The Israelites were finally free from the hands of the Egyptians. God heard their cries, had compassion upon them, performed mighty miracles and drove them out of their bondage and into a new world. He promised them “a land flowing with milk and honey” (Exodus 3:8) where they could worship him in freedom. But what stood between Egypt and the Promised Land? “He made them wander in the wilderness forty years, until all the generation that had done evil in the sight of the Lord was consumed” (Numbers 32:13).
Even in the Old Testament the evil had to be consumed. It had to be purged before they could enter into the Promised Land. Once again, this Old Testament account has a New Testament spiritual fulfillment that impacts our lives personally and practically today. In St. John’s vision of Heaven, he proclaims, “...nothing unclean shall enter it, nor any one who practices abomination or falsehood…” (Revelation 21:27).
Nothing unclean exists in Heaven; everything else will fade. Only love shall pass through the grave into eternal life. This reality should represent our ultimate examination of conscience. Have we reached the state of becoming pure love? If you are anything like me, the easy answer is “no”. Therefore, by definition there is a great deal of purging that still needs to take place in our hearts. This is not entirely different than what the Israelites had to overcome, a pathway through purification.
The three states or “ways” of the spiritual life are the Purgative State, the Illuminative State, and the Unitive State. Unfortunately, there is no possible way for us to bypass the first step! During this Purgative state, the soul begins by actively working to overcome vices and sins. Later, God himself will father the soul through a more passive purgation. We will circle back to active and passive purgation later in our journey.
For souls who are on the pathway to God but have yet to be fully cleansed of imperfections, our hope is that the merciful Father will allow them to continue this process in the next life. This condition is known as purgatory. You see, sin has both temporal and eternal consequences. Jesus’ death and resurrection, if we accept it, has saved us from the eternal consequences of sin; a.k.a. hell.
Nonetheless, even though we are forgiven and saved from the eternal abyss there are still temporal consequences, consequences in time, that we have to deal with. This purification process begins right now, but if it is not completed on earth, because of God’s unfathomable mercy he allows us to finish it even after death. In Purgatory, souls are refined in the fire of God’s mercy and love and all that is impure and unclean is burned away. When the soul is completely full of love and love alone, it passes into Heaven.
Purification must take place one way or another. In this life, we are granted the freedom to choose it. In the next, the choice is no longer ours. In one of his famous Wednesday audiences, St. John Paul II proclaimed to the gathered crowd, “We are invited to 'cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit' (2 Cor 7:1; cf. 1 Jn 3:3), because the encounter with God [Heaven] requires absolute purity. Every trace of attachment to evil must be eliminated, every imperfection of the soul corrected. Purification must be complete, and indeed this is precisely what is meant by the Church's teaching on Purgatory. The term does not indicate a place, but a condition of existence” (General Audience, 4 August 1999).
My friends, our goal is to pass through the Purgative state in this life. This is God’s desire for every soul. In modern times, we do health and diet cleanings. Significant money is spent on intensive exercise routines and workout regimens. It’s time to experience for ourselves a deeper spiritual workout and cleansing. We said earlier that when you swim in the ocean, you start to smell like fish. The reality is we may stink more than we know, and some significant elbow grease may be required to wash it all away.
Our Pathway Through the Wilderness The time has come to courageously and willfully enter into the wilderness with Christ. He calls us. He longs to show us a new way and a new life. Undergoing a death and a resurrection, we will be made whole.
“Therefore, behold, I will allure her, and bring her into the wilderness, and speak tenderly to her” (Hosea 2:14).
The Lord desires to speak to our hearts, gently and directly. In order to be intimate we must leave the world, so to speak, and go away with him. All our cares, worldly distractions and desires must be set aside. He is leading and, in love, we must follow. In the desert, we rediscover our thirst.
In this section, each day we will be given a new spiritual practice. Some are designed specifically for purification, while others are designed more specifically for union with God, which will enkindle love. Without love, we are bankrupt and none of this will amount to anything. “The interior penance of the Christian can be expressed in many and various ways. Scripture and the Fathers insist above all on three forms, fasting, prayer, and almsgiving” (CCC 1434).
• Fasting (mortification) develops depth to overcome weaknesses of the flesh. • Almsgiving (charity) helps us to overcome the world by rightly ordering the goods of this world. • Prayer unites us to God and enkindles love, which helps us to withstand the assaults of the devil.
Today, we begin our first spiritual practice. As one of our most precious and limited resources, let us put 'first things first’ and give God our time. His tender voice will be our guide as he begins to speak gently to our hearts. His love will carry us through.