Before I reveal how my parents got me to behave, let me give you a little background on my behavior as a child:
1. I was the middle child whose 2 sisters were within a year or two of my age.
2. We each had very different personalities.
3. Sometimes we beat the crap out of each other over the smallest things...like the game "SNAP."
SNAP is a game that involves having to flip a deck of cards over and over until someone gets a matching pair with someone else. When you do this, the first person who yells "snap!" gets both cards. The person with the most cards at the end of the game won. Seems like an innocuous and innocent game, right? Hell no. My sisters and I would get into heated arguments over who actually called "snap!" first, who cheated by going "sssssnnnnnn-" throughout the entire game until a pair came up...you name it. Violence always ensued and escalated to the point where we were beating each other up, swinging on each other's braids (our hair used to be very long), or telling on each other. It go so bad that we all ended up coming to a truce similar to the Versaille treaty...that we would never, ever play this game again.
Needless to say, my parents had their hands full and since my dad worked for most of the day, my poor mother had to deal with us rambunctious kids. Whenever we started bickering, my poor, exasperated Catholic mother would resort to the same warning given by generations of Portuguese parents... if you don't behave, you'll go to hell...or the variation....if you don't behave, the devil will come and get you. Couple this with an image from "Children of the Corn" that had been forever imprinted in my mind* and you had a room full of well-behaved children within seconds.
At this young age, I was afraid of being bad because it would mean an eternity of flames. Trust me, I knew fire burned and given my history of touching irons just to see if I was right about them being hot (makings of a true scientist) I knew that getting burned HURT A LOT. Forget being good enough to go to heaven....heaven was the least of my concerns. I just wanted to be good enough to avoid hell. Was I concerned about my impact of my sins? No! I just wanted to avoid hell. Was I concerned with my neighbor's well-being? No! I just wanted to avoid hell. In short, whenever I was good it was because I wanted to avoid hell at all costs. Whenever I was bad, I was only sorry because I wanted to avoid hell at all costs. Attrition rather than contrition was what I lived by...even after my first communion when I started going to confession.
It took me years to realize what a fool I was. I had no concern over how my sins hurt God, hurt others, hurt my own soul. I just felt bad about them because I felt that I had to feel bad about them. Remorse only seemed to appear when I got caught...
Flash forward many stupid years (through the ignorance of childhood, shameful narcissism of adolescence, stubborn pride of early 20s) and it gradually started hitting me. I had become a terrible person who offended God continuously. I was more concerned of punishment than I was of HIS LOVE FOR ME. I was more concerned with avoiding Hell than I was concerned of the suffering I caused Christ every time I ignored his lessons and sacrifice for me. In short, I had lost track of what truly mattered and, as a result, grown into a complacent and somewhat resentful Catholic. I had learned to fear disappointing God in order to avoid pain...rather than fear disappointing God to avoid causing Him pain.
Today, I see my stupidity and pride a lot more clearly. I attempt to avoid sin because it offends God and I don't want to hurt Him more than He's already hurting. It's bad enough there's people out there that denounce Him or actively campaign against His existence. It's bad enough that people distort his image (with words or Photoshop) for the sake of a cheap laugh. It's bad enough that people disrespect the Eucharist. It's bad enough that people consider abortion with the same indifference as plastic surgery. It's bad enough that people kill or hurt others in His name. It's bad enough that those who believe in Him are scorned and those that love him are ridiculed. It's bad enough that so many have lost their faith in Him.
Over the past few years, my thoughts on eternal punishment have changed radically. It's no longer all about me. It's no longer all about my being trapped in some fiery place for all eternity....this punishment would be NOTHING compared to (what I think) is the worst punishment of them all. You see, in my mind, hell turned into separation. It turned into God severing all ties to me. Forget flames. Imagine a complete absence of God's love. Imagine how terrible, lonely, painful, and desperate you would feel if you ever found yourself ignored by God for all eternity. Imagine being unworthy of God's presence for all eternity. Yeah, maybe there's still some flames in hell (image is so ingrained that it's hard to remove)...but I think that the worst part about Hell is that GOD IS NOT THERE. Perhaps the flames signify a burning desire for God that can never be quenched. Perhaps the flames are thrown in there just for the added effect. The point is, the flames are not the crucial element to Hell. Even if you LOVE your own company, going to hell means yearning for God for the rest of eternity but never again feeling his presence.
Go figure why the devil is pissed off and trying to get as many of us to join him in Hell. What else does he have going for him? NOTHING. He gave it all up when he rebelled...and has only been ruining souls to get back at God since losing God's love....kind of like a crazy stalker ex-boyfriend in a teenage slasher movie that starts killing everyone one by one to achieve ultimate revenge. Only, in the devil's case, he doesn't kill us. He's far too insidious and cruel for that. He sets things up so that we end up doing the worst part on our own.
"If I can't have God's love, no one will! Hey Eve, here's an apple. Hey David, she's all yours if you get her husband killed off in battle. Hey Judas, have a bag of coins on me!"
Nothing says "Take that, God!" like ruining someone else's shot at being in God's loving presence for all eternity.
I still want to avoid hell...but not because of the flames. I want to avoid hell because I want to be with God. I want to feel His love and be with Him for all eternity. My worst fear is eternal separation from God. That said, at this point, I don't think I deserve heaven. I am so soiled with sin, that I do not deserve to be in God's presence. It would be like walking down the aisle wearing nothing but the dirt I was made of and a few fig leaves I had sewn together instead of a pristine white Vera Wang dress. It would be like me trying to walk into some sort of red carpet event with a bad case of head lice, garlic breath, and severe body odor. I could never have Christ embrace me at those pearly gates...because I feel like I am far too unworthy to be in his presence let alone have his arms wrapped around me.
That's why I like the idea of purgatory. In my mind, purgatory is not a punishment, but a second chance to suffer for my sins as I have made Christ suffer for my sins. It's a chance for me to be cleansed of lust, pride, sloth, and all those other things that are so glorified by society today. It's my chance to TRULY CHANGE who I am and ensure that my soul is cleansed. I believe that those in purgatory are far closer to God than any of us have ever been (unless you're a living saint that happens to walk among us). These blessed souls may not be clean enough yet to gain entry into heaven, but they are fervently praying for it and forging a faith that is purer and stronger than any they achieved on earth. They are preparing themselves for the presence of someone far greater and holier than they ever imagined. The suffering experienced in purgatory must stem from the anticipation: They are so close to God, but still so far away. Because they are so close to God, that longing we have here on earth for God's presence is amplified exponentially in purgatory. Perhaps this is the fire that purifies the souls in purgatory as they wait for the day they are admitted into heaven.
For Lent this year, I have dedicated a good part of my prayers and sacrifices for those in purgatory as well as for those here on earth who have either turned their back on God or do not believe in Him.
One of my prayers for the next 30 odd days:
"Eternal Father, I offer Thee the Most Precious Blood of Thy Divine Son, Jesus, in union with the masses said throughout the world today, for all the holy souls in purgatory, for sinners everywhere, for sinners in the universal church, those in my own home and within my family. Amen."
*As a very young child, I walked into a living room where this movie was playing. It SCARED THE CRAP out of me and was the source of many nightmares for the rest of my childhood.