Circular Letter: November 2000
On Holy Purity
Who shall climb the mountain of the Lord? And who shall stand in his holy place? He who has clean hands and a pure heart, who does not lift up his soul to what is false, and who does not swear deceitfully. He will receive blessing from the Lord and vindication from the God of his salvation. Such is the generation of those who seek him, who seek the face of the God of Jacob. (Ps 23:3-6)
Blessed are the pure of heart, they shall see God.(Mat 5:8)
I. The Purity of Angels, Men, and the Physical Creation
A. Purity as the Goal of Our Pilgrimage
The ultimate goal of angel, man, and the whole of the physical creation in the glorious wedding feast of the Lamb is described by St. John in the Book of Revelation: “‘Alleluia! The Lord our God the Almighty reigns. Let us rejoice and exult and give him glory, for the marriage of the Lamb has come, and his Bride has made herself ready; it was granted her to be clothed with fine linen, bright and pure’–for the fine linen is the righteous deeds of the saints” (Rev 19:7-8).
The precondition for entering into this Wedding Feast is the purity of heart. In the Old Testament, the vessels of the temple had to be pure gold. So also in the heavenly Jerusalem, those who are vessels of God’s love in heaven are pure (Rev 21:18-21, 27). For this reason St. Paul instructed the Thessalonians: “This is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from immorality; that each of you know how to control his own body in holiness and honor, not in the passion of lust like the heathen who do not know God; that no man transgress, and wrong his brother in this matter, because the Lord is an avenger in all these things, as we solemnly forewarned you. For God has not called us for uncleanness, but in holiness. Therefore whoever disregards this, disregards not man, but God, who gives his Holy Spirit to you” (1Thes 4:3-8).
Although we often think of purity solely in terms of chastity, the Church recognizes a far wider understanding of purity. The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches: “‘Pure of heart’ refers to those who have attuned their intellects and wills to the demands of God’s holiness, chiefly in three areas: charity; chastity or sexual rectitude; love of truth and orthodoxy of faith. There is a connection between purity of heart, or body, and of faith.”
In this conference we will consider the purity of the angels, of man, and of the physical creation. We will also discuss some practical means to work for the purification of those things that have been defiled in man and creation.
B. Purity of the Angels
The holy angels are already pure. They have been purified by the light of God, that is, by his Word. Christ is the purity of the angels. St. John of the Cross taught that the created intellect must pass through a kind of dark purification in order to attain union with the divine light. “That the intellect reach union with the divine light and become divine in the state of perfection, [a] dark contemplation must first purge and annihilate it of its natural light and bring it actually into obscurity. It is fitting that this darkness last as long as is necessary for the expulsion and annihilation of the intellect’s habitual way of understanding, and that divine light and illumination take its place.”
This is a purification which takes place in and through the Truth. “The very wisdom of God…purges the angels of their ignorances and gives them understanding by illuminating them on matters they are ignorant of.” The angels are made pure by the supernatural light of truth. Those who reject this truth become a lie. Satan is a liar from the very beginning and the father of all lies. St. Augustine wrote:
“The true Light, which enlightens every man that comes into the world,”–this Light also enlightens every pure angel, that he may be light not in himself, but in God; from whom if an angel turn away, he becomes impure, are all those who are called unclean spirits, and are no longer light in the Lord, but darkness in themselves, being deprived of the participation of Light eternal. For evil has no positive nature; but the loss of good has received the name “evil.”
The impurity of the angels consists in their turning away from God. They became “untrue” to God and to themselves. Therefore, their impurity is essentially their apostasy from faith.
C. Purity of Men
Man was created to be able to know and love God and serve Him through his body. He was created as a temple, and a microcosmos. This is beautifully expressed by St. Clement of Alexandria, who speaks about how the Word of God fashioned man in harmony and to be a temple:
And He who is of David, and yet before him, the Word of God, despising the lyre and harp, which are but lifeless instruments, and having tuned by the Holy Spirit the universe, and especially man,–who, composed of body and soul, is a universe in miniature (microcosmos), makes melody to God on this instrument of many tones; and to this instrument–I mean man–he sings accordant: “For thou art my harp, and pipe and temple.”–a harp for harmony–a pipe by reason of the Spirit–a temple by reason of the word; so that the first may sound, the second breath, the third contain the Lord.”
