By Fr. Jeff Belger
For The Catholic Messenger
(The following column was written for the Newman Catholic Student Center in Iowa City. Father Belger is the Newman Center’s priest director.)
At the beginning of November, we celebrate heaven in a particular way. Nov. 1, we ask for prayers from our brothers and sisters who, from the beginning of the Church’s history, have led exemplary lives of faith and by the grace of God are with him in heaven. Nov. 2, we pray in a special way for loved ones who have gone before us, marked with the sign of faith. We ask God, through our prayers, to hasten to bring them home to heaven, if they are not already there. On the first eight days of November, the faithful are encouraged to go to the cemetery and pray for the dead. The Church teaches that these acts of love, for example, prayer and performing acts of devotional zeal, are ordered to God’s glory and the benefit of those whom we pray for. Not to mention that these acts of love conform us to God, who is love.
This focus on purgatory, the dead and our prayers for them, sometimes causes our non-Catholic family or friends to get nervous, anxious or downright angry. So, for you, or for them, I offer this lived experience of purgatory and purification.
Back in 1991, I was chosen to be one of 19 members of an expedition through a program at Western Illinois University. As part of the program, we spent 36 days canoeing in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, between Minnesota and Canada. Our base camp was the Northern Tier High Adventure Camp of the Boy Scouts in Ely, Minnesota. In the first week of canoeing, we became increasingly aware that we had not had a shower. We complained to those we had to be in the same tent with that they should at least take a swim in the very cold water. However, by about day eight, a miracle occurred, and we no longer smelled bad. We had broken through the cycle. It was amazing. Life was changed forever. Think of the time saved not having to shower every day. The remaining 28 days were a true joy.
Coming back to civilization was not as smooth as we had hoped. The Boy Scout camp had been taken over by an Elderhostel; basically, a camp for older people. We were so excited to share all that we had experienced; we would talk to anyone. But something had happened. The old people would have nothing to do with us. They just pointed to the locker rooms and said, “You need a shower.” Confusion set in. Why would we need showers? We didn’t smell. We had a miraculous break through!
I would say we were reluctant to give in. But honestly, it was cold. In fact, we had experienced snow several times in the last week of canoeing. So, a hot shower sounded great. It was even better than that. In the Northwoods, the Norwegian culture had established the custom of sitting in the sauna. When we got to the locker room, a poster on the wall gave instruction to shower, sit in the sauna, shower again, sit in the sauna and, if necessary, repeat one more time.
I was in heaven. That hot water and hot air felt so good, I opted for the third repeat. When I finished, I went back to my backpack that had my clean clothes and toiletries. I could not get close to my old clothes. I have endured many bad smells in my life, but nothing even close to what I experienced in that locker room. I ended up throwing away the clothes I had been wearing just 40 minutes before, when I thought that I did not smell.
I use this story when someone asks why the Church teaches such a convoluted, bizarre teaching like purgatory. I begin by saying: “It just makes sense.” Those who have a problem with it usually have two things they do not understand. Purgatory is part of heaven. So, when they say there are only two options after you die, we are in complete agreement. The other mistake is understanding the difference between mortal and venial sin. (See 1John 5: 16-18) Mortal sin is a severing of the relationship with God. Venial sin is sin, but there is still relationship. If you die with venial sin on your soul, you still will be allowed in heaven. You just smell and need to sit in the sauna for a while.
After my group cleaned up, it was amazing how nice the “old” campers were in the banquet hall. We got to sit amongst them, tell stories and listen to their stories. I imagine that is the way it will be in heaven. Thank God for the sauna.