What if I had Died?
“It comes. You know that It is not of yourself. It is from without, and It attaches Itself to your deepest parts. First comes loneliness, then abandonment, then despair, then the pain is so great you want It to end by any means. Just before you are crushed by the grip of It, there comes a trickle of love that can only come from the Divine. Then, It pours… no It gushes in, without removing any of the pain. The volume of It’s presence actually pushes the pain deeper into your being. Every cell of your body shares the pain with your heart. Your body, soul, and spirit collapse at His feet. You feel you don’t have the strength to lift your fingers. Like discovering that you are in the middle of the ocean and realizing that you are standing on an inch of ice, without any earthly hope, a small part of you wishes it would break, while the rest of you is trying not to move, so you can stay alive. The ends of your fingers actually tingle with expectation. Now you wish without repentance that Whatever has entered your being would crush you and drag you back with It. You never want It to leave. Now It subsides, you feel It pulling away, and you grab for It in desperation. But, there is nothing you can do to hang onto It. You cannot control It’s coming, or It’s going. You just know that you will spend the rest of your life longing for It above all else. You will never be the same. Then you realize, when It left, It took with It every bit of anger, shame, and resentment from who you are, because It has captured your heart. You want the whole world to have It, but It is not yours to give.”
We are born into this world innocent and unable to protect ourselves, the most vulnerable of all its inhabitants. The god of this world, the devil, like a hungry wolf, attacks the most vulnerable. He is not only out to hurt humanity; he is out to drag humanity down into the pit that is waiting for him in hell; into eternal damnation, suffering, and separation from God. Our adversary wants nothing less than death for all of humanity.
My uncle molested me as a toddler. This attack on my life was a one-time event. My mother and father kept me safe from my uncle after that, but several like attacks continued to assail me from many directions throughout my childhood. I, along with millions of children in this country, grew up living with the consequences of the sexual revolution—the culture that coined the phrase “free love” and sang along to songs with lyrics like “if you’re not with the one you love, love the one you’re with.” One of the biggest lies is that sex is free—that what we do behind closed doors does not hurt anybody. That is a lie perpetrated by the king of liars, the devil.
As I grew older, my idea of what it meant to be an adult was obviously skewed by the events of my childhood. I have never molested a child, but I have definitely, perpetuated the sexual sin that plagues humanity. I often think of sin as a web, a snare in which we are so very easily entangled. As we fight to become free of its painful grip, we shake the web and entangle others.
As a young adult, I attempted to stuff the shame of my childhood deep within myself
in the hope that it would just go away. The deeper I stuffed the pain, the more I hurt, and the more I hurt, the more I self-medicated. Just before I had what I call my “big breakdown,” when I was 43, I started drinking heavily and spending time watching pornography. The thing that I detested the most in this life, sexual perversion, I was drawn to like a moth to a flame. This thing that had caused me so much pain throughout my childhood and now haunted me as an adult was the very thing that I was helping to perpetuate. I was allowing it to continue to feed on my soul. St. Paul talks about this odd twist of human nature in the following passage:
15. What I do, I do not understand. For I do not do what I want, but I do what I hate.
16. Now if I do what I do not want, I concur that the law is good.
17. So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me.
18. For I know that good does not dwell in me, that is, in my flesh. The willing is ready at hand, but doing the good is not.
19. For I do not do the good I want, but I do the evil I do not want.
20. Now if [I] do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me.
21. So, then, I discover the principle that when I want to do right, evil is at hand.
22. For I take delight in the law of God, in my inner self, but I see in my members
23. another principle at war with the law of my mind, taking me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members.
One of the things that confused me about what I was going through is that I had given my life to Christ many years before. I was deeply submersed in the Evangelical Charismatic Christian Culture and filled with the Holy Spirit. I was saved by the Blood of Christ and spoke in tongues. My wife and I were deacons of the church we attended. I was supposed to be filled with the joy of the Lord.
I was filled with anything but joy, though. I reached a point where I had honestly decided that Christianity was not real. The reason I came to this conclusion is because if Christianity was real, there was something very wrong. It would mean that God hated me and that I was not saved, destined to spend eternity in hell. In reality, I was afraid that I had somehow offended God in such a way that He had given up on me or that the whole idea of God was nothing but a fairytale.
But that was when God began to touch me in a much different way than I had ever experienced. I was not sure at first because His touch was different than I had ever experienced in the past, and it did not line up with my understanding at the time of Who God is in our lives. I would become so overwhelmed that I would have to lie down on the floor wherever I was as waves of pain surged throughout my body. It was uncontrollable. I can remember being afraid that it would happen when I was in public. During that time is when I wrote the first paragraph of this chapter. It was when I learned how much God really loves me. God loves me so much that He was not going to allow me to continue to stuff any more of my pain. He was not concerned about disrupting my life. The only thing that He was concerned about was getting me well no matter how much it hurt. I think of it like going through chemotherapy. He would administer the healing touch of His Holy Spirit knowing that it was going to be excruciatingly painful. He would not take away the pain that He knew was somehow necessary, but He was right by my side rubbing my back comforting me during the process.
