by Peter John Cameron, OP
(Magnificat, November 1999)
Dominican Father Peter John Cameron, editor of the monthly devotional guide Magnificat and professor at St. Joseph's Seminary in Yonkers, N.Y., writes about the meaning of “the most important moment of our life: death. ... St. Ambrose speaks about three different kinds of death: the death of sin, the death to sin, and the death which is the passing after our allotted course of time on earth. He says the death of sin is evil; the death to sin is good; and that physical death is indifferent. Unfortunately, the world turns this upside down, making the death of sin good, the death to sin indifferent, and physical death evil.”
As an antidote to such false values, Father Cameron recommends meditating on the nature and meaning of purgatory. He notes that Hans Urs von Balthasar has written that purgatory is experienced in total isolation. “There the soul exists in a kind of solitary confinement where one is entirely taken up with his or her relationship to God. ... In this isolation, the soul sees itself only in the Lord's mirror. The one being purified does not see his neighbor. Rather, he is wholly occupied with God and himself.” This is because “The soul can enjoy the company of loved ones only after being cleansed by the Lord's love, because then we can regard others with the Lord's own eyes. Then everything impersonal in our life is purged so that we can enter into the definitive community.”
Father Cameron explains that most of us leave life still attached to a fundamental reversal in values that must be corrected — the preoccupation with self over God and others. “In purgatory, the egocentric ‘I'becomes so disintegrated that the Thou of God takes over. There we arrive at a kind of collapse in which, once and for all, we bid farewell to our false identity. We cease being caught up with ourselves so that we can be situated fully in God.”
Father Cameron describes a play by Thornton Wilder called And the Sea Shall Give Up Its Dead, which recounts the purgatorylike experience of three characters who drown. One of these, Gertruda XXII, empress of Newfoundland in the 27th century, tells of the pain of “‘slowly liberating your mind from the prides and prejudices and trivialities of a lifetime. ... In my life I believed fiercely that everything of which I said MY had some peculiar excellence. I had a passion for genealogies and antiquities, and felt that such things merely looked forward to myself.’ But at the end of the play she cries: ‘O God, do not take away my identity! Do not take away my myself!‘The reality of purgatory convinces us that we cannot carry our own self. The imperfect ‘I’ that is destroyed in purgatory will be returned to us by God ... but as a new ‘I’ — an ‘I’ in God.”
Purgatory is the place where ultimate truths are faced as our eyes see everything that we have lived and everyone we have seen in their true condition and dimensions. There “we finally come to realize the extent of the world's sin and how our impurity is contained in it. There we stand before God helpless, stripped, naked ... realizing that the Lord has always seen us naked. But in purgatory we experience our impurity within the purity of God. The aim of the whole procedure is that we grasp how God wishes to be loved.“Another of the drowned characters in Wilder's play enjoyed fame and success during his life as a notable personage: “‘I was a theatrical producer, and thought myself important to my time — wise, witty and kindly. Now I am reconciled to the fact that I am naked, a fool, a child.’ The pains involved in this process of purgatory point directly to the cross where Christ is made King. Purgatory ends precisely at the point when, looking at the cross, God's love becomes who we are.”
Ellen Wilson Fielding writes from Davidson, Maryland.