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Prayer and Purgatory: Thresholds to Glory

November 24, 2014 by  
Filed under Anthony Lilles, Last Things, Prayer, Purgatory

Prayer and Purgatory: Thresholds to Glory

LucaGiordanoVirginAndChildWithSoulsInPurgatoryWGA09027Purgatory and prayer are both the thresholds to Glory. In both cases, the disciple of the Lord receives purification to live life to the full, to be free, to stand before God and, finally, to see his face. If we are not purified, healed, strengthened and taught how to love, we are not ready for such glory. Prayer is better than purgatory when it comes to this work of grace.  It delights the heart of God and more fully reveals his glory when souls allow Him to accomplish this great work in this life. Yet, in our weakness, we, even if we believe, do not always give God the permission He needs to do this work – and God never acts in us without our consent.  Because love is constricted by any lack of trust, it is possible and even often the case for those who love God to die without the Lord having been able to bring to completion the work He had begun in them. That is why, although it does not delight Him in the same way, He will also accomplish this work of love after death.  By grace, death helps us surrender what we would not surrender in this life. This is what purgatory is – like prayer is in this life, it is a threshold to heaven – just a more difficult one.  This doctrine of prayer helps us realize the unimaginable work God is about in those who love him. The doctrine of purgatory helps us understand how, if we are the least bit faithful in opening our lives to Him, He is so much more faithful in completing what He has begun in us.

Much of what happens in purgatory is analogous to what happens in deep prayer — that is deep prayer and purgatory involve a purifying pathway through death and into glory – both are like a fire, like a surgery, like a contest, and like the preparations for a wedding night.

Remember the man in Mark 9:24 who approaches Jesus about his demon possessed son only to be rebuked for his lack of faith? What Christ reveals to him about his faith increases his faith and he cries out, “I do believe, help my lack of faith!”  This prayer is one we must all offer in this life or the next – for this is the state of everyone who approaches the Lord.  Our lack of faith must be purified.  Any lack of faith, lack of mercy, lack of forgiveness, and selfishness needs to be destroyed — these are not worthy of heaven and the purification of these things, their destruction by the love of God, is as painful as fire. But in both prayer and purgatory this Fire of Love does not destroy us and the pain it causes is only temporary – because it envelops us with light, love and life.  As the flame increases and all that is not worthy of our true nature is destroyed, we are ignited with a greater freedom, a greater desire, and keener insight than we have ever known before.  Blessed are those with the courage to face this fire in this life – they already know the freedom that awaits us!  At the same time, how can our hearts not be moved to pray, by the plight of those who must face this fire after death?

Prayer and purgatory are like going into surgery.  There are certain cancerous growths in our hearts that need to be cut out and the wound completely healed if we are to have the spiritual health the joys of heaven demand. If our hearts are not healed before we die, God will not let death stop Him from completely restoring and making whole those who persevered in their faithfulness to Him.  To this end, in both prayer and purgatory, the Holy Spirit envelops us with the Father’s love just as Christ was enveloped on the Cross – a painful envelopment which is experienced as abandonment.  In both cases, this delicate surgery can be very intense and difficult – but Christ, the divine physician, is always Himself the antidote for death and the medicine for immortality. Blessed are those who are docile to treatment the Divine Physician already offers them – the full life of heaven has already begun for them!  At the same time, how can we remain indifferent to those whose healing must be completed after death, when our prayers provide them true consolation and in some way quicken this work?

Prayer and purgatory are both like a contest where athletes overcome their weaknesses and awaken their confidence for victory.  Only the courageous are admitted into heaven because only the strong of heart are capable of the kind of love heaven demands. Blessed are those who by dedication to prayer and devotion of heart strain with all their might for what lies ahead – they realize in this world the triumph of good in the very face of evil and injustice! At the same time, how can we not pray for those who are too weak after death to stand and worship the Living God, when our prayers are a true encouragement?

Heaven is for lovers – not lovers of merely earthly things but lovers of Him whom this earth cannot contain.  In heaven, humanity enjoys a communion of everlasting and unceasing friendship with the Bridegroom who has awaited us from all eternity.  To live like this we must learn to love like Him.  Here, prayer and purgatory are like the preparations for a wedding night where the soul learns to wait for the Beloved at the threshold of an enchanting trysting place – fired by love's yearnings such souls are captivated by love. Those passing through this threshold need our prayers most of all – whether they are still with us in this life or have already embarked on their journey to the Father's house.  Blessed are those who seek this night and make it the priority of their heart to wait for the Lord – their whole existence will be permeated with a joy this world cannot contain!


Art: Virgin and Child with Souls in Purgatory, Luca Giordano, circa 1650, PD-US, Wikimedia Commons.

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About Anthony Lilles

Anthony Lilles, a graduate of Franciscan University of Steubenville, completed his graduate and post-graduate studies in Rome at the Pontifical University of St. Thomas. He and his lovely wife, Agnes, are blessed with three children and live in California, where he is the Academic Dean, and Associate Professor of Theology, St. John's Seminary, Archdiocese of Los Angeles, and Academic Advisor for Queen of Angels House of Priestly Formation for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. For over twenty years, Dr. Lilles worked for the Denver Archdiocese directing parish religious education, R.C.I.A. and youth ministry, as well as serving as Director of the Office of Liturgy for the Archdiocese and as Coordinator of Spiritual Formation for the permanent diaconate. In 1999, he became a founding faculty member of St. John Vianney Theological Seminary where he was Academic Dean for nine years and Associate Professor of Theology. He is a Board Member for the Society of Catholic Liturgy. Dr. Lilles has provided graduate level courses on a variety of topics including the Eucharist, the Sacraments of Healing, Church History, Spiritual Theology, Spiritual Direction and on various classics of Catholic Spirituality. His expertise is in the spiritual doctrine of Saint Elisabeth of the Trinity and the Carmelite Doctors of the Church: St. Teresa of Avila, St. John of the Cross and St. Thérèse of Lisieux. In 2012, Discerning Hearts published his book "Hidden Mountain, Secret Garden: A Theological Contemplation on Prayer," a compilation of discussions with seminarians, students, and contemplatives about the spiritual life. He collaborated with Dan Burke on the books "30 Days with Teresa of Avila" and Living the Mystery of Merciful Love: 30 Days with Therese of Lisieux. And, his book "Fire from Above" was published in 2016. Among his many accomplishments and responsibilities, Dr. Lilles now teaches theology for the Avila Institute. He blogs at BeginningtoPray.blogspot.com

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