All Christians accept that the end of Christian life, whether “in heaven” or the eschaton, is the final conquest of sin. Sins are of two kinds: some (like adultery or murder) are discrete acts that can only be committed on-again off-again; others (like the seven deadly sins) are chronic states of disordered desire. Sins like this structure experience in a more or less constant, disordered way.
Let “purgatory” be the state where the latter sort of sins are definitively removed from the blessed. What is that state like?Our first guess might be that purgatory is just our first experience of the end of Christian life. In other words, as soon as we die, we awake to the presence of God where, in an instant, we cease to have any more greed, sloth, lust, pride, uncharitable irritation, etc. Purgatory is instantaneous, painless, and over before we even know what is happening.
Removing sin without pain, time, or even awareness, however, doesn’t seem like much of an imitation of Christ. Even apart from this, such a expurgation denies the value of normal human development, not just in its essentially temporal existence but in its sanctification of its difficulties, confusions, and pains. In this sense, as much as we are reticent to accept Purgatory it is still an affirmation of the value of human life. Slow, confused and gradual progress is not something that we might just as well do without, and this life is not something we might duck down and try to avoid while doing the bare minimum to ensure that we can one day get our instantaneous, painless burn-off of sin. Purgatory thus becomes the doctrine that the blessed will always be able to achieve sanctification in a properly human way.
This involves pain, and in this minimal sense the lurid and horrific descriptions of Purgatory have some merit. That said, they might distort as much as they reveal – besides involving the incoherent idea of torturing someone into holiness. No Catholic account of Purgatory can do without the metaphor of “cleansing fire”, but there might be some value in considering the metaphor as describing the pain that human spiritual development is called to sanctify and give meaning to.