One of the misconceptions about our spiritual life is the disconnect between our spiritual purification in this world and the continuation of that purification in the next. Often, when people have problems with the idea of purgatory it is precisely because they fail to see how much is keeping them from a deeper intimacy with our Lord in this life. They fail to see how sin and the attachments to sin keep them from our Lord, and they fail to realize that these imperfections and attachments must be purified.
That is what purgatory is all about. Even though our sins are forgiven through the sacrament of confession, the negative effects still remain.
The purgation of these negative effects has often been described in terms of three stages. The first stage is called the purgative way. There is much that has been written of this stage, but I will stick to the insight from St. Frances de Sales work Introduction to the Devout Life. He explains that the first stage consists of being purged of our attachment to mortal sin.
Continuing with the work of St. Frances de Sales, the second stage, often called the illuminative way, involves our being purified of our attachments to venial sins. Although venial sins do not destroy our relationship with God, they keep us from the fullness of holiness to which we are called. In this stage, we are also strengthened in the virtues. Furthermore, our relationship with the Lord takes on greater intimacy and freedom. Much has been written on the transition that takes place in prayer, but for the sake of brevity, let us say it becomes much more simple and direct.
The third stage is the realm of the saints, whether these be those who are canonized or those holy souls known only to God. In this stage, the soul is purified of all that keeps it from union with God, and in this stage the Holy Spirit breathes through the believer’s life with ease and familiarity. The life of the believer becomes so intertwined with the Beloved that it is difficult to know who is acting, God or the saint.
The mark of this stage is that the saint now participates in a real and fruitful way in the unconditional love of Jesus Christ. People in this stage are so united to Christ that they truly live the Beatitudes and the other counsels of our Lord. They love their enemies and they possess the peace of Christ which is given to those who dwell continually with him in their hearts.
So the question for all of us is are we saints yet? If not, let us run to the sacraments and to our Lord and beg him to make us a saint. Let us practice with zeal the threefold path of sanctity: almsgiving, fasting, and prayer. For the truth is that we will either be made saints in this world by learning to cooperate with God’s grace or the next in purgatory.