When St. Paul taught the Corinthians that they were the temple of God he was not inventing some new doctrine. “For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple” (1 Cor 3:17). Christ had already indicated that his body was a temple. When he cleansed the temple in Jerusalem of the money changers, the High Priests asked what sign he could give to show that he had authority to do such a thing. He responded, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will build it again.” Although they distorted this in the trial by saying that he had the intention of destroying the temple, they knew what he was saying. “But he spoke of the temple of his body” (Jn 2:21). They set a guard at his tomb based upon this one-time prediction of his resurrection. They knew what He was saying because it was not an uncommon notion that man was created to be a microcosmos, and that the cosmos was the temple of God.
This gives a special indication of the need for the purity of man. Just as the temple must be preserved from profanation and defilement, so also the body and soul of man.
1. Causes of Impurity
Like the angels, man, too, becomes impure as a consequence of his turning from God and toward some created good. In general, we speak of purity in terms of a precious substance being free from any admixture of another substance of lesser value. We would not call a baser metal which has traces of gold “impure.” It is more ennobled than impure. Whereas gold that has lesser metals mixed in is impure. So also with the soul. The soul can be joined through love to that which is superior, that is God, but not to things that are below. The soul which turns from its goal, the Creator, to immerse itself into creation becomes impure. St. John of the Cross once wrote:
The soul that carries within itself the least appetite for worldly things bears more unseemliness and impurity in its journey to God than if it were troubled by all the hideous and annoying temptations and darknesses describable; for, so long as it does not consent to these temptations, a soul thus tried can approach God confidently, by doing the will of His Majesty, who proclaims: Come to me, all you who labor and are heavily burdened, and I will refresh you (Mt 11:28).
2. Turning to Material Goods
Our love for material goods must be ordered by the love of charity as St. Clement of Alexandria explained:
Into the impure soul the grace of God finds no entrance. And that soul is unclean which is rich in lusts, and is in the throes of many worldly affections. For he who holds possessions, and silver and gold, and houses, as gifts of God; and ministers from them to the God who gives them for the salvation of men; and knows that he possesses them more for the sake of the brethren than his own; and is superior to the possession of them, not the slave of the things he possesses; and does not carry them about in his soul, nor bind and circumscribe his life within them, but is ever laboring at some good and divine work, even should he be necessarily some time or other deprived of them, is able with cheerful mind to bear their removal equally with their abundance. This is he who is blessed by the Lord, and called poor in spirit, a meet heir of the kingdom of heaven.
St. Paul equates covetousness with idolatry: “Be sure of this, that no immoral or impure man, or one who is covetous (that is, an idolater) has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God” (Eph 5:5). In turn, all the prophets of the Old Testament equated idolatry with adultery towards God (e.g., Hos 1:2). St. Paul also speaks about how the sin of idolatry leads to actual sins against chastity: “Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man or birds or animals or reptiles. Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves because they exchanged the worship of God for a lie and worshipped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever. Amen!” (Rom 1:22-25).
3. Sins against Chastity
Generally speaking, one of the most common enslaving form of turning to creatures is through sins against chastity. (Other addictions such as drug abuse are not as common, but perhaps more enslaving.) Because it is something that can so easily captivate man’s mind, heart, and body, this sin more than any other is called impurity. As this sin has a particularly devastating effect on the sanctity of the soul, St. Paul warned the Corinthians: “Shun immorality. Every other sin which a man commits is outside the body; but the immoral man sins against his own body. Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God? You are not your own, you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body” (1Cor 6:18).
D. Purity of Physical Creation
In addition to the purity of man, and angel, so also the physical creation is also called to purity. This is also reflected in the fact that the cosmos is also created as God’s holy temple. Dr. Scott Hahn wrote: “The account of Creation teaches the most fundamental truth about the world, that it was formed to be a holy place for God’s indwelling presence and man’s priestly worship in sacrifice. In other words, God wants us to view the world as a macrotemple.”
