You can mark your passage through life with surgical procedures characteristic of each age. When I was growing up in the 1950s, tonsillectomies were all the rage, and it seemed every kid I knew was getting one. Fortunately, I was spared this procedure. However, I lost another vestigial organ at age 29, when my appendix was removed. Many of my peers underwent vasectomies after they had fulfilled their obligation to be fruitful and multiply -- and sometimes even if they hadn’t. These were followed in due course by knee and hip replacements. I have so far been spared these procedures as well, despite my gimpy knees. But I eventually succumbed to my doctor’s nagging and submitted to a colonoscopy, although I stalled until I was past 60. Now that I am pushing 70, I recently went in for another one. The procedure itself is a snooze, but the preparations are nasty, as any colonoscopy survivor will gladly tell you. First, they put you on a liquid diet. Then you gulp down a vile-tasting industrial-strength laxative that flushes out your insides with ruthless efficiency. The night before my most recent procedure, I woke in the wee hours and scribbled something down on the notepad I keep by my bed. I don’t remember what I had been dreaming about, but the whole ordeal had obviously made an impression on my unconscious. The two words I wrote down were “purgative” and below it a rough translation: “shitless.”

Purgation, as it happens, is a term of art favored by certain taxonomists of the soul to describe an early stage of spiritual formation. First comes the exhilaration of discovering that God is real, not just a tenet of belief, however sincerely held. This is followed closely by an acute sense of one’s own unworthiness and the question of how to render oneself fit company for the living God. Consider the hapless Job, who demanded that God make a full accounting of all his misfortunes and then, when the Lord finally put in an appearance, was devastated anew. “I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you,” Job lamented. “Therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes."

To don sackcloth and ashes was a common way to demonstrate repentance in biblical times, along with fasting. Medieval Christianity raised purgation to a high art, with hair shirts, self-flagellation and crawling on one’s knees for long distances. The objective was to “mortify the flesh” in keeping with St. Paul’s admonition that “if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body you will live." The early church adopted an elaborate system of penances for wrongdoing, which were heaped on the faithful. Some penances were quite onerous, and they often extended well beyond a normal human lifespan. To accommodate those who were still working out their salvation at the time of death, souls were consigned to purgatory "to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven."

The problem with purgation as a path to salvation is that there is no end to it, and it can quickly become an end in itself. A case in point was an Augustinian monk named Martin Luther, whose quest for moral perfection dovetailed neatly with certain obsessive-compulsive personality quirks. He was haunted by the thought that he would overlook some minor sin and damn his soul unto eternity. And so he spent hours each day examining his conscience for even the minutest blemish and then burdening his confessor with an exhaustive recitation of sins, real or imagined. Driven to distraction, his spiritual director eventually ordered him to stop obsessing over inconsequential “peccadilloes.”

The hours not devoted to moral self-examination were often spent on the toilet, where Luther struggled with chronic constipation. Although preoccupied with purgation of a different sort, Luther also attended to other matters, turning his indoor latrine into an office so he could “do my business while I do my business.” A theologian by training, he pored over Scripture to find some path to salvation that did not involve torturing himself. He found it in the words of St. Paul, another moral perfectionist whose life was turned upside down by an encounter with the risen Christ on the road to Damascus. Paul wrote, “’The one who is righteous will live by faith.’” Luther had no doubt read these words a thousand times, but it was only now, while seated on the toilet, that he grasped their significance. Salvation did not come through one’s own efforts, no matter how diligent, but through faith alone. An earthy man, Luther exulted, “The Holy Spirit imparted this creation to me on the sewer.” Was this sudden movement of the spirit accompanied by a movement of his bowels? Luther seemed to be saying as much when he commented, “Here I felt that I was altogether born again, and had entered Paradise itself through open gates.”

Job 42:5-6
Romans 8:13
Roman 1:17

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