So far we've seen that we were created to seek happiness and that desire for happiness is intended to lead us to God (heaven); though we may reject him (hell). Now it's time to look at everyone's favorite topic: purgatory.
Purgatory is possibly the least understood—and therefore least accepted—Catholic teachings. Many of the explanations of the place are confusing and abstractly theological and the word "purgatory" stirs up almost as much mistrust as "indulgence" or "inquisition". Purgatory is one of those doctrines that few people really understand but almost everyone thinks is bad.
Nothing could be farther from the truth. We're going to explain purgatory as simply as I can manage and hopefully demystify it to show the innocent, common-sense reality that it is.
If you want to know what purgatory is; picture a sink. That's it; a sink with an infinite supply of soap, towels, and hot water. See, that's not so bad.
When we discussed hell we used an analogy of muddy shoes and a clean house. The muddy shoes signified sin and we had the choice between throwing away the shoes (sin) to enter the house (heaven) or to keep the shoes and not enter the house (hell). It was our choice. However, let's say that upon deciding to "repent" of our shoes and throw them away we make a horrifying discovery:
We have mud on our feet.
Sin can be repented of and discarded because it is external to us. It's something wedo not who weare. If it were a disease it would be a tumor; the appropriate treatment is surgically cutting it out and throwing it away. However, sin leaves a stain—like the stains we get on our feet and hands from wearing and removing filthy boots—on all who use it. The stain comes in the form of corruption of the soul; as evidenced by our continued attachment to the repented of sin.
"Conforming to Christ" is a common Christian expression for changing our hearts to be like his. If accepting grace and practicing virtue conform us to Christ then rejecting grace and neglecting virtue (sin) un-conforms us to Christ; and conforms us to the nature of sin. The more we sin the more naturally we sin again; this is the stain sin leaves on our soul.
This stain represents a real problem. As long as my feet are dirty—to continue the analogy—I may not enter your house but I can't very well cut off my feet, can I? Perhaps feet could be removed but a soul, the core of our life, cannot be cut apart. Now what? Am I damned to hell because, even though I repent of my sin, I am not perfectly conformed to Christ?
Enter purgatory. Imagine you show me this heavenly bathroom where I may wash this stain away for as long as it takes. Will it be five minutes or one thousand years? I don't know; but eventually the stain will be washed away and I will be perfectly clean and able to enter.
On earth it's always two steps forward and one step back; we make it so far in our journey only to fall again. Purgatory is simply an opportunity to continue to process without the struggle of sin constantly pulling us backwards. When we see purgatory as a gracious opportunity to continue letting Christ's grace change our hearts to be like him; who can say it's anything but a blessing?