I recently read a book by C. S. Lewis called Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer. As the title suggests, it’s a series of letters, and they mainly (although not exclusively) deal with Lewis’s thoughts on prayer. Much like The Screwtape Letters, these are fictional letters to a fictional person, but Lewis was such a great writer that they feel entirely authentic. If I didn’t know any better, I’d think they were real.
Interestingly, towards the end of the book, Lewis goes on a bit of a tangent about purgatory, and he explains why he believes in it. I say this is interesting not just because it’s a bit off-topic, but more so because Lewis wasn’t Catholic. He was Anglican, and the vast majority of Protestants (including Anglicans) don’t believe in purgatory. In fact, Lewis even points this out right before explaining why he himself accepts the idea. He knew he was an outlier on this issue, so it’s interesting to see why he parted ways with his Protestant brethren here.
“Our Souls Demand Purgatory”
His explanation is pretty short, so I’ll just quote the whole thing and then give a few thoughts on it:
Our souls demand Purgatory, don’t they? Would it not break the heart if God said to us, "It is true, my son, that your breath smells and your rags drop with mud and slime, but we are charitable here and no one will upbraid you with these things, nor draw away from you. Enter into the joy."? Should we not reply, "With submission, sir, and if there is no objection, I’d rather be cleaned first." "It may hurt, you know."--"Even so, sir."
I assume that the process of purification will normally involve suffering. Partly from tradition; partly because most real good that has been done me in this life has involved it.” (Letters to Malcolm, Letter XX)
In typical C. S. Lewis fashion, he doesn’t give us a dry theological explanation for his belief in purgatory. Instead, he uses an analogy from everyday life, and also as usual, he hits the nail right on the head. See, the whole point of purgatory isn’t that God wants to punish us for our sins because he’s some sort of sadistic psychopath. No, the point is that it’s supposed to purge us (hence the name “purgatory”) of our sins and make us worthy to enter God’s presence in heaven.
A Few Examples
And when we look at it that way, Lewis’s analogy makes perfect sense. If you were unable to wash yourself and clean your clothes, you wouldn’t want to go to a party without having someone clean you up first. You wouldn’t want to be a mere charity case that other people accept out of pity. Instead, you would want to wash up so you could be at your best and be worthy of the occasion.
In fact, if someone let you into their house without cleaning you up, that would actually be a very unloving thing to do. Consider some examples. Say that you invite a homeless person to spend the night at your house during a particularly harsh winter. Should you just show them to their room and then shut the door? Of course not! The right thing to do would be to let them wash up and put on some new clothes so they wouldn’t have to remain in whatever dirt and grime they may have picked up during their time on the street.
Or if a woman has a severely intellectually disabled son who can’t clean himself, should that woman just let her son stay in his filth day after day? Should she say that she loves him anyway, no matter how dirty and disgusting he gets? Of course not! Instead, she should bathe him and brush his teeth as often as she can so he can be as clean as possible. That’s just the loving thing to do.
Cleaning Up for Heaven
And the same goes for heaven. When we get to the pearly white gates, when we enter the company of all the greatest saints, the angels, and even God himself, we’re not going to want to be the spiritual equivalent of someone with smelly breath and slimy clothes. We’ll want to clean ourselves up first and be the best we can be for the “occasion,” and because God loves us, he’s also going to want to cleanse us from our sins, just like a loving mother or father would wash and bathe their children.
Granted, this isn’t the kind of argument we normally get in Catholic apologetics. It doesn’t appeal to Scripture, and it doesn’t use fancy theological terminology like “grace,” “satisfaction,” “penance,” or the like. But it’s not any less valuable. If we really want to understand and defend the Catholic faith, we can’t simply spit out Bible verses or talk like St. Thomas Aquinas. We also have to be able to explain our beliefs and the reasoning behind them in ways others can understand, and that’s exactly what this argument helps us do. It gets at the real core of the doctrine of purgatory, and like almost everything else C. S. Lewis wrote, it makes this fancy theological idea perfectly understandable for anyone, no matter how much or how little theological training they may have.