The faith tradition in which I was immersed at that time held that to be in mental anguish was somehow a sign of weak faith. I, along with others within my church, would meditate on phrases like the “joy of the Lord is our strength” (Nehemiah 8:10) and “standing on the Word of God”—both good things to do, but in their proper time and place. If someone expressed the fact that they were hurt or upset about something, they would be brought to the front of the church and were prayed over—again, not a bad thing but in the right spirit at the right time. Prayer would continue until the person being prayed for either broke out in laughter or fell onto the floor, as they called it, “in the Spirit.” If one of the two of those things did not happen, it would be said of the person being prayed for that his or her heart was hard and that the individual was unwilling to receive.
During this time of healing, through a series of events that are nothing short of divine, I joined the Catholic Church. A story I will save for a different time. While I was going through R.C.I.A. (Right of Christian Initiation for Adults), I sought the counsel of our Pastor. God, having a great sense of humor, lead me to a Catholic Church overseen by a very charismatic Franciscan Priest. This man would lay hands me and pray on many occasions, but in a much different spirit than I had experienced in the Protestant Charismatic movement. During one of our meetings, something happened that I will never forget. I was beginning to weep and this Pastor leaned over, looked at me, and asked me what I was feeling. This may seem like a small thing to some, but to me, it was life-changing. Sure, I had had other people ask my how I was doing, typically as something people say in passing, but when this man asked me, I had an overwhelming sense that he actually cared how I was feeling. I will never forget my reaction. I just looked at him for a few moments and repeated the question, “How do I feel?” I was overwhelmed and continued, “Holy shit, how do I feel? What does that have to do with any of this?” He did not get offended or change his tone. Instead, without missing a beat, he asked me again, “Yeah, what are you feeling?” The question was so “other than” anything that I was used to from a pastor or even from another human being. At this point in our meeting, I was expecting to be sitting in front of an open Bible and listening to the pastor read scripture verses that would remind me that God had everything under control and that my being upset was being counterproductive and displayed a lack of faith. Now the tears started to flow as I began to process the question. I had no idea how to answer, but somehow in that moment God became a person to me. I had known that God loved me and had often felt His love in a very tangible way throughout my salvation experience, but this was something very different. This man of God never opened his Bible. He was just truly concerned about how I was feeling, and it was amazing. It preached the love of God to me more than a thousand sermons ever could.
During this time, I learned of rooms in my heart that I never knew existed. For several months before this encounter with God, through our Pastor, I had wept daily, and often. The best way I can describe it is that it was as if I was completely filled with tears and that if I tilted my head just slightly they would come running out. I would be out in public, at a restaurant, or at a store and people would give me some odd looks. I even had someone ask me if I had something wrong with me because I was continuously drying my eyes. Even when I was not thinking about anything to be upset about, tears would be running from my eyes. Now the weeping was accompanied by episodes uncontrollable sobbing and at times seemingly unprovoked. I had started to wonder if I was losing my mind. I can remember waking myself from a sound sleep just sobbing.
At that time, I was seeing a therapist for sexual abuse survivors. She had given me several books full of writing from other abuse victims. It was like reading my own mail. The similarities to my emotional turmoil and coping mechanisms that these people developed were uncanny. It was almost like what I think it would feel like find out you had twin whom you never knew existed. It was very comforting to find out that I wasn’t going crazy, or if I was, that I was going crazy for a good reason.
It was after reading these stories of other abuse victims that I realized that my first memories of being molested were not the memories of the first time that I had been molested. After reading about the behavior of children who were molested as toddlers, I realized that I had displayed the same behavior. Like I said, it was like reading my own mail. I confronted my mother with what I had learned and asked her what had happened. She at first tried to continue to hide the event that has forever changed my life, but after continuing to press in, she told me what happened. I could see by the look in her eyes that the memories were coming back to her like they had just happened the day before.
I have absolutely no memory of the event, but I most definitely carry the scars. This new revelation was a game changer. At least now I had some idea of why I behaved the way I did. When most people think of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, they think of it as something that soldiers return with from war. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or as it is also known as, PTSD, is a disorder that occurs as a result of a person’s being exposed to a traumatic event that completely overwhelms the emotions to the point of despair. I have lived with this pain for over 48-years, and for 43 of those years, I had no idea what was happening. I have lived with anxiety and the sometimes-overwhelming fear that something is terribly wrong for no apparent reason for most of my life. I was constantly on the search for something to stop the feeling of impending doom. I have tried many prescribed pharmaceutical drugs and often resorted to self-prescribed medication, most often in the form of alcohol.
