Swimming the Tiber 30: We Are the Branches

Then [he] throws water into the washing-vessel and [he] began to wash the feet of the disciples and to wipe [them] with the cloth with which [he] was girded. So [he] comes before Simon Peter. [He] says to him, “Lord, thouMost languages distinguish between singular and plural second-person pronouns; English is fairly distinctive that it does not. I have used the older English singular pronouns and retained the plural “you” where the Greek is plural. For more information on how to read my translations, see the relevant page at 31prayers.com. are washing my feet?” Having answered, Jesus also said to him, “What I am doing thou do not know now, but [thou] will come to know [it] after these things.” Peter says to him, “[Thou] must not ever wash my feet.”Lit. “[Thou] must/shall not (emphatic prohibitive subjunctive) wash my feet unto the age.” Jesus answered him, “If [I] do not wash thee, [thou] do not have a share with me.” Simon Peter says to him, “Lord, not my feet only, but also [my] hands and [my] head.” Jesus says to him, “The [one] having been bathed does not have a need if not to wash [his] feet, but [the] whole [of him] is purged; and you are purged, but not all [of you].

– John 13:5-10, my translation (emphasis original)

I am the grape-vine, and my father is the vine-dresser. Every vine-twig in me not bearing fruit, [he] will raise it up, and every [one] bearing fruit, [he] will purge it in order that [it] may bear more fruit. You are already purged on account of the word which [I] have said to you: remain in me, and I in you. Just as the vine-twig does not have power to bear fruit from itself if [it] does not remain in the grape-vine, thus neither [do] you if [you] do not remain in me. I am the grape-vine, you the vine-twigs. The [one] remaining in me and I in him, this [one] bears much fruit, because apart from me [you] do not have power to do anything. If anyone does not remain in me, [he] was thrown out as a branch and was dried up, and [they] gather them together and [they] throw [them] into the fire and [the branches] are burned.

– John 15:1-6, my translation (emphasis original)

As Christians, we know there are basically two options when it comes to death: there is a second (eternal) life with God, and a second (eternal) death without him. But when I was a Protestant, we didn’t talk much about the logistics, for lack of a better term. The closest I remember getting, even in theological classes, was a summation along the lines of a “snow-covered dunghill.”1

Basically, what I learned (or taught myself through reasoning based in my own wretchedness) was this: In life, we do bad things, but it’s okay, because whenever God looks at us, he sees Jesus instead. So it’s like…

You can see us a bit there in the back.

And since God sees Jesus when he looks at us, we don’t really have to change (though we should really try to, all the same). So when we keep sinning in life, we trust that God will fix all that after death. On our way to heaven, we will be purified and all our sins will be purged away in a great big fell swoop.

Only that doesn’t make any sense. Recall my posts on original sin and reconciliation and venial versus mortal sins. Consider Matthew 5:48; John 5:14; 8:11; Romans 6; 2 Corinthians 7:1; Hebrews 6:1-12; 10:14, 26-31; James 1:2-4, 25-27; and 1 Peter 2:21-24. God’s plan is not for us to sneak past his judgment by hiding under Jesus’ robes; his plan is for us to be purified, sanctified, and made truly holy and perfect in his sight.

But what happens when we aren’t perfect? This applies to the overwhelming majority of us, myself included. Far be it from me to suggest otherwise. What if we die before we’re perfect? Well, if we are willfully disobedient to God, committing mortal sins with all the intent and desire that goes along with that, then we are not living according to God’s love and we must cast ourselves on the mercy of God.

But if, on the other hand, our sins are not mortal, but merely venial, where do we stand? We are not willfully opposing God’s desires, but clinging tepidly to our old selves, our old desires. St. Francis de Sales (my dear friend of a saint) writes this about venial sin and sinful affections in his Introduction to the Devout Life:

Even so there are penitents who forsake sin, yet without forsaking their sinful affections; that is to say, they intend to sin no more, but it goes sorely against them to abstain from the pleasures of sin; they formally renounce and forsake sinful acts, but they turn back many a fond lingering look to what they have left, like Lot’s wife as she fled from Sodom. They are like a sick man who abstains from eating melon when the doctor says it would kill him, but who all the while longs for it, talks about it, bargains when he may have it, would at least like just to sniff the perfume, and thinks those who are free to eat of it very fortunate. And so these weak cowardly penitents abstain awhile from sin, but reluctantly; they would fain be able to sin without incurring damnation;–they talk with a lingering taste of their sinful deeds, and envy those who are yet indulging in the like.

