C.S. Lewis’ fictional story of Eustace and the dragon represents an epic visual illustration into the reality of the two types of purification that a soul must endure: active and passive purgation. The Catechism seeks to more clearly define the distinction between the two:
“Penance...can consist of prayer, an offering, works of mercy, service of neighbor, voluntary self-denial, sacrifices, and above all the patient acceptance of the cross we must bear” (CCC 1460).
The first half of the statement could be defined as ‘active’ purgation highlighting prayer, offerings, works of mercy, service of neighbor, voluntary self-denial and sacrifices. This is precisely where our time has been spent thus far. As a necessity in the spiritual life, we have to do our part and willfully enter into ongoing self-denial. The good news is we have been active in our purgation specifically in context of the seven deadly sins, likely wrestling with a pretty extensive list of action items.
Over the next few days we will make a shift and focus on the second half from the Catechism or what we could call ‘passive’ purgation, “above all the patient acceptance of the cross we must bear.” The hard work we have been putting in is required, but unfortunately it can only get us so far. Recall Eustace (as the dragon) ripping the first three layers of scales off his body and peeling off his skin only to find another deeper layer. It wasn’t until he allowed Aslan to do the purging that the cleansing was fully complete.
Reflecting upon the insight from St. John of the Cross, one of the greatest masters in the spiritual life within the life of the Church, “No matter how much individuals do through their own efforts, they cannot actively purify themselves enough to be disposed in the least degree for the divine union of the perfect love. God must take over and purge them in that fire that is dark for them” (The Dark Night of the Soul, 1.3.3).
To truly be liberated out of the Purgative state and overcome our sins and vices we must allow God full access. We must allow God to take over the process.
When we submit ourselves fully, totally abandoned to the will of God, the Lord can do amazing things. Are we able to let go? Do we trust in his gentleness, compassion and mercy? Do we believe in his plan for our lives? Bottom line, how badly do we really want to be free? These are the deep-seated questions we must ask ourselves and how we answer these questions changes everything. Up until this point we have worked hard to strengthen our will through the active works of prayer, fasting and almsgiving to be able to graciously accept the daily crosses that come our way.
The daily crosses are both big and small and the inconveniences of life still apply: difficulties at work, challenging economic times, daily traffic, annoying or non-agreeable people, physical or mental illnesses, endless medical bills, being falsely accused or constantly misunderstood, having your heart broken, being betrayed by a friend, loss of job, loss of a loved one, and so on and so forth. Life is hard. At times, the circumstances can seem almost unbearable. Passive purgation, the “patient acceptance of the cross we must bear”, can carry us through our final step of the Purgative state and into the Illuminative state where we truly become a new creation in Christ. Once again, it’s God's initiative to bring us into true freedom and union with him.
Let us return for a moment to “The Voyage of the Dawn Treader” and reread this account based on our deeper understanding. Like Eustace, the active purgation prepares us for the passive:
Then the lion said… “You will have to let me undress you.” “I was afraid of his claws...but I was pretty nearly desperate now. So, I just lay flat down on my back to let him do it. The very first tear he made was so deep that I thought it had gone right into my heart...it hurt worse than anything I’ve ever felt. The only thing that made me able to bear it was just the pleasure of feeling the stuff peel off...Well, he peeled the beastly stuff right off - just as I thought I’d done it myself the other times…I started swimming and splashing [and] I found that all the pain had gone from my arm.
And then I saw why. I’d turned into a boy again...After a bit the lion took me out and dressed me...in new clothes.”
Eustace was transformed from boy to dragon based on greed and selfishness. He was transformed back into a boy again only after a recognition of his utter depravity. He became contrite of heart. It was then that Aslan reached into his heart to a place so deep, unreachable for Eustace on his own. Eustace was free! In fact, more free than he was before the process even began.
God can bring a greater good out of every evil. No matter what you’ve done and where you’ve been God has the power to make all things new, including your heart:
“Fear not, stand firm, and see the salvation of the Lord, which he will work for you today...The Lord will fight for you, and you have only to be still” (Exodus 14:13-14).
Turning our hearts to God, let us spend a few moments in prayerful reflection: “Lord, I come before you empty, transparent before you. You know my heart, my holy desires, and yet you know my shortcomings, my selfishness and my brokenness. Strip me of everything that is not of you so that I can be truly free. Help me rid myself of all but love. Make me into a living flame of your love. Lord, have your way with me.”