Two pictures of purgatory

AT RANDOM - Fr. Miguel A. Bernad, SJ -
November is the month in which we remember our dead. For Catholics it is not mere remembrance. As the Bible puts it, "It is a holy and wholesome thought to pray for the dead that they may be loosed from their sins." (2 Maccabees 12.45)

Shakespeare paints a frightening picture of purgatory. The dead King’s ghost says to his son the Prince Hamlet:

I am thy father’s ghost

Doom’d for a certain time to walk the night,

And for the day confin’d to fast in fires

Till the foul crimes done in my days of nature

Are burn’d and purg’d away . . . .

The Ghost goes on to say that he is forbidden to tell "the secrets of his prison house". Were he to tell what goes on in purgatory, the tale would frighten Hamlet. It would harrow up thy soul, freeze thy young blood, make thy two eyes, like stars, start from their spheres, Thine knotted and combined locks to part, And each particular hair stand on end Like quills upon the fretful porpentine. – Hamlet I.iv

That is of course a frightening vision. If what the Ghost says is true, purgatory must indeed be a frightful place.

Dante, however, paints a totally different picture. His Purgatorio is a joyous book and purgatory a happy place. The souls indeed expiate their sins, but they do so in a spirit of joy and happiness. The proud learn to be humble, the greedy to be generous, the merciless to be merciful, the sensual to be austere. All in an atmosphere of joy enhanced by music and the beauties of nature.

Both Dante and Shakespeare are great Christian poets and they represent two strands in the Christian tradition regarding purgatory. Both pictures are in some way true. On the one hand, to have to expiate one’s sins must involve pain. On the other hand, those in a purgatorial state are already saved.

We speak of "the holy souls in purgatory": they are indeed holy. They are in God’s grace. Suffering, yes, and for that reason they need our prayers. But they can also pray for us.

An incident in the life of Jesus brought home to me the need for a place or a state like purgatory. Simon Peter and the other disciples (who were experienced fishermen) were in a boat and Jesus joined them. He said, "Put out into the deep and cast your net." And Simon Peter objected, "We have been fishing all night and we caught nothing." How much less likely to catch any fish during the day! But something in the face of Jesus made him hesitate, and then he said, "But at your word I will let down the net." He did and the net became instantly filled with fish. The number of fish was so great that their boat was almost sinking from the weight. This was obviously a miracle, and Simon felt that Jesus must be somehow divine. He was filled with awe. He felt unworthy to be near him and he said "Depart from me, O Lord, for I am a sinful man."

In the presence of holiness, Simon felt dirty.

That must be the feeling of a soul with the stains of sin upon it. Before the flaming holiness of God, a soul with the stains of sin would feel miserable. Hence the need for purgatory. A soul must be purified and made fit to be admitted to see God.

The souls in purgatory may be suffering. But they are happy. They are waiting to be admitted to the Beatific Vision when they will see God "face to face." The Apostle John in his First Letter says, Beloved, we are God’s children now. What we shall be has not yet been revealed. We do know that when it is revealed we shall be like him for we shall see him as he is. – 1 John 3.2

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