going to die and that she would continue to interact with my character from the hereafter. (Believe me, It made perfect sense in the context of the story and if you knew anything about the two of us at all, you would understand that we were a tad…unconventional to put it mildly. LOL)

So of course we staged this dramatic death bed scene in which I hugged her, told her character how much I would miss her and then laid her to rest near a bush in the backyard that quite frankly, looked like it should have been a tombstone. A few minutes later, I watched as she stood in front of the bush with her arms out like she was waiting for the mother ship to beam her up and said, “What are you doing?”

“Getting my sins burned off in Purgatory,” she said, solemnly.

Where? I wondered. She said it so seriously like it was a real thing, but the only place I had ever heard of where fire was possibly involved was Hell. I assumed she had made up the word. “But your character was good. She wouldn’t have gone…Down There.”

My friend looked at me like I was crazy. “I didn’t go Down There, I went to Purgatory. You have to wait there for a while before you can go to Heaven.”

This was a new one on me. Prior to this conversation, I was only aware of two final destinations and none of them involved what sounded like a celestial equivalent to a doctor’s waiting room. “Let me get this straight,” I began. “God’s in charge of this Purgatory place, so it’s not like where the Devil is.”

“Right. It’s not a bad place to be, but it’s not Heaven either,” she told me.

I ran that one around in my head a few times. “So how long do you have to stay there?” I wanted to know.

She shrugged. “It depends on how bad you were here on Earth. If you die with a lot of sins on your soul you could be there for millions of years.”

Millions of years? Oh, she had to be pulling my leg. “I don’t understand. Why do your sins have to be burned off? Can’t God just take them away?”

“It’s not like that kind of fire,” she informed me, as if she had personal experience with the place. “It’s not hot. It’s warm and it makes you better. It doesn’t burn you up.”

My mother called me in for dinner after that and my friend went home, but the conversation stayed with me all throughout dinner, as I took my bath and got ready for bed that night. When my mom came in to tuck me in, I came right out and asked, “What’s Purgatory?”

“Where did you hear about Purgatory?” She wanted to know.

I offered her the five second explanation of what went down in the backyard, but before I could ask for any clarification, she dismissed the whole thing by saying, “Oh don’t worry about that. You’ll go to Heaven.”

But I wasn’t so sure. So, naturally I went to my father. “What’s Purgatory?”

My dad looked a little uncomfortable as though I had touched on something forbidden or taboo. “It’s a Catholic belief,” he said simply.

“So you don’t believe in it?” I asked.

He shook his head. “No, I don’t.”

I thought my parents had a very strange attitude where this Purgatory place was concerned and it wasn’t helping me at all. My dad was pretty smart and even though I knew there were some “differences” between his faith and mine, this seemed like a pretty big thing to disagree on. I didn’t like the idea of believing in something that my dad seemed fairly confident wasn’t there. And what about my mom? Dad said that Purgatory was a Catholic belief, but my mom dismissed the idea of it so fast, I couldn’t help but wonder if she DID believe in it. After all, she had been Methodist before she was Catholic. Maybe she didn’t believe in Purgatory either.

And if this place was so important, then WHY hadn’t I heard about it before now? I was in fourth grade. I had two sacraments under my belt, a phenomenal amount of prayers committed to memory and logged more hours in religion class than I could count. How had I missed the Purgatory discussion?

After giving it considerable thought and reading the section of the Bible where the concept is drawn from, I decided it was too loose of an interpretation for me to buy into. Now, I know this will not make me popular with hard core Catholics, but I stand my ground. The issue of Purgatory was very difficult for me to write about in The Idiot’s Guide to Catholicism because I just wasn’t sure. It was as if I couldn’t do it with a straight face or without rolling my eyes. It’s not that I didn’t want to, I just…struggled. At one point, I called my former religion teacher in desperation and said, “How am I going to sell this to the populous if I don’t believe it myself?”

“Wait a minute, why don’t you believe in Purgatory?” She asked.

God love this woman. She listened as I recounted the tale, laughing at the idea of two little girls talking about this over a game of pretend and how frustrating it must have been for me to ask my parents and come up empty on an answer. “No wonder you don’t believe in it. You grew up in a post-Vatican II world where no one talked about it. You lived in a home where it wasn’t discussed and then all of a sudden you heard about it and couldn’t confirm it? Why would you believe in it?”

She put on her “teacher hat” and began to explain Purgatory to me from the ground up. She didn’t tell me that I had to believe in it, but she gave me food for thought. I still struggle with the idea but if you haven’t believed in something for four decades, it’s a little hard to suddenly buy into it overnight. Thankfully she understood that and encouraged me to pray on it.

I have, but so far I have not reached a conclusion. While I would love to be a good Catholic girl with a rock solid faith, like it or not, God made me this way and He seems to like challenges. Who am I to deny Him of a great Fixer Upper project like me?

