Anyone who’s spent long enough in a hospital knows that homecoming is a bittersweet proposition. Not that life in the hospital is all that great: the constant interruptions, the bizarre beeps and dings, the lack of privacy, and the sundry indignities of the hospital gown do little to endear the patient to his time of convalescence. Yet when the longed-for discharge day finally comes, a sudden trepidation sets in. Suddenly home seems like a war zone full of hidden mines, where any normal action might unexpectedly result in grievous bodily harm, and the hospital seems like a safe haven, where all potential dangers have been carefully removed and (relative) comfort is guaranteed by company policy. After all this illness, home no longer feels like home.
I suspect this is why we celebrate when a loved one returns from the hospital. We hold a party, make a feast, go out to eat, buy the person’s favorite foods, or just generally try to do everything we can to show our joy that the hospitalized sheep has returned to the green fields of home. And for the people who have stayed home, finally being able to do something to help the sick loved one is a source of much-needed catharsis after all the weeks of impotent worry and vicarious suffering.
The problem is that the homecoming patient often isn’t ready to celebrate. Lying on your back and being fed medicines is exhausting and can even be crippling, and a sudden fit of rejoicing after long weeks of inactivity can be simply too much to handle. The patient’s mind is still full of disaster-zone paranoia as he glances askance at that worrisome two-inch step in the kitchen or the trick floorboard that seems to be plotting his demise, and he doesn’t have enough mental space left to let everyone else’s joy in. In a word, he’s not quite well enough to be happy.
This, I think, is what purgatory is like. Our homecoming in heaven is what we have been looking forward to our whole lives, but after years of sins small and large, all but the holiest people can find themselves gnawed by worry at the mysterious otherness of home when they see death approaching, and even after death they cannot help but discover that they are just not strong enough yet for the forceful joys of seeing God face to face.
We need a period of convalescence even after getting home before we can really rejoice at having arrived there at last. In his mercy, God doesn’t demand that we be perfect before we die, any more than a hospital demands its patients to be able to run a marathon before discharging them. He takes us home first, and then slowly heals us of our wounds until we are strong enough for beatitude.
Purgatory, of course, is not fun. It’s painful enough to be away from home, and it can be even harder to be there already and not be able to enjoy it, knowing that the ones you love are laughing and celebrating upstairs while you lie prone and in pain somewhere on the ground floor. Being surrounded by joy in which we cannot take part is one of the bitterest sufferings we know.
When a sick person comes home from the hospital, there really isn’t much we can do to speed his process of readjusting to home; but happily, God allows us to offer prayers and sufferings on this earth for the souls in purgatory, that they may be healed more quickly and may find themselves able to take their first steady steps in the firm ground of heaven. In particular, offering a mass for the repose of a dead loved one is a gift far more splendid than the grandest homecoming party, as it unites the soul of our loved one to the healing sacrifice of the Christ the Divine Physician in the most intimate way. And through the life of grace on earth, we ask God to heal us even now of the wounds and imperfections that make us unfit for the joy of heaven, allowing our lives to be shaped by faith in him, hope in his desire to save us, and “the love that moves the sun and the other stars.”
Being sick is not easy, and laboring to be well can be even harder. But how great will be the rejoicing in heaven at the homecoming of even one repentant sinner. And how great will our rejoicing be when we are strong enough to celebrate.
Image: Andrew Wyeth, Garret Room