instruere...inlustrare...delectare Disputations

Sunday, July 14, 2013

The normal last thing

I've read Jacques Maritain's Art and Scholasticism, and a few other scraps I've come across. Astrid O'Brien's essay, "Contemplation Along the Roads of the World: The Reflections of Raissa and Jacques Maritain," in Lay Sanctity, Medieval and Modern makes me think I should read a lot more of him -- and of Raissa as well. I hadn't realized they wrote as much as they did about living as lay Christians in the world.

Of the material quoted in the essay, my favorite passage is this, from Jacques's Notebooks:
What is normal for the Christian -- is to go straight to Paradise, to rejoin the Lord. Not only rejection to Hell, but even also passage through Purgatory... represents abnormal cases.
He means "normal," not in a statistical sense -- although he does reject the massa damnata opinion of Sts. Augustine and Thomas -- but in the sense that the graces available to the Christian who is a true disciple of Jesus, who loves Him and therefore keeps his Commandments, and is therefore united with the Church and a fruitful recipient of her Sacraments, ought to, as a matter of course, upon death go straight into the presence of God.

Hm. On second thought, until I read the Notebooks, I should probably say that's the meaning I derive from that brief quotation, in line with my other opinions.

I don't think I've ever heard anyone express the opinion that passage through Purgatory is abnormal with regard to himself. In conversation, I find two general cases:
  1. Purgatory is not considered at all. Either Heaven is presumed ("when I get there the first thing I'll do is...") or the possibility of Heaven or Hell is acknowledged ("if I get to Heaven the first thing I'll do is..."). This case doesn't treat going straight to Heaven as normal so much as taken for granted. Often enough, it's only taken for granted for the purposes of the conversation; "the first thing I'll do when I get to Heaven" isn't a topic about the assurance of salvation.
  2. Heaven is not considered at all.  Either Purgatory is presumed, or the possibility of Purgatory or Hell is acknowledged. Purgatory itself is almost always spoken of in one of two ways: how long one's stay will be; and how this or that bit of earthly suffering is reducing one's otherwise-sure-to-be lengthy stay in Purgatory.
Suppose, though, it's true that passage through Purgatory is an abnormal case. What would that mean about the common Catholic presumption of a lengthy passage?

First, I should say that such a presumption is often made in preference to the alternative. Given the dogma of Purgatory, it is a far stronger claim of my own sanctity to assert that I won't pass through it than the mere claim that, eventually, I will enter Heaven. The longer the passage takes, the weaker my claim of personal holiness. One thing Catholics don't do in ordinary conversation is claim to be saints. Naming and claiming a long time in Purgatory is the Catholic way of being less-holy-than-thou.

Then, too, I suspect quite often there's a somewhat honest assessment of one's own distance from God. If my life as a Christian has been abnormal to date -- if I'm not an altogether true disciple of Jesus, if I only love Him to a point and therefore only keep his Commandments to a middling degree, and am therefore not a particularly fruitful recipient of the Church's Sacraments -- then, sure, my path after death might be expected to be abnormal as well.

All that granted, and apart from how we express our thoughts to others, the question remains: Is the expectation of the need for purgation after death a cop-out? Is it settling for being good enough, despite Jesus' teaching that we are to be perfect? Worse, is it a denial of the power of God's grace to perfect us in this life?