IG Catholicism Cover  The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Catholicism is available wherever books are sold including:

http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/idiots-guides-unknown/1119619022?ean=9781615647194

2 Comments

Filed under Confessions of a Cynical Catholic

Confessions of a Cynical Catholic: That Certain Undefinable “Something”

Cathbook    I knew I was in trouble the minute that I had to define “faith.” I knew the definition I had learned when I was 11 watching Miracle on 34th Street, “Faith is believing in something when common sense tells you not to,” but somehow I knew that wouldn’t fly as it pertained to the Catholic Church.

Two days ago my latest book, The Idiot’s Guide to Catholicism was published and as I celebrate this accomplishment, I have had several people ask me some of my thoughts on the writing of it now that some time has passed. As I have said before – and will repeat time and time again – the fact that I was even asked to do this is proof positive that God has a sense of humor. After all, I was the one with all the questions…who was I to start offering answers?

One of the things that surprised me the most in writing this book was how little I felt I DID know…even the definitions that I had memorized fell apart under scrutiny leading me to wonder more that I care to admit if some of the things I professed to believe were nothing more than a game with words. Think I am kidding? Try defining “sacrament.” Go ahead…I’ll wait…

Chances are, you learned some variation of the same definition that I did: “A sacrament is an outward and visible sign of inner grace.” Wonderful, but what does it mean and how do you explain it to someone brand new to the Church if you aren’t even sure you understand it yourself? I don’t mind telling you that I  spent hours trying to pick that one apart until I felt like a dog chasing its own tail and finally called a former religion teacher to try and get her to explain it to me in plain and simple terms. “If you know of a way to do that, you tell me!” She retorted. (Somehow I wasn’t comforted.)

We eventually figured it out, and the explanation is in the book, but it wasn’t easy. Neither was writing a brief history of God. Although He  has quite an impressive list of accomplishments to his credit, God’s actual biography is more than a  little hard to track down. Don’t even get me started on that kid of His. FOUR men tried to put the life and works of Jesus in to writing  and could only agree on two things: that He was baptized by John the Baptist and was ultimately crucified by Pontius Pilate. (Yes, there are other similarities within the Gospels but I am focusing on what all four attest to.) As for the Holy Spirit…well, I admitted that this part is the hardest to grasp and offered a less-than-helpful anecdote involving St. Patrick and the shamrock. Beyond that, you’re on your own.

Heaven, Hell and all that might be in between were another fun section I battled with. While I understand the concept of Purgatory, I am one of those weird Catholics that is not sure she believes in it. (But I’ll save that saga for another post.) As for the process by which someone enters these various locations…there seem to be a lot of loopholes. I was told as a child that good people, of course, go to Heaven while bad people went to Hell. It seemed pretty cut and dry to me early on but then the questions started. Why do you have to be Baptized to go to Heaven? What if you were a baby who just died suddenly? Well of course God would look out for them. What about a mentally disturbed person who killed someone but didn’t go to confession? Would God have mercy on them? What about all of the countless stupid-but-not-too-awful things I did throughout my life? Did reconciliation really wipe those away or am I going to have to answer to a highlight reel of all my shortcomings on Judgement Day? What about Hitler? What happened to him? (This is the go-to bad guy most of us assume didn’t make the cut for Heaven and who we assume we have a better chance than for admittance.)

My point is that writing this book was HARD! Harder than anything I have ever done in my whole life. Like it or not I was forced to confront all of my cynicism, make peace with it and find a way to take everything I didn’t understand and couldn’t explain and….somehow find a way.

There were subjects I wanted to tackle, like saints and Mary, for example. I never understood what is so hard to grasp about all of that, but it is a sticking spot for some people and I really wanted to try and make sense of it all. After all, my father was Baptist, and while I am sure that he had his reservations about it, he never told me that I was wrong or that I was worshipping false idols. I really tried to step out of my comfort zone on that chapter and look at the whole thing from another point of view. Maybe if I wasn’t Catholic it would look weird to see a guy who was alive only a decade ago canonized on live TV and revered by billions of people as if he were something other than human.

But there were also subjects I wanted to avoid like the plague…one in particular that I kept successfully dodging until I could not sidestep it any longer. For weeks I felt like a slime ball for not facing it head on and at one point I wondered if I might take the cowards way out and eliminate it completely. I don’t mind telling you, if I had…it would have been my biggest regret. However, one morning last spring the perfect opportunity presented itself and thanks to one of the finest documentaries I have ever seen, God showed me how I could be “Both” true to the Church, “And” true to all that I believed in.

That’s the only hint you are getting…read the book and you’ll figure it out.

The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Catholicism is available wherever books are sold including:

http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/idiots-guides-unknown/1119619022?ean=9781615647194

 

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Confessions of a Cynical Catholic