Cause of Impurity of the Creation
The physical creation, however has been rendered impure as a consequence of the fall of Adam. Man’s sin has a defiling and corrupting effect on creation. “Cursed is the ground because of you” (Gen 3:17). St. Thomas Aquinas wrote:
On account of sin, corporeal things contract a certain unfittingness for being appointed to spiritual purposes. For example, places where crimes took place are unfit for sacred rites, unless they be cleansed first. Accordingly, that part of the world which is given to our use contracts from man’s sins a certain unfittingness for being glorified, wherefore it needs to be cleansed.
This truth is reflected in the Old Testament. When God gave Moses the Law, he warned the people of Israel: “But you shall keep my statutes and ordinances and do none of these abominations, either the native or the stranger who sojourns among you (for all of these abominations the men of the land did, who were before you, so that the land became defiled); lest the land vomit you out when you defile it, as it vomited out the nation that was before you” (Lev 18:26-28). When the people of Israel disregarded the Law of God, the prophet Jeremiah told them “…you have polluted the land with your vile harlotry” (Jer 3:2). And eventually, the people were “vomited” out of the land by means of the “Babylonian captivity.”
II. The Means of Purification
A. Purification of Man
When we speak of the purification of man, we note that it is twofold. St. John of the Cross wrote, “A bird caught in birdlime has a twofold task: It must free itself and cleanse itself. And by satisfying their appetites, people suffer in a twofold way: They must detach themselves and, after being detached, clean themselves of what has clung to them.” It is not to be thought that we become pure simply by avoiding or freeing ourselves from defiling elements. There is also needed an active process of purification. But first we have to get rid of the sources of impurity.
1. Preventative Measures: Custody of the Senses
Strict custody of the senses protects the soul from the many defilements that come through them. In preparation for ordination, there used to be the minor orders. One of which was porter. He was given the task of guarding the door of the church to determine who or what could enter. This is an important function of our common priesthood in Christ: to guard the temple of God from defilement. All the senses are the gateways of the soul, over which we are to have vigilance.
This is especially the case with the eyes. “Remember that a greedy eye is a bad thing. What has been created more greedy than the eye?” (Sir 31:13). The television and Internet and other such things pander to the greed of the eye. “The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is sound, your whole body will be full of light; but if your eye is not sound, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!” (Mat 6:22-23).
2. Against the Idolatry of Covetousness
Beyond the dangers against chastity, man must guard the heart against covetousness. Pharisees were known for their covetousness and their concern for material wealth. Christ, therefore, reprimanded them: “Now you Pharisees cleanse the outside of the cup and the dish, but inside you are all full of extortion and wickedness. You fools! Did not he who made the outside make the inside also? But give for alms those things which are within; and behold, everything is clean for you” (Lk 11:39-41, emphasis mine). Here, our Lord gives the surest remedy to the danger of defilement in this regard: “Give for alms those things that are within.” That is to say, those things which are your “treasure,” where your heart is, give them as alms. Then you will be clean.
St. Paul warned the early Christians to not associate with idolatry:
What agreement has the temple of God with idols? For we are the temple of God; as God said, “I will live in them and move among them, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. Therefore, come out from them, and be separate from them, says the Lord, and touch nothing unclean; then I will welcome you, and I will be a father to you, and you shall be my sons and daughters, says the Lord Almighty.” Since we have these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit, and make holiness perfect in the fear of the Lord. (2 Cor 6:16-7:1)
“Come out from among them and touch nothing unclean!” We must live in the world but must not be contaminated by the idolatry which is so prevalent in the world: materialism, commercialism, consumerism. This calls for a “custody of the heart.” For as our Lord taught, “What comes out of man is what defiles a man. For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, fornication, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these things come from within, and they defile a man” (Mk 7:20-23).
In addition, there is the custody of the tongue which is so very important: “But all immortality and all impurity or covetousness must not even be named among you, as is fitting among saints. Let there be no filthiness, not silly talk, not levity, which are not fitting; but instead let there be thanksgiving. Be sure of this, that no immoral or impure man, or one who is covetous (that is, an idolater) has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God” (Eph 5:3-5).
Beyond the freeing of oneself, there is also the task of purgation. Our principal means of purification comes to us through the sacraments. The first is Baptism. St. Paul teaches its cleansing power: “Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish” (Eph 5:25-27).
