A few years ago, about two years after my conversion to Catholicism, a chance conversation with friends led me face-to-face with the realization that I could actually go to hell.
You’ll appreciate the novelty of this idea more if you understand that being raised Evangelical, I had understood from an early age that I was saved. Hell as a reality for me was something that I had literally never considered before. The fear of it took my breath away.
Read it all. Her last two paragraphs put everything into perspective, very well indeed.
So, since we’re backing off of Hell, or hopefully ascending from it, we might as well make a stop at Purgatory, with the help of Max Lindenman who has done some research and says, “Purgatory, Schmurgatory, as Long as You’re Hopeful!:
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 its gradual remission, is a mighty comforting one.
I was thinking about this concept after Confession the other day, when our priest–who is excellent–didn’t try to soften the blow of my confession and tell me I’m really not that bad. It’s the first time in a long time that’s happened, since I think often, in an attempt to present Christ’s expansive mercy to the penitent, many confessors inadvertently downplay the severity of sin.
I was relieved that my priest, reserving comment on the gravity of my sin, skipped instead to finding a worthy penance. I had come to the confessional seeking mercy and absolution, yes, but also reparation–a way to do better.
The priest told me to choose some holy number, like the number seven, and ask seven souls in purgatory who had struggled with similar sins to pray for me, while I, in turn, prayed for them. I was also supposed to fast for a day from liquids other than water.
In Rumer Godden’s In This House of Brede, the flippant novice Sister Hilary complained that November was “all howling winds and holy souls!” And death, of course. Our Patheos Catholic writers seem to be reveling in it!
Like any good House Mother, I’m finding it both amusing and fascinating.