Peter Lyon acknowledges his own fear of the purifying fire of God’s cleansing

Our God is a consuming fire,’ we find in Hebrews. Please, not like Hiroshima, we plead. Fire is good, keeps us warm in the winter, shines in the sun, is even a symbol of life. We merely torture ourselves with the idea of God using us as fuel for his own purposes. ‘Too slow! Too slow! Throw in another human being!’ Horrible!

The idea of fire is everywhere in the Bible, and in writers to whom we would not normally turn for spiritual aid. Somerset Maugham, visiting a volcano in Hawaii, writes: ‘The lava is like some formless creature born of primeval

slime crawling slowly in pursuit of some loathsome prey. The lava moves forward steadily towards a fiery gap and then seems to fall into a bottomless cavern of flame. A man standing near said, ‘Gosh, it’s like hell,’ but a priest beside him turned and said, ‘No, it’s like the face of God.”

Like purgatory

Like purgatory, one supposes. There the fire must be intense, but somehow cleansing and healing, like that diathermy a mission doctor once applied to a wart of mine. Purgatoryor no purgatory, most of us believe we need purging before we pass into heaven. Not like Cranmer, we hope; still, we are nervous about the degree of pain involved. Being taught that Our Lord has suffered the pain on our behalf helps a lot, though we may wonder how much if anything will be left after the arrival of this cleansing Judgement. It is valuable to read C.S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce, for ways of looking at this.

Even thinking about it causes pain; not then but now. We all suffer pain on this earth. Even while we accept Jesus’s warning not to link earthly suffering directly with specific human sin, we wonder whether this constitutes a sort of continual purging, a foretaste of later? I cannot tell, but I am reminded also that Judgement can overtake institutions as well as the human beings that run them. We hear stories of sects that spring up, claiming to offer God’s truth, but suffer destruction. We look then at our own sect, and ask ourselves how far we ourselves can be spared from God’s cleansing purpose.

Our own Church, we may say defensively, is at least a part of the Body of Christ in the world, and, Christ being faultless, is safe from Judgement. I doubt if we really believe that. It is a question of what constitutes this eternal perfection, this true Church. How far does it spread, and whom does it include?

Purifying and purging

Archbishop Laud put it well in his great prayer: ‘Gracious Father, we humbly beseech thee for thy holy catholic Church. Fill it with all truth; in all truth with all peace. Where it is corrupt, purge it; where it is in error, direct it; where anything is amiss, reform it; where it is right, strengthen and confirm it; where it is in want, furnish it; where it is divided and rent asunder, make up the breaches of it…’ One does not fail to notice that word ‘purge’, with its overtone of cleansing fire.

In our Church, as in ourselves, much is to be discarded; and there must be pain of a sort, I feel sure. In the good old days of Matrons, I remember a Matron crying out: ‘I’ll have no pain in my hospital!’ But of course she had pain and suffering. Even if she managed to shield the owner of the gangrenous leg from the direct pangs of the saw, that first look at what remained cannot be described as pain free.

The dear lady could not outdo her Maker, and have no pain in her universe. Even so, one sympathizes so much with her that one entertains wild hopes that when the cleansing fire comes to us it will seem no more than Mother calling the children in from play, ‘For goodness sake, dears, wash that muck off before you have supper.’

Even so, it will need pretty fierce soap to do that job.