For all sins committed after our Baptism, especially mortal sins, Christ has given the Church the sacrament of Confession to cleanse our souls of the “dust” that we collect along the way. This is reflected in what our Lord did to his apostles before the institution of the Sacraments of the Eucharist and Holy Orders. He washed their feet. When Peter suggested that he wash his head and body as well our Lord replied: “He who has bathed does not need to wash, except for his feet, but he is clean all over; and you are clean, but not all of you’” (Jn 12:10-11). They had already been Baptized, and now, in preparation for ordination, following the prescriptions of the ordination rite instituted for Aaron, he cleanses their feet. This is seen by some Scripture commentators to point to the Sacrament of Confession, which would only be fully instituted after Jesus’ Resurrection.
Another powerful means of purgation is provided in the Church’s dispensation of indulgences. Indulgences are the Church’s way of indicating and distributing the means of removing “temporal punishment due to sin.” As explained in the Catechism of the Catholic Church:
Every sin, even venial, entails an unhealthy attachment to creatures, which must be purified either here on earth, or after death in the state of Purgatory. This purification frees one from what is called “temporal punishment” of sin. This punishment must not be conceived of as a kind of vengeance inflicted by God from without, but as following from the very nature of sin. A conversion which proceeds from a fervent charity can attain the complete purification of the sinner in such a way that no punishment would remain.
Prayer, alms-giving, penances, and the public profession of the faith are four ways to gain indulgences and, therefore, very effective means of freeing oneself of the “unhealthy attachment to creatures.” We are to pray as David in the Old Testament, “Create in me a clean heart” (Ps 51:12). St. John of the Cross explains: “Souls are cleansed in the other life by fire, but here on earth they are cleansed and illuminated only by love. David asked for this love when he said, “Create in me a clean heart, O God.” Cleanness of heart is nothing less than the love and grace of God. The pure of heart are called blessed by our Savior, and to call them blessed is equivalent to saying they are taken with love, for blessedness is derived from nothing else but love.” When we pray for a pure heart, we are praying for the capacity to love God completely with our heart.
5. The Word of God
One most powerful means of purity is the Word of God. Christ told his apostles the night before he died: “You are already made clean by the word which I have spoken to you. Abide in me and I in you” (Jn 15:3-4a).
The power of the Word of God is illustrated in a story told by the Russian Pilgrim. The Pilgrim met a soldier who had at one point in his life lost nearly everything due to a serious drinking habit. The soldier tried many different ways to break the habit. Nothing worked. Finally, a monk advised him to read the Gospels. Every time he was tempted to drink, he was to read one chapter of the Gospel. If the temptation continued, he was to read another, until the temptation passed. The man did not follow the advice at first. Rather, he put the Gospels into his trunk for storage. Until one day:
An irresistible desire for drink drove me hurriedly to open my trunk to get some money and rush off to the public house. But the first thing my eyes fell on was the copy of the Gospels, and all that the monk had said came back vividly to my mind. I opened the book and began to read the first chapter of St. Matthew. I got to the end of it without understanding a word. Still I remembered that the monk had said, “No matter if you do not understand, go on reading diligently.” “Come,” I said, “I must read the second chapter.” I did so and began to understand a little. So I started on the third chapter and then the barracks bell began to ring; everyone had to go to bed, no one was allowed to go out, and I had to stay where I was. When I got up in the morning I was just on the point of going out to get some wine when I suddenly thought–supposing I were to read another chapter? What would be the result? I read it and I did not go to the public-house. Again I felt the craving, and again I read a chapter. I felt a certain amount of relief. This encouraged me, and from that time on, whenever I felt the need of drink, I used to read a chapter of the Gospels. What is more, as time went on things got better and better, and by the time I had finished all four Gospel my drunkenness was absolutely a thing of the past, and I felt nothing but disgust for it. It is just twenty years now since I drank a drop of alcohol.
The Word of God purifies first as a means of separation: “For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and spirit, of joints and marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Heb 4:12). But it is also the means of conversion back to Christ, and union with him and the Father. “If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him” (Jn 14:23, emphasis mine). The keeping of the word of Christ means not only living it, but guarding it in the heart as Mary did (Lk 2:51).
