This sequence of days (okay, it doesn’t always include the thirty-first Sunday of Ordinary Time) is one of my favorite in the year. I love the children (and adults) dressed up to defy their fears and emulate their heroes. I love the joyful and triumphant music celebrating our forebears who already stand around the throne of the Lamb. I love the incense and the quiet as we remember our loved ones who are somewhere between here and Heaven. I love Sundays in general.
I must retract something from my title: when you (dear Reader) die, you might go to Heaven (with angels there is no “might,” they’re either in Heaven or Hell and have no chance to change their fate). In fact, I highly encourage you to go to Heaven, because I want you to be a saint, and so does God. Being a saint is not as easy as it looks, though. Sainthood does not mean sinlessness, but it does mean virtuous self-sacrifice and extreme dedication to God’s will (whose plan for you gets less attractive the more dedicated you are to it, because the devil steps in and reminds you of everything you would rather be doing) and performing at least a couple of miracles—don’t worry about that part, though: once you have the virtue-doing-God’s-will thing down, miracles will be as easy as walking on water.
But in general, I will probably see most of you in Purgatory before any of us make it to Heaven. And that, dear Reader, is spectacular news, because if I don’t see you in Purgatory. . .well, that probably means I ended up in Hell.
Purgatory is a great place to be. When you die and “wake up” in Purgatory, you will know without a doubt that you are on your way to union with God in the beatific vision. There are worse places you could be, and at this point the only way is “up.” In purgatory you will be “purged,” not in the eating-disorder sense but in the medicinal, poison-control sense. Purging will hurt—there are a lot of deeply imbedded vices in your soul, even if you are a generally good person. Purging the vices from your system is going to involve what feels like slowly tearing bits of you off the rest, emptying you of what makes you unique. In reality, the removal of those vices will leave behind you and only you, you as God made you perfectly and uniquely and wonderfully (well, half of you anyway, you’ll still be sans body, but that will come later).
Purgatory is boot camp for the soul. It is where God sends his trouble children (and most of us are trouble children) to straighten us out and make us fly right. We are not the really good ones who only ever strayed by accident, but we are not the really bad ones who sinned purposely and consistently and, upon death, spat in the face of God and preferred the “choice” of Hell.
In truth, upon death most of us have more in common with the people in Hell than the people in Heaven. We are selfish or prideful or intemperate or inconsiderate and we think we have good reason to be that way (or, worse, we think that our behavior is not viceful). The difference between souls that go to Purgatory and souls that go to Hell is very small and very, very significant: the souls that end up in Purgatory want to love God correctly. Because of that desire, God will keep us in Purgatory until we do love him correctly, at which point we are ready to join Him in Heaven. That is the good news of Purgatory: Purgatory saves you from Hell and facilitates passage to Heaven.
When we do join Him in Heaven, we will not get a pair of wings or join the angel chorus. Within each human person there is absolutely no potential to become an angel. And trust me, we’re better off that way. Human beings are the crown of God’s creation, the only creatures made in both God’s image and likeness. Angels, who are pure intellect, do not get to experience the movements of the appetites which allow for things like desire and love, and so they are unable to image God in His love for Creation. Angels don’t get to have bodies (and let’s be serious: who doesn’t love his or her body [except due to sin]), and you will get your body back at the Last Judgment.
Most importantly, God did not incarnate (increatureate?) as an angel, only as a human being. Angels could have used a savior taking on their nature so as to lead them back to God—that whole Satan and his angels contingent would have benefited from the kind of personalized intervention human beings got when the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.
After you die and spend some well-needed time in Purgatory, you will make your way to Heaven where you will be something much better than an angel: perfectly yourself in perfect union with God.