There’s a game that might make your Lent a little more interesting; it does mine. It’s called “Purgatory,” named for the waiting room where, some Christians believe, your sins are purged and your soul is purified before entering heaven. The way poet W.H. Auden invented the game, writers with contradictory views of life would be paired with each other until they resolved their differences and would be allowed to enter heaven.
At an advanced level of the game, you might be put in a room by yourself until you’re able to resolve your inner contradictions. It’s where you might find Walt Whitman, for example, who wrote, “Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)” Or maybe I’ll be there, I who want to lose ten pounds and have one more piece of pie or some extra cookies – I who want more than anything else to have an authentic relationship with others and keep a precious inner place of woundedness and vulnerability safe and protected from exposure to those with whom I want that relationship. Purgatory is the place where I’ve got to resolve my inner contradictions before I can feast fully at heaven’s great banquet.
In my version of the game this year, I pair St. Paul, the great evangelist and church planter, with Don Vito Corleone, the head of the crime family in Mario Puzo’s novel The Godfather. St. Paul was almost completely unconcerned with whether you are a member of the church or with the welfare of the institution; his concern was our authentic relationship with each other and with the essential Human One, the Imago Dei, at the core of our being. It appears Don Corleone’s concern was exclusively with members of his crime family; his relationship with others was strictly a business relationship that served the interests of his family.
Despite their obviously deep differences, there is a place where their hearts meet. It comes after Sonny has been ambushed, when Don Corleone tells Tom Hagen, “I want you to arrange a meeting with the heads of the five families,” referring to the crime families competing for territory and dominance. In the face of the almost-unbearable loss of his son, this powerful crime boss can say: “Enough. Let’s stop, let’s talk. I’m willing to forego vengeance and accept my loss so we don’t all lose going forward.” Don Corleone’s self-interest gave way, if only perversely and temporarily, to his interest in the welfare of a larger system of relationships.
One of the most important issues St. Paul addressed in his letters was the competition for territory and dominance between the churches he founded in the Gentile world and the church in Jerusalem led by St. Peter. The churches Paul founded eventually disappeared, swallowed up by the powerful Jerusalem church. But the heart of Paul’s vision remained, the vision of unity that led him to write, “. . . so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another” (Rom. 12:5).
Paul’s vision would be echoed by John Wesley when he addressed division and conflict in the church seventeen centuries later. “Though we cannot think alike,” Wesley wrote, “may we not love alike? May we not be of one heart, though we are not of one opinion? Without all doubt, we may. Herein all the children of God may unite, notwithstanding these smaller differences” (sermon 39, “Catholic Spirit”). Both Paul and Wesley envisioned a unity among us that transcends all our smaller differences, and they both knew what Emily Dickinson expressed so well: “Who has not found the heaven below / Will fail of it above. / God’s residence is next to mine, / His furniture is love.”
The radical presence of heaven on earth, that it’s here and now or nowhere and never, was the essential gospel of both Jesus (e.g., Luke 14:15-24) and Paul (e.g., 2 Cor. 5:17), and it’s a presence the earliest Christians struggled to embody – literally, in Paul’s sense that we are organically, inseparably connected with one another in a single, unified spiritual body, each of us dependent upon everyone else for our health and wholeness. It’s a vision that seems very far from the reality in which we live today.
Almost a decade ago, the Pew Research Center saw what we can easily see today, that partisan antipathy in the U.S., both in politics and in everyday life, is deeper and more extensive than at any time since the late 1990s. Partisan animosity between Democrats and Republicans has grown substantially during the last thirty years, and most people with the greatest partisan loyalty believe the opposing party’s policies “are so misguided that they threaten the nation’s well-being” (“Political Polarization in the American Public,” Pew Research Center, 12 June 2014). As we’ve grown either more liberal or more conservative, the “middle,” where common ground on contentious issues could sometimes be found, has vanished.
Of course, those divisions are also found among those who identify as Christian, driving us not toward reconciliation, which was the gospel of Jesus, but further into division. Rep. Jared Huffman, one of the founders of a Congressional caucus launched to “protect the secular character of our government,” said, “A lot of Americans look at [the Jan. 6 insurrection] and think: ‘A lot of crazy people acted out.’ But it was far more organized, and it wasn’t just the Trump political organization.” What united many unconnected people and groups was a shared belief that Christianity should be one with civic life and that true Americans are White, culturally conservative, and natural born citizens (The Washington Post, 18 March 2022).
We need to hear St. Paul’s message, a message Don Corleone almost got, and we need to repeat it loudly and clearly, that we who are members of the body of Christ are also members of one another, inseparably united in a living whole. Instead of lobbing grenades of truth at each other, trying to suppress or eliminate differing opinions, we need to lay down our theologies and doctrines, our most dearly held individual identities, and our favorite illusions about life and its Creator. We need to value one another not merely as brothers and sisters separated at birth but as the hand values the arm, as the ear values the eye, as the head values the feet.
The church is not a school of theology, where we learn right beliefs about God and right doctrines for living, where true is separated from false, good from bad, wheat from weeds. The church is what St. Benedict called “a school for the Lord’s service”; it is conversion of life, it is confession that we are merely human and in need of healing, it is returning to the one source and center of all life, it is reconciliation into our original creaturely integrity, where we learn to value one another as the persons God is creating us uniquely to be, with all our graceful eccentricities.
We need to hold in prayer, and sit with, those with whom we deeply disagree about essential matters and demonstrate that we value one another enough to really listen to one another. We need to dwell in the connection that unites us in the flow of love from one heart to another so that all illusions of separateness and independence disappear.
There’s a story about the rabbi testing her students on the fine points of Jewish law who asked how they could tell when night ends and day begins – an important point in scheduling times for prayer, for example. One student answered, “You can tell when night has ended and day has begun when you can look across the valley and tell the difference between an olive tree and a fig tree.” “Wrong,” said the rabbi. Another student answered, “You can tell when night has ended and day has begun when you can look into the next pasture and tell the difference between a sheep and a goat.” “Wrong,” the rabbi said. After a moment of thought, third student said, “You can tell when night has ended and day begun when you can shoot an arrow into the air and see where it lands.” “Wrong again!” said the rabbi. After that, no one ventured an answer, and there was silence, until one student asked, “So tell us, rabbi, how can you tell when night becomes day?” “When you can look into the eyes of any person you meet,” the rabbi said, “and recognize that person as your brother or sister, then you will know that the night has ended, and day has begun.”