I might imagine the dead waking, dazed into a shadowless light in which they know themselves altogether for the first time. It is a light that is merciless until they accept its mercy; by it, they are at once condemned and redeemed. It is Hell until it is Heaven. Seeing themselves in that light, if they are willing, they see how far they have failed the only justice of loving one another; it punishes them with their own judgment. And yet, in suffering the light’s awful clarity, in seeing themselves within it, they see its forgiveness and its beauty and are consoled.
—Wendell Berry, A World Lost
I turned eighty-two not long ago. According to popular mythology, with age comes wisdom. That might be true for some, but for me the years have brought forgetfulness and confusion. My silence is not the profound silence of an elder who has arrived, after a long life, at a sort of synthesis; it stems more from a fear of saying something really stupid about things I’ve forgotten or only vaguely remember.
Another aspect of aging is the realization that things are going to change radically for me pretty soon. I’m both curious about dying and afraid of all the uncertainty that surrounds it. That is why the above passage from one of Wendell Berry’s novels, quoted last year in this magazine (“Reign of Love” by Eric Miller, January 4, 2019) hit home so hard. It seemed to me a very beautiful and coherent description of Purgatory—something we don’t often talk about anymore.
One of the major difficulties we have in trying to imagine the afterlife is that it is outside of time as we know it—for time is linked to material change. We say that there is “no time” in God who is an Eternal Instant. The theologians tell us that the “spiritual time” of the disembodied soul is something beyond what we can imagine, since we can imagine time only as a succession of “states,” with a before and after.
There are those who imagine we will all experience an instantaneous bodily resurrection at the moment of our deaths because, whatever the historical moment at which we die, there is no delay in our experience of this “spiritual time” between the moment of death and the Parousia. The judgment of each person would thus be integrated within the fulfillment of all things. All that was hidden would be revealed all at once, rather than one person at a time. The mystical links that bind us together with earlier and later generations would be part of this general revelation, all of us, our ancestors and our posterity, meeting in an eternal present in which we would discover both a crucifying truth and an ineffable mercy. This all-encompassing revelation would constitute the essential joy of the blessed.