All the leaves and acorns are falling from the oak outside my office, and as I was walking back up to church with some seventh graders from the parish school, I stopped to pick up an acorn and said, “Boys, look at this acorn. Then look at that oak tree. How could an oak tree grow from this tiny little nothingness of an acorn? It’s amazing.”

They stopped and looked for a moment and thought it through. Then I added, “The acorn is you and me. The oak tree is the saint God wants us to be. The saint God wants us to be is as different from the person we are now as this acorn is different from the oak. The oak comes from the acorn and it is the fulfillment and final destiny of the acorn. Everything required to become an oak is locked into this acorn. Everything necessary for you and me to be a saint is locked inside our hearts and minds.”

“Thanks Father!” says AJ, “that’s a good one. I’ll remember that.” They want to go…

“Hold on…” I stopped them. “There’s an important difference though. The acorn doesn’t have free will. The acorn can’t decide anything. I can and you can. The difference is we can co operate with the process. The poor old acorn doesn’t have any choice in the matter.”

Off they go.

Heading back to the office I am stepping on lots of acorns and it occurs to me that nature is wasteful. One oak tree every year produces all those acorns. Most of them are wasted–gathered up with the leaves, stepped on and crushed, eaten by squirrels, not many make it to the oak tree stage–nevertheless each one–given the right conditions–could have made it.

So maybe that’s the way with the human race. So many human beings. So few saints. So much potential, so little fulfillment. That’s why I believe in purgatory–because I think most of us need more time to complete the job and by God’s grace, reach that full potential for which we are created. I’m also chagrined to think that the wastefulness of nature might also point me to another theological conclusion–the reality of hell. Maybe there are lots of humans–like the abundance of acorns–that will not reach their fulfillment and will be thrown on the fire.

I’m not real happy with that possibility, and hope that what seems to be common sense prevails–that most of us are not good enough to go right into heaven and not bad enough to go right into hell. Purgatory is a merciful and realistic belief.

It offers hope.