6. The Struggle Against the Temptations of the Unclean Spirits
Our fight for purity is not simply with flesh and blood, but also against the impure spirits. An indication that a temptation comes from the devil is when it comes seemingly from nowhere and is vile and persistent. “Dirty, shameful thoughts in the heart are usually caused by the deceiver of the heart, the demon of fornication, and only restraint and indeed a disregard for them will prove an antidote.” Our best defense is to flee from them, to turn the mind from them. But also make a clear act of will against them. Cut through the fog screen the enemy wishes to use to cloud our thoughts. Say: “I do not desire these thoughts. I praise you God for your Wisdom and Holiness and do not permit me to offend you in any way. Jesus, I love you, I trust in your love for me. Mary, by your Immaculate Conception, make my body pure and my soul holy.”
7. The Struggle of Body Against the Spirit
Apart from the attacks of the devil against purity, we have to deal with our own body. This is expressed by St. Paul: “I delight in the law of God, in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin which dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will free me from this body of death?” (Rom 7: 22-24).
John Climacus eloquently expresses the seeming dilemma that arises due to our dual nature of body and soul:
By what rule or manner can I bind this body of mine? By what precedent can I judge him? Before I can bind him he is let loose, before I can condemn him I am reconciled to him, before I can punish him I bow down to him and feel sorry for him. How can I hate him when my nature disposes me to love him? How can I break away from him when I am bound to him forever? How can I escape from him when he is going to rise with me? How can I make him incorrupt when he has received a corruptible nature? How can I argue with him when all the arguments of nature are on his side? If I try to bind him through fasting, then I am passing judgment on my neighbor who does not fast–with the result that I am handed over to him again. If I defeat him by not passing judgment I turn proud–and I am in thrall to him once more. He is my helper and my enemy, my assistant and my opponent, a protector and a traitor. I am kind to him and he assaults me. If I wear him out he gets weak. If he has rest he becomes unruly. If I upset him he cannot stand it. If I mortify him I endanger myself. If I strike him down I have nothing left by which to acquire virtues….
What is this mystery in me? What is the principle of this mixed nature of body and soul? How can I be my own friend and my own enemy? Speak to me! Speak to me, my yoke-fellow, my nature! I cannot ask anyone else about you. How can I remain uninjured by you? …
And this is what the flesh might say in reply: “I will never tell you what you do not already know. I will speak the knowledge we both have. Within me is my begetter, the love of self. The fire that comes to me from outside is too much pampering and care. The fire within me is past ease and things long done. I conceived and give birth to sins, and they when born beget death by despair in their turn. And yet if you have learned the sure and rooted weakness within both you and me, you have manacled my hands. If you starve your longings, you have bound my feet, and they can travel no further. If you have taken up the yoke of obedience, you have cast my yoke aside. If you have taken possession of humility, you have cut off my head.”
The problem is clear. The source of difficulty is from the soul itself: “within me is my begetter,” false love of self, a pampering, care, and ease. The solution is equally clear: starve your longings, obedience, humility.
8. Starve your Longings
I once saw on a menu in a restaurant: “Give in to the urge!” Such is the motto of the pampered body, the tyrant brat formed by the indulgence of the soul. As a result, the body controls the soul, making the soul to be its handmaid. The Guardian of purity is the opposite of giving in to the urge. St. Paul wrote, “I chastise my body and bring it into subjection; lest perhaps, when I have preached to others, I myself should become a castaway” (1 Cor 9:27). Although Christ used a whip to cleanse the Temple, the type of chastisement that we observe to cleanse the temple of our body need not be so severe. But it does need to be consistent. Just as in the discipline of children there is need for very clear and consistent guidelines, so also in the discipline of the body. If you allow exceptions, the body, like any other brat, will always whine for the exception.
Disobedience to God causes disobedience in man. The disorder of the passions called concupiscence is the consequence of disobedience. The way that order is reestablished is through obedience–obedience to the law of God, to legitimate authority, and to a confessor or spiritual director.