– St. Francis de Sales, Introduction to the Devout Life 1.7
(2002 adaptions of the 1876 English translation)

The relevant story of Lot’s wife, for reference, is in Genesis 19.

I invite you to look again at the passages from John at the top of this post and to consider also Philippians 3:12-21 and especially 1 Corinthians 3:10-15. This is the essence of my post: that God intends to purify us from our sin. That’s it. We’re not snow-covered dunghills or demons wearing Jesus masks; we are, rather, the adopted sons and daughters of God and by his power we are cleansed from our sin and we have the capacity to go and sin no more. Like the apostles, we have been cleansed once by baptism (bathed), but we walk about in the world, and our feet get dirty (sinful affections and venial sins). We must be cleansed of those as well before the whole of us is clean, at which point we will bear much fruit (as long as we remain in Christ).

But if we die with our feet dirty, still they must be cleaned, because God cannot be united to sin (1 Corinthians 6:14-17). In Catholic theology, the process of washing the feet of the faithful one last time, of purging them of their venial sins and sinful affections, is called Purgatory. Purgatory is not a third destination, aside from heaven and hell–rather, everyone who goes to Purgatory is en route to heaven, where they will enjoy union with God. Between their death and God, though, they must be cleansed of the last vestiges of sin, now not by water but by fire (see again 1 Corinthians 3).

This may sound somewhat familiar; that’s because post-death sanctification is what I described as my belief when I was a Protestant–that is, we become holy after death by the grace of God. In traditional Catholic teaching, this purgation takes time (prompting us to pray for the quick purification and release of those in Purgatory), but Pope Benedict XVI elaborated in his encyclical Spe Salvi that time is immaterial in Purgatory:

It is clear that we cannot calculate the “duration” of this transforming burning in terms of the chronological measurements of this world. The transforming “moment” of this encounter eludes earthly time-reckoning—it is the heart’s time, it is the time of “passage” to communion with God in the Body of Christ.

– Pope Benedict XVI, Spe Salvi 47

I highly encourage you to read the rest of that encyclical, but it is fairly long.

But if Purgatory can be instantaneous, what’s the use of praying for people who experience it? Well, in part, it goes back to 2 Maccabees 12:38-45; this became Christian tradition because it was first Jewish tradition. The rest of it goes back to the point of time: Purgatory isn’t “instantaneous” or “long,” but outside of time, like heaven and hell. So our prayers can be efficacious because the prayer is not about the time (though it might be explained that way to stay simple) but about the people. We are a Christian family (and a human family), and our lives affect the lives of those around us constantly. Praying for others helps us (because it teaches us to be charitable and care for others first) and it helps others (because prayer is effective–see Matthew 21:22, et al). For more comments on that subject, see again Pope Benedict’s encyclical linked above.

And that, in a very small nutshell, is the idea behind Purgatory. Once I understood the details of it, I wasn’t bothered by it so much, so I don’t have quite as much to say as others might. Next week, we’ll use this understanding of Purgatory as a jumping-board into a historical look at the Church, focused especially on those events and activities people use to condemn Catholicism (which I will collectively call the “scandals” of the Church).

1 It’s important to note that this is not a real quote from the Protestant Reformation. It is often attributed to Luther, but it can’t quite be found in Luther’s written works. It is, however, fairly representative of Luther’s thought on the total depravity of man and his justification by grace–in short, that we are so completely corrupt that even our attempts to do good are mortal sins and that only the grace of God can hide (but not remove) our wretchedness. See here for more notes on the subject. Or return to where you left off.

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