We were quite diligent in fulfilling all the conditions for the plenary indulgence for the Immaculate Conception -- even to going to Confession the night before during an ice storm. A few days later I was pondering the implications of this. "Boy!" I thought to myself, "we're all set! Say I was to die in a car crash today -- maybe I'd go straight to heaven!" And I basked in the glow of this rosy thought for a bit -- it is comforting, no?
Then (upon giving the matter some real thought) I realized that I wasn't home free yet. Purgatory is called the "refiner's fire". Getting to heaven is not just a matter of being free from sin, but of striving for perfection. Christ himself said, "Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect." (I'm quoting on the fly, so I can't give you chapter and verse on that.) Even after going to confession and receiving a plenary indulgence, I have multiple imperfections of temperament, character, and personality that hold me back from fully experiencing God's grace. Being free from sin is crucial, but it's only the first step toward being happy with Him in heaven.
I read somewhere recently (I think it might have been Love and Responsibility) that the defining characteristic of a human being is spiritual perfectibility. I like that. Every human, whether newly conceived or dying in a nursing home or severely retarded has the capacity to strive toward spiritual perfection. It covers a wide range as well -- even the holiest of people such as Pope John Paul II or Mother Teresa or Padre Pio have not even scratched the surface of spiritual perfection. Something that always strikes me about St. Teresa's Interior Castle is that what I would consider a very high level of holiness -- a sincere focus on God and desire to do his will; a proper humility; plenty of good works; a solid prayer life; steady spiritual progress -- is only the fourth of the seven mansions. After that comes the interior prayer life: a reorienting of one's whole being toward the Divine. But that's still not spiritual perfection, because God is so overwhelming and has such unfathomable depths that there's no way that we can ever comprehend or fully appreciate His perfections.
So, what it all comes down to is that I hope I'm not in a car crash tomorrow.