I recently had breakfast with three couples from Quebec who were staying at the same home that my friend and I were. They were speaking French and my friend was translating for me, as we talked of the differences between Quebec and the United States (they liked our roads, we liked that they sat out on their porches). Soon, they turned the subject to our belief in the after-life. The quick change in topic revealed that they were evangelical Christians. It is not the first time I have met people with their beliefs who raise the matter early upon meeting me. When they find out I was born Jewish and thus chosen (for what?), they get more curious. I tell them that Jews dont talk much about the afterlife except for some vague reference to being gathered up amongst our people. No one talks of Heaven or Hell. Some Jewish sects believe in reincarnation, and some of the faithful dont believe in anything at all. The evangelicals find this answer unsatisfying and proceed to explain that since Jesus is their personal savior and died for their sins that they are going to heaven. Further, it is the only way to get there, since all are sinners. But these couples were Catholics before they converted, and said that Catholics believed in Purgatory as a place where you could work your way out and eventually go to Heaven. Then one of the men surprised me by stating he wished there was a purgatory. I wasnt sure why he wanted it unless he wasnt sure he had accepted Jesus enough for him to make it to Heaven. Or, perhaps, he has compassion for people like myself (and his children!) who needed another option besides eternal Hell.
Purgatory, as explained, seems vague. I do know that the Catholic hierarchy no longer makes the claim, as they did during the Middle Ages, that with a healthy donation to the church you could buy an indulgence, get out of purgatory, and go directly to Heaven. Purgatory is defined as a place where–through suffering–you can show your worth and redeem yourself. That said, I think if there is Purgatory, we are in it. This world is it. It is here that we are tested and do battle with all the temptations of life, where discipline and self-control collide with forbidden fruit. Our conscience faces off against selfishness and greed. Love does battle with evil. Graciousness and forgiveness versus revenge and hate. Courage takes on fear. Reason clashes with delusion and superstition. Our inborn dysfunctional tendencies rise up and challenge us to overcome them. Perseverance squares off with failure. Strength and resourcefulness go at it with disaster and strife. This is life without the glitter and glitz. It is here where progress is made, detours are taken, the high fall, and the low rise. Each path is unique and no coherent map is available. What we do here matters. Each person progresses in consciousness, or not, depending on how they live. The opportunity is available, though it may not be fun or easy or desirable, but it can be instructive, inspirational, and revelatory.
The ascent to Heaven or the plunge to Hell is beyond our ken. Our senses and science have little to offer in this area, and faith is all over the map. The only answer I have is what I told the evangelist when he pressed me on how I, as a Jew, (and yoga practitioner who believes in reincarnation and an ocean of consciousness. I think that one threw them for a loop), dealt with the afterlife. I told him: I try not to worry about the next world or even think about it much. What matters is how I do and progress in this one.