Object Permanence: Purgatory, Spiritual Realities Denial

in purgatory

Life, As I Find It

I remember reading about a condition, long thought to exist in babies, where an item only existed if it was within sight. The moment it went out of sight, it no longer existed. The phenomenon was called “Object Permanence” and many psychologists have subscribed to the notion, especially for children under six months of age.

The idea of “Object Permanence” came to mind recently when I was discussing Purgatory with a Protestant relative. I put the concept into the simplest terms:

Imagine that a part of my backyard has become soaked from a summer rain. It’s muddy and almost swamp-like. It even stinks. But the sun has broken through and my two children want to play out back. I agree, but give them strict orders to stay away from the swamp-like muddy part. In the course of playing, they wind up in the mud, slopping around in it, having a blast. Eventually, they have to stop and come back inside. They’re covered with mud from head to toe. They stink. And there I am, arms folded, foot tapping.

Two realities are upon us. One is how they’ve disobeyed me. That’s an issue I must deal with as their father. They sincerely apologize for their misbehavior. It’s a full repentance. So I readily forgive them for their disobedience. But we have another problem: they’re covered in mud and they stink. I tell them that they must bathe. And not only must they bathe, but they’ll need a hard scrubbing. It’s going to hurt a bit to get them clean again. And so it goes.

“That’s the idea of Purgatory,” I said.

To back up what I’d said, I even invoked that great Protestant saint CS Lewis, who described Purgatory in a similar vein: though he positioned it as a man in rags preparing to meet the King.

I waited for her response. She shrugged and said, “I can’t believe in that.” And, with her declaration, Purgatory was no more.

Her answer didn’t challenge the truth of what I’d said, only that she couldn’t believe in it.

In my mind, I went back to my journey towards Catholicism and how I’d reacted to Purgatory in much the same way. In fact, I went further. I began to think that if I didn’t consent to believing in it, then it couldn’t exist. Out of sight, out of mind. Object Permanence.

I then realized how ridiculous I was being. The Statue of Liberty exists whether I want to believe in it or not. The slums of India, however unpleasant, exist whether I believe in them or not. Likewise, Truth is Truth, whether I believe in it or not.

I’m afraid we live in a generation – where so many false spiritualities are in place – where it’s easy to think that I can believe in one thing, which makes it true for me, while you can believe in another thing, and its equally true. Or, worse, I can subscribe to a form of “Object Permanence” and simply put the thing out of my mind so that it won’t exist anymore.

This is, at best, a terrible mistake and, at worst, a terrible lie. Wishful thinking doesn’t make for good theology. Neither does denial. Allowing our gazes to be turned away from the Truth doesn’t make it disappear.

And so I think about the task we have as we try to spread the Love and Truth of Christ to this generation – to suggest that God’s Truth, as represented by His Holy Catholic Church, is as true as the force of Gravity or the need for Air. It’s not an option. It doesn’t go away if we choose not to believe in it.

But how? What more can we do except show them our witness for Christ and pray for their response. Perhaps they’ll respond as Agrippa did with Paul in Acts 26. Almost convinced, but not quite, and walk out. Or as Thomas did, with his exclamation of “My Lord and My God!” Jesus replied with, “Blessed are those who have not seen, but still believe.

Clearly, no one had taught Jesus about “Object Permanence.”

And such is life as I find it.


Art for this post on Purgatory: An Angel Frees the Souls of Purgatory, Ludovico Carracci, circa 1610, PD-US, Wikimedia Commons.

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