ACCORDING TO ROMAN CATHOLIC doctrine, some people go to heaven when they die, some people go to hell, and some people, although they will get to heaven eventually, have to make a preliminary detour through purgatory, where the sins that still cling to them are purged away through suffering. Protestants reject this notion, partly because of the unpleasant odor it developed during the Middle Ages, when, if you put so much cash on the line, the church guaranteed to arrange at least a substantial reduction in your purgatorial sentence, and partly because of the general Protestant view that when you are saved by God, that means among other things that you are saved from torment, however edifying, after death.

What is persuasive about the Catholic view is the implication that even with God on their side people do not attain to what Saint Paul calls "maturity, the measure of the full stature of Christ" (Ephesians 4:13) overnight. At best the job is unlikely to be more than the slimmest fraction done by the time they die.

An Anglican prayer for someone who has died includes the words "grant that, increasing in knowledge and love of thee, he [or she] may go from strength to strength, in the life of perfect service, in thy heavenly kingdom." Increasing in knowledge. From strength to strength. Whichever side of the grave you are talking about, life with God apparently involves growth and growing pains.

The sacrament of bread and wine administered to the dying is known as the viaticum, which means provision for a journey, or one for the road. Whether or not you think of it in connection with purgatory, viaticum suggests that many a high adventure still awaits you and many a cobbled street before you finally reach the fountain in the square.

-Originally published in Wishful Thinking and later in Beyond Words

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