By the Council’s 25th session, when the Trent Fathers finally got around to the subject of Purgatory, they must have feeling tired and grouchy. After affirming that such a state exists, and that “the suffrages of the faithful” and “the acceptable sacrifice of the altar” work to detainees’ benefit, they drew a veil. “The more difficult and subtle questions,” warns their decree, “are to be excluded from popular instructions to uneducated people.”
My subprime days, when each of us loan officers had to pledge himself to closing 12 loans in the coming month, knowing all the while that closing seven would take a miracle, made me a firm believer in setting realistic goals. Justly or not, that line in Lumen Gentium about all Christians being called to the perfection of charity reminds me of those motivational seminars at the Tempe Mission Palms they bribed us with free croissants and Red Bull to attend. Managing to die in God’s friendship with only a few minor faults left on my record is my idea of success. So, when it comes to this final purification, this cleansing fire, I think I have a vested interest in knowing what-all goes on.
In an interview with Peter Seewald, the future Pope Benedict put a bright gloss
on the process. “We want to be able to be put right,” he said. “Purgatory basically means that God can put the pieces back together.” That makes us sound awfully passive, and passivity in the face of intimate tampering can be an unsettling experience. This I learned over the course of four tattooings, two root canals, and the x-raying of a dislocated shoulder.
Unusually for me, I chose to forego anesthesia for the x-rays. Maybe I sensed I’d need the practice. That the big summer school for souls involves corporal punishment — in official parlance, “pain of the senses” — doesn’t figure into official Church teaching, but it does reflect the consensus of many learned churchmen. Ss. Augustine and Gregory the Great both spoke of literal flames that hurt more than any living person could endure. Elizabeth, my editor, is always telling me to grow a thicker skin. Looks like one’ll grow naturally — I hope in multiple layers.
But the overall experience of purgation may feel like a passage from worse to bad. The 15th-century Dutch mystic St. Lidwina of Schiedam experienced visions of the part of Purgatory “bordering upon Hell.” Along with fire, amenities included “chains,” “instruments of torture,” and “violent blows,” delivered by “executioners” in a prison built from “monstrous” black stones. St. Lidwina’s particular concern was the soul of a man who’d repented his sins shortly before dying. Guided by her guardian angel, she found him in a pit, “all on fire, resembling incandescent metal.” Later, the angel brought good news: the man’s soul had ascended…to a better part of Purgatory.
Fortunately, the story doesn’t end quite there. St. Lidwina’s prayers eventually gained the soul passage all the way into heaven. Whether this happened in real time or some timeless God-time is something she never explained, probably because she didn’t know. But the idea that a soul’s sensibility to pain also translates to an awareness of its gradual remission, is a mighty comforting one. In Purgatory, we may be able to tell that we’re making progress. Given the danger of presuming to know our own state of grace, that’s one advantage we on earth lack.
Indeed, Purgatory’s inmates seem to know almost everything that’s really worth knowing, namely, where they stand and what’s what. St. Faustyna Kowalska, who is said to have toured Purgatory in a vision of her own, reported back that the souls suffered most out of a yearning for God. If she was right, religious doubts aren’t a big problem. According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, most medieval theologians agreed that souls undergoing purification know, at least, that they aren’t in hell and will eventually get to heaven. St. Bonaventure believed, in addition, that the souls can no longer sin. They have nowhere to go but up.
Dante conceives a process in which the departed hump their way up a mountain, over seven terraces, toward an earthly paradise at the summit. As in Inferno, he populates each zone with its own type of sinner — gluttons here, lechers yonder. But one thing even Dante never imagines — Dante, who cleaves schismatics with giant swords and jams simoniacs head-first into rock fissures — is anyone’s being sent back to repeat a grade. Though the details are products of his own fancy, his vision of a constant upward trend, at least, sounds like good theology. It also sounds like a better deal than the Hindu notion of samsara, which charges people with paying the karmic bill for their past lives even as they run up their next lives’ tab, and gives them every chance of screwing themselves royally along the way.
Chains, flames, and lamentations notwithstanding, it doesn’t sound too much more distressing than the life I lived in my late 20s. After leaving grad school and my cozy job at the campus library, I took the only job I was qualified for: cold-calling for a debt consolidations firm. Now that felt Dantean. Crammed into partitioned-off spaces too small even to qualify as cubicles, hooked up to automatic dialers, constrained in speech by cliché-filled scripts, we surrendered as much dignity and freedom as anyone outside a prison could do. Worst of all, there was no promise of escape. The job looked so bad on resumes that the best most people dared hope for was a lateral move to a company where people pitched a slightly different product under slightly different conditions, including a slightly different pay structure.
Me, I made it out in two years, landing in mortgages, then online education enrollment, then foreclosures, then fraud investigation. All small moves, all small improvements that came with a big sense of relative deprivation. But every day I doubted I’d make it to the next. And I’m still a long way from the earthly paradise of the middle class.
For a guy with that kind of history, Purgatory is an easy sell. But I’d still call on priests and deacons to sell it a little harder, even if it means having to field annoying, unanswerable questions from the great uncatechized. The goal shouldn’t, of course, be to scare people straight — for that, there’s Hell — but to prepare them. Nobody should fall into the sleep of peace crying, “Ripoff!” Instead, we should know, not only what to expect, but why, despite all the agony, we’re living in the best of all possible cosmologies.