A real key to purity is humility. It is important to note that spiritual writers teach that sometimes God will permit the evil of sins against chastity as a means of humbling a person’s pride. It is clear that God never wills any sin, and yet he will allow a person to fall into a lesser sin in order to save him from a greater, more deadly sin. Pride, especially spiritual pride, is often undetected from the part of the person who has it. Nevertheless, it has devastating consequences:
Father Olier thus explains this fact: “God Who cannot suffer pride in the soul, humbles it to the very depths; and, desiring to show the soul its weakness, and that it has no power of itself to resist evil and persevere in well doing…allows it to be tormented by those terrible temptations and at time to fall, because such temptations are the most shameful and leave behind them the greater confusion.” When on the other hand one is firmly convinced that of oneself one cannot be chaste, one repeats the humble prayer of St. Philip Neri: “My God, beware of Philip; otherwise he will betray you.”
But one must also be aware of the challenge of not falling into pride as a result of being successful in overcoming temptations to purity. It is no good being as pure as an angel, if at the same time you are as proud as the devil.
Those [who are free from temptations of the flesh] have fallen to the demon of vainglory, for since dirty thoughts no longer preoccupy their hearts they fall victim to pride. Such people discover whether or not this is true if once they have attained a certain stillness they quietly take stock of themselves. For they will then discover that deep down in their hearts, like a snake in the dung, is the notion that by their own efforts and enthusiasm they made great advances in purity. Poor wretches! They forgot the saying: “What have you got that you did not receive as a gift” (1 Cor 4:7) either from God or as a result of the help and prayers of other? Let them beware then. Let them with all zeal eject from their hearts the snake mentioned above. Let them kill it with great humility, so that when they have got rid of it they may be stripped of their garments of skin and sing, like pure children, a triumphant hymn of chastity to the Lord. Only let us hope that when they are thus stripped, they may not find that they are bereft of the humility and freedom from malice so natural to children.
B. Purification of the Material Creation
With regard to the purification of the physical creation, St. Peter wrote, “the day of the Lord will come as a thief; at that time the heavens will pass away with great violence, and the elements will be dissolved with heat, and the earth, and the works that are in it, will be burned up…the heavens being on fire will be dissolved and the elements will melt away by reason of the heat of fire. But we look for new heavens and new earth” (2 Pt 3:10-13). This burning up of the creation seems to proceed the final judgment. The theme of fire going before the judge occurs in the Old Testament:
Our God does not keep silence, before him is a devouring fire, round about him a mighty tempest. He calls to the heavens above and to the earth, that he may judge his people: “gather to me my faithful ones, who made a covenant with me by sacrifice.” The heavens declare his justice, for God himself is judge. (Ps 49:3-4)
The Lord is king, let earth rejoice, the many isle be glad. Cloud and darkness surround him, righteousness and justice support his throne. A fire precedes him as he goes, devouring all enemies around him. (Ps 97:2-3)
On the day of the Lord’s wrath, in the fire of his jealousy, all the earth will be consumed. For he means to destroy, yes, to make an end of all the inhabitants of the earth. (Soph 1:18)
The Lord you are seeking will suddenly appear…who will resist the day of his coming? Who will remain standing when he appears? For he is like the refiner’s fire and the fuller’s alkali. He will take his seat as refiner and purifier of silver… Then I will draw near to you for judgment. (Mal 3:1-5)
The question is as follows: What does this burning up of heaven and earth signify? Does it mean that the whole of the physical creation as we know it will be completely annihilated? From the quotation from St. Peter it would seem that all things in fact will vanish in complete destruction. “The heavens will pass away with great violence, and the elements and the works that are in it will be burned up.”
To answer this question, we must look at what the Sacred Scriptures and Tradition teaches in this regard. We may begin with a quote from St. Augustine who taught that the physical creation will not be destroyed. “For when judgment is finished, the heaven and earth shall cease to be, and there will be a new heaven and a new earth. For this world will pass away by transmutation, not by absolute destruction. And therefore the apostle says, ‘For the figure of this world is passing away. I would have you be without anxiety’ (1 Cor 7:31-32). The figure, therefore passes away, not the nature.”
The prophet Malachi, whom was cited above, further confirms this. In that passage the fire that goes before the judgment is clearly a fire of purification and not of total destruction. Another support is found in St. Paul: “Each man’s work will become manifest; for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed with fire, and fire will test what sort of work each one has done. If the work which any man has built on foundation survives, he will receive a reward. If any man’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire” (1 Cor 3:13-15). Although St. Paul is principally speaking of spiritual works which must be constructed on the foundation of faith in order to survive, it seems that he, at the same time, is referring to another level of reality. He speaks of that fire which will burn up all the “stubble and hay” in creation, leaving only the “gold and the precious stones” of which is built the heavenly Jerusalem. This is a figure for the purification of the material creation.
