Are the ideas of purgation and purity outdated in today’s world?
These sister concepts most often come up in religious discussions. Most of the time, they are not discussed with any positivity. I don’t have to elaborate on the details of purity culture or give you a lesson in extreme asceticism for you to get the idea. Religious trauma, however, happened well before exvangelical movement or the #ChurchToo movement.
For example, Margery Kempe’s sufferings included lack of medical and spiritual care when she was in mental distress.
Buddha had his own struggles, both in finding his path and in getting acceptance.
St. Patrick’s Confessions hint at slanderous mistreatment at the hands of other clergy.
Part of their success is their ability to stay true to their own principles and knowledge. Which meant coming to their own conclusions instead of blindly accepting whatever was taught them.
What would that look like for us? Well, let’s see if we can’t revise purgation and purity a bit.
Purgation is Mental KonMari
What we associate with purgation comes from the medieval church’s doctrine on Purgatory—sometimes also referred to as “Christian hell.”
Dante’s Purgatorio is probably the most comprehensive look at what “Christian hell” would look like. My favorite is what J. R. R. Tolkien presents in Leaf by Niggle. It’s not Disney World, but it’s not “hell” either. Instead, it is a chance for Niggle to learn the skills to overcome the shortcomings which had so often waylaid him in life.
If we go by Niggle’s experience of purgatory, his experience matches more closely the medical definition. With medical purgation, excess and dead material is removed from the body. Usually this means the digestive tract. However, we also sometimes refer to purging our pores. Think Dr. Pimple Popper or Mr. Pop Zit.
The concept behind purgation, therefore, is one of self-improvement. Think of it as KonMari for your mindset and belief system.
It’s the idea that you are getting rid of old thought processes, negative beliefs, and self-sabotaging practices. Whether that’s going to therapy, practicing your religion in ways that are edifying and meaningful to your spirit, or addressing problems which are holding you back, purgation is about getting rid of what isn’t for your highest good.
Purity is Having Principles and Standing By Them
If Purgation is about being the best version of yourself, then what does purity mean in this context?
We often only associate purity with sexual purity. Never with anything else. Doesn’t seem right, does it? What if, for instance, a person is sexually pure but is also bigoted, expects everyone around them to follow the same rigid standards, and is cruel to others when they disagree? Would this be a pure person?
Yeah, I don’t think so either.
Of course, we could, again, go with the medical field. When we are evaluating drug or vitamin ingredients, for instance, does purity matter then? Well, yes. How much of a pill is active ingredients and how much is filler?
To put things into a literary perspective, James Hogg’s Kilmeny is a truer representation of purity. The central character’s purity is not a rejection of sex, but it is a rejection of the artificiality which human society often demands.
How does this help us? Easily: we too live in an artificial society. Social media, virtue signaling, changing political mores, and even the demand to make socially accepted health decisions press in all around us. Life is full of filler.
Being pure in this light means we stand fast by what we know to be true about who we are and what we stand for. It means once you purge your life of what is holding you back, you stay true to course. You don’t let those negative patterns back into your life. It means that you don’t give in to the pressures of society to compromise on your principles, your beliefs, or the way you need to live your life to be your best.
Don’t give into the demands of an artificial society which only cares about self-perpetuation—not about whether you are happy and healthy.
The demands are beyond religion these days, too. Now, it’s not just your youth pastor saying “modest is hottest,” it’s rigid and outdated dress codes at work. Your religious institution isn’t the only one demanding blind faith. Now, it’s private companies and social media demanding blind obedience. If the rates of just work-related stress were at 79% in 2020, according to the American Psychological Association, then adding more pressure is not the answer.
However, every person needs to understand and implement their own purgation. Knowing yourself and your own faults is key to knowing what to purge and what to keep. Not everyone is going to have the same faults to correct. Which means not everyone can or should have the same solutions for those faults.
Purgation and purity are not outdated words for our 21st century world, but we need to come up with better definitions. Hurting yourself to get rid of sin will not solve your problems. Neither is drawing attention to sex and then punishing people for noticing it going to get rid of STDs and unwanted pregnancy.
Both are words which you need to define for yourself. Your god and your religious or cultural tradition may still have a part to play in that definition. They should have a part in that definition if only to give you a starting point. That, and our ancestors were not stupid.
Let’s return to the three figures we discussed at the beginning.
Margery Kempe wrote her book in an age where women who wrote books were rare. Buddha showed the “middle way” to a fulfilling life and continues to inspire millions today. St. Patrick took solace in his work and ended up being the means for saving much of what Western Europe had in the way of civilization after Rome fell.
They didn’t cower. They didn’t back down, and they didn’t blindly follow. Otherwise, we’d never hear of them. Instead, they thought for themselves and came up with ways of existing and dealing with the problems they faced.
Are you just doing what you’re told and believing what you’re told? Or are you purging your life of dead material?
Is your life one where you are true to your principles? Do you stand by those and defend those through every new social change? Or, do you change your opinions easily?
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