Let me assure you of the fact that emotional pain and suffering is completely debilitating. I never in my life understood how painful emotional healing could be before I confronted my past head-on. There were times that I did not trust myself to be alone. I reached the point of despair on a few occasions that I actually, thought about ending my life. This happened after I had entered into therapy. Therapy was something that I had to take in small doses and for short periods of time because it sometimes caused the pain to become overwhelming. I still, seven years later, have certain triggers that will send me into a tailspin—perhaps a news story or something someone will say to me. They are like landmines that I can’t see coming.
Here is the big question. What if I had died when I was 35 years old, several years before God so graciously started my healing process, as many do? There are many who die in the heat of turmoil. There are many who never deal with their pain. The filth of sin keeps our robes stained (Revelation 7:14-17) whether we committed the offense or the offense was committed against us. One of the things about sin that we so often forget in our selfish, fallen state is that it affects everyone around us. We are all in this together. Again, what if I had died? Would I have been ready to be presented by Christ as a pure and spotless bride?
The belief in a place called Purgatory is one of the Catholic doctrines that kept me from entering into full fellowship with the Catholic Church long before I did in April of 2009. I just could not get my mind wrapped around a place where God would send people to suffer for their sins.
In my mind, Christ paid for my sins upon a cross one very dark day over 2,000 years ago, on a lonely hill called Calvary, outside of the city walls of Jerusalem. He took my punishment upon Himself so I would not have to burn in hell. God is Love, not some sick deity who delights in seeing people suffer! The Blood of Christ saved me. What more was there to discuss?
My view of Purgatory, to say the least, has dramatically changed since coming to understand and embrace Catholic doctrine. I have been asked time and time again, “Why did you decide to join the Catholic Church?” I quickly learned that most of my Protestants friends were not truly interested in learning why, nor did they offer enough time or respect to entering into a reasonable dialog. Their questions were typically rhetorical code for “Are you out of your mind? You joined a cult!” For those of you who are genuinely interested in understanding why I joined the Church, this writing on Purgatory will help in illustrating one part of my journey. I hope you will take the time to join with me in further discussion.
One of my motivations for putting down my thoughts in writing is my desire to have something to pass along to my children. This is my first attempt at creating that. Most of the answers to the questions people ask me are not a 5-minute response, as many are hoping. The greatest challenge I typically face is where to start. How do I explain something that has developed in my mind only through years of studying the Scripture? How do I express over a forty-five-minute lunch what the Holy Spirit has been ministering to me for over twenty years?
Most Cradle Catholics (Catholics from birth) are catechized (taught about their faith) at a young age and continue through life very settled in their faith (Footnote 1). They typically trust in what they are taught and do not ask many questions. Conversely, as Protestants, we questioned everything. We were taught to “be eager to present yourself as acceptable to God, a workman who causes no disgrace, imparting the word of truth without deviation” (2 Timothy 2:15).
When a Protestant asks a question of a Catholic, he or she is looking for an answer grounded in Scripture. Scripture is the Protestant benchmark concerning the truth of God’s Kingdom. Most Protestants live, eat, and breathe the Bible and consider the Bible to be their ultimate governing authority, a platform that the Catholic Church refers to as “sola scriptura” (Latin for – “scripture alone”). Catholics, on the other hand, look at the authority of the Church differently. Catholics believe that the Church is the “pillar and foundation of truth” as stated by the Apostle Paul in his fist letter to Timothy, chapter 3, verse 15.
The difficulty herein surfaces when a Protestant asks a question of a Catholic concerning what he or she holds as a certain tenet of his or her faith. In response, a Catholic will most often give a scripted answer that has been taught by the Church.
For example, some time ago I was participating in a small Bible study group when a new convert to Catholicism expressed frustration in understanding the doctrine of Purgatory. A Cradle Catholic in the group answered with intentions of being helpful and explained that “Purgatory is the place where we go after we die to be cleansed of our sins after the death of our physical bodies”. While this answer is not incorrect, it is however, incomplete. Additionally, the person providing the answer did not understand the question as it was framed in the mind of the person who asked the question. It would be unrealistic to expect of him to be a mind reader, but we must keep in mind the basic differences as to the way we come to the understanding biblical truth that, far too often, needlessly divides.
Catholics typically do not have a problem believing what the Church teaches and most often do not understand the Protestant mindset. This is great for Catholics, but if we as Catholics are ever going to communicate to our Protestant brothers and sisters with some understanding of what we believe to be true, and share the beauty of our faith, we need to begin listening to the questions in the ways that they are asked.