A further witness to the fact that there will be no complete destruction of any of the elements is St. Thomas Aquinas. He writes that some people held that in the final conflagration some of the elements, namely water and fire, will only survive materially while their form will be completely lost, leaving only air (the heaven) and earth which will be new. St. Thomas says that this opinion is altogether absurd and opposed to both philosophy and theology. It is especially absurd to think that the perfection of the universe can only be effected by the total destruction of the nature of some of its integral parts.
The physical creation which was created for the final state of glory is not fit for that glory. The obstacle to glory is corruption, which is a consequence of sin. “Now this I say brethren, that flesh and blood can obtain no part in the kingdom of God, neither shall corruption have any part in incorruption…for the trumpet shall sound and the dead shall rise incorruptible and we shall be changed. For this corruptible body must put on incorruption, and this mortal body must put on immortality” (1 Cor 15:50-53). The freedom from corruptibility is not only for the resurrected bodies of men, but for the whole physical creation. As St. Paul says in another place: “The whole of creation awaits in eager longing for the revelation of the sons of God. For the creation was made subject to vanity–not by its own will but by reason of him who made it subject–in hope, because creation will be delivered from its slavery to corruption into the freedom of the glory of the sons of God. For we know that all creation groans and travails in pain until now” (Rom 8:19-22). St. Augustine explains this: “By this universal conflagration the qualities of the corruptible elements which suited our corruptible bodies shall, by a wonderful transmutation, harmonize with our immortal bodies, so that, as the world itself is renewed to some better thing, it is fittingly accommodated to men, themselves renewed in their flesh to some better thing.”
How is this to be accomplished? According to the hierarchical structure of creation established by God, whereby God placed the angels over man and man over the earth, it would seem likely that the purification does not come about simply by the influence of material fire, but rather by the cooperation of man in union with the holy angels. The sanctification of creation and its liberation from slavery to the Enemy is accomplished through spiritual means such as prayer, sacramentals, and the proper use of things to the glory of God, so that the material creation, too, may be lead to its final transfiguration in Christ.
III. Purity of Mary
We cannot speak about purity without mentioning the one whom God has given to the world as the beginning and the model of our purification: Mary. As is expressed in the Mass for the Immaculate Conception: “You allowed no stain of Adam’s sin to touch the Virgin Mary. Full of grace, she was to be a worthy mother to your Son, your sign of favor to the Church at its beginning, and the promise of its perfection as the bride of Christ, radiant in beauty.” Mary was given to the Church at the beginning and as the final promise. St. Gregory Thaumaturgus indicates an important parallel which reveals the purity of Mary:
The angel addressed her first with the salutation, “Hail, thou that art highly favored, the Lord is with thee, and no spouse of earth;” He Himself is with thee who is the Lord of sanctification, the Father of purity, the Author of incorruption, and the Bestower of liberty, the Curator of salvation, the Steward and Provider of the true peace, who out of the virgin earth made man, and out of man’s side formed Eve in addition. Even this Lord is with thee, and on the other hand also is of thee.”
Just as Adam was formed of the “virgin earth,” the earth that was not stained by sin, and from the side of Adam came Eve. Similarly, from the sinless Virgin came the second Adam, Christ, and from His side came His spouse, the Church.
Mary is the temple, created to be the place where God could be with men. In this way she provides the pattern for both man and the physical creation. “Because of her obedience of faith and the mystery of the incarnation you made the Blessed Virgin your temple without compare; a house of gold adorned by the Spirit with every kind of virtue, a royal palace resplendent with the presence of the One who is Truth, the holy city, rejoicing in its streams of grace, the ark of the New Covenant enshrining the author of the New Law, Jesus Christ our Lord.”
We pray, therefore, to Mary, asking her to teach us purity. As her Immaculate Heart “exalted in God her Savior,” so may our hearts be made pure by imitating the singularity of her love.
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