What Protestants hear when they receive an answer like the one above is that the person giving the answer is completely ignorant of Scripture. Walls go up, and all communication ends. These types of answers are the reason why the majority of Protestants believe that Catholics do not understand the truth of the Bible. However, this, in reality, is not even close to the truth, when the Catholic Church, as I have so happily learned, embodies the truth of the scripture.
Catholics understand the truths of the Bible through the teachings of the Church. Unfortunately, though, it is true that the majority of Catholics have a limited understanding of how and where to look in the Bible for the scriptural texts that back up those teachings, and, quite frankly, most don’t feel any need to learn scripture because they trust the Church. Happily, I can report that there appears to be a movement within the Church for its parishioners to read and learn the Bible.
Fellow Catholics, the burden is ours to reach out to our Protestant brothers and sisters in love. I am not saying that they are wrong, and we are right—to endorse this type of mindset is the way walls are built. We do not need to be wall builders; we need to be bridge builders. We have plenty to learn from the Protestant tradition.
Getting back to the question asked by the convert in the small group. What she was trying to say was “Please show me in scripture where God teaches about Purgatory. Please help me to understand, because if it is true, I really want to know.”
Catholics, I understand that the Church is our authority when it comes to Church doctrine, but, as I have learned, the doctrine that we have been taught is grounded in biblical truth. If for no other reason, please learn how to explain our faith through the Bible out of love for our neighbors, so that when we are asked, we can give a reason for the hope that we carry so precious within our hearts (1 Peter 3: 15).
6. My people are ruined for lack of knowledge!
It only takes a quick Internet search for “Purgatory” to fill the mind with hundreds of grotesque images of the depravity of humanity—images depicting naked, suffering, and often burning souls that have been illustrated through paintings and various other forms of disturbing artwork throughout the history of the Church.
Please do not go to the Internet to see these images. These images are nothing that we need to let into our minds, nor do they accurately depict Purgatory. Throughout Church history, there have misguided people who have felt that creating a picture of God as a mean, nasty, and vindictive being would somehow turn people away from sin, and toward holiness.
I love the Catholic Church, but I would be remiss if I failed to acknowledge that there have been those who have planted some very misleading thoughts in the minds of the faithful that are, in fact, not Church doctrine but have just the same become an integral part of Her fabric. The Church is very clear in Her belief in the doctrine of Purgatory, but, unfortunately, not everything taught by Her members, leadership, or lay is official Church Doctrine.
God is the God of Love. He is truly Love, who sent His Son, Jesus, to die on a cross for our sins. Jesus paid the price for our sins that we could not pay in 10,000,000 years in a place called Purgatory.
So what is Purgatory? Purgatory is a place where we go to deal with our past sins, but not as a penalty or punishment. Purgatory is a place of healing. There is a huge difference between the penalty for sin, which the Blood of Christ covered, and the effect that sin has on our souls. Sin leaves scars and pain upon on our souls, perceived by us or not, that are in need of the healing touch of Christ. When we enter into God’s Throne Room in Heaven, we will be whole beings free from “spot or wrinkle” (Ephesians 5:27). Jesus is our healer, and He “who began a good work in you will continue to complete it until the day of Christ Jesus” (Philippians 1:6).
Pope John Paul II described Purgatory as a “condition of existence” rather than a physical place. The goal of every believer should be to grow as close as possible to the Father, not just simply to enter into Heaven. God is perfect, and Holy and His habitation is Glory. As we move closer to Him, we become Holy as He is Holy (1st Peter 1:16 & Leviticus 20:26). In this world, we become entangled (Hebrews 12:1) in a web of sin. Our only hope of becoming freed from this web is the healing touch of our Savior (Romans 7:25).
God is most concerned with the “condition” of our “existence” (our souls). We are here on earth for a reason. None of us is entirely sure of why we are here or the ultimate goal of our existence (1st Corinthians 13:12), but we need to understand that God loves us and that He will not stop until every one of us, who loves Him, is made whole and has reached the goal that He has for us to achieve, the most important of which is to be with Him in Eternity.
In summary, this book has two main goals.
The first is to help our Protestant brothers and sisters gain a better understanding of Purgatory and likewise, perhaps gain a better understanding of our Catholic faith through a few of the rabbit trails that will come up throughout the book.
The second is to give our Catholic brothers and sisters the resources to better explain our faith. Protestant or Catholic, I hope you enjoy this part of our journey together.
The next two chapters cover the subjects of “Holiness” and the “Nature of God.” These two subjects are foundational to understanding the need for this “condition of existence” called Purgatory.