Reflections on Purgatory

Reflections on Purgatory January 18, 2011

Sandro Magister (whom I really like, in case you have not figured that out yet!) has a great excerpt from Pope Benedict’ general audience of January 12 and from his encyclical Spe Salvi.   In both he is discussing purgatory.  The following are a couple random thoughts, including a question I have thought about for a while.

The first thing that struck me is that in his treatment of purgatory, either discussing Catherine of Genoa in his audience or in his encyclical, is that he seems to be shifting the focus from purgatory as a place to an interior notion of purgation.  (I have a sense, though I may be wrong, that this is closer to the Orthodox understanding.)  In particular, I was struck by this short passage from Spe Salvi:

It is clear that we cannot calculate the “duration” of this transforming burning in terms of the chronological measurements of this world. The transforming “moment” of this encounter eludes earthly time-reckoning?it is the heart’s time, it is the time of “passage” to communion with God in the Body of Christ.

Though it was never part of my personal experience, I remember the older prayer books that were still lying around in my youth which included notations such as “Recitation of this prayer gains an indulgence of 100 days”.   Thinking of the discussion about Traditionalism on another thread, I am surprised that this particular sort of devotional bookkeeping has not been revived given its prevalence as recently as 50 years ago.

I have also heard some traditionalists claim that Purgatory is not preached about any more, which I guess is true.  Though I must admit that having heard a conservative priest preach about it at a funeral, I would be happy to never repeat the experience.  It seemed a rather cold and mechanical exhortation to pray for the dead (including the deceased we had gathered to commend to the mercy of God) who are “suffering in purgatory.”   To quote from the song Road to Zion by Petra:

Sometimes it’s good to look back down , we’ve come
so far we’ve gained such ground but joy is not in
where we’ve been, Joy is Who’s waiting at the end

Which brings me, finally, to my question.  It is a spiritual work of mercy to pray for the dead.  But I have long wondered:  would it be equally beneficial to ask the souls in purgatory to pray for us?  Though they are not yet with God, they are not separated from God, and their prayers would be heard.  And if, as Augustine put it so well in the Confessions, pride and self-will are at the root of all sins, then wouldn’t it be a source of grace for the souls in purgatory to look outward and pray for others?  Or in other words, isn’t part of the purgation to, as my mother used to say, to help you “get over yourself”?

All you holy men and women of God, Ora pro nobis.

"I knew a painter who said that Titian was the greatest painter of all time. ..."

Scattering Blossoms, Fallen Leaves: Titian in ..."
"How jaded must I be to feel the words of bishops against any atrocity today ..."

US Bishops Speak on Gun Violence
"I was also thinking of a song I heard, and in fact misheard, in childhood, ..."

The Church is not an Army, ..."
"I can actually see this text being read in two very opposite ways. Unfortunately it ..."

The Church is not an Army, ..."

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!


TRENDING AT PATHEOS Catholic
What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • But I have long wondered: would it be equally beneficial to ask the souls in purgatory to pray for us?

    Among many other questions, I would ask how the souls in purgatory would be aware of prayers of the living.

    Recalling previous discussions of what the soul is, I would also want to know how it could be in purgatory, whether purgatory is a state or a place. How does a soul exist apart from a body? How can it suffer “physically” when it is not physical? (Correct me if I am wrong, but I was always given the impression that the suffering in purgatory would be physical pain, or something like it.)

    One might also ask how saints in heaven hear the prayers of the living, but whether or not there is an answer as to how, clearly the Church teaches that they do.

    If saints can hear mental prayers, can they also read our thoughts when we are not praying?

    The most popular saints are no doubt prayed to by thousands of people every day. Are they aware of all of these requests? When a saint in heaven receives requests to intercede on someone’s behalf, does the saint decide to do so in some cases and not in others? And when a saint intercedes, does God automatically intervene to grant what was prayed for, or does he sometimes tell the saints he won’t grant their requests on behalf of the person praying? Is there a change in our intellectual capacity when we die that would allow us to keep track of thousands of requests a day, or if you are a popular saint, are you assigned a staff? 🙂

    • brettsalkeld

      Though it is a common conception, the Church does not insist on “physical” pain as part of purgatory. (Not that no one has ever felt the pain of remorse like a punch in the gut.)

      As for hearing prayers, my understanding is that God permits them to hear them, not that they gain some special capacity by fact of their death. I don’t think they become mind readers.

      As for the time it takes to hear and respond to prayer, we have here the incommensurability between time as we experience it and the afterlife. I’m not sure the question can be answered in the way you phrased it.

      Lastly, I would add that God answers all prayer. But sometimes the answer is no.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      Imagine if the saints were bound by time:

      “I’m sorry, St. Francis of Assisi cannot take your prayer at this time. If you would like to leave him a message, press 1. If you would like to speak to another Franciscan saint, press 2. The current waiting time to speak to any Franciscan saint is estimated to be 14 minutes. Please stay in prayer, your prayers are very important to us.”

  • brettsalkeld

    Thanks for this piece David.
    I was wondering if I should jump this. As you may know, my book about purgatory just came out this month. http://www.paulistpress.com/bookView.cgi?isbn=978-0-8091-4681-9) Both Catherine of Genoa and Benedict XVI feature rather prominently in my argumentation.

    A couple thoughts. The West’s primary metaphor for purgatory has been the courtroom/prison. The East’s has been the hospital. I think there is some truth in each, but the courtroom/prison can really start to distort Christian teaching when the punishment becomes external and arbitrary. I think Benedict is quite aware of the eastern emphasis even if he does not mention it explicitly.

    In the book I also deal with prayer for the dead, though I don’t directly address your question about them praying for us. In any case, I think your mother was exactly right. And both knowing that others pray for you, and praying for them, can be effective means of getting over oneself.

    One of the authors I used, Robert Ombres O.P., has a great line that said something like “The criteria in prayer is not biological but Christological. Am I in Christ?”

    One last point. If we can’t ask them to pray for us, what does that imply about the duration of purgatory? I think the implication would be that it is eternal. Otherwise, we would have to guess at when purgatory ends for an individual and only start asking for their prayers then. This strikes me as a rabbit hole not worth going down. As Benedict emphasizes, our manner of time-keeping in this world is simply inappropriate for discussing the next life.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      Brett,

      I was not aware of your book, so by all means, jump in any time you want on this thread!

      Heck, I might even buy a copy of your book…..it looks interesting.

    • wj

      Brett,

      Aren’t you still working on your thesis? When do you have time to write all these other books?!

      Congrats, by the way.

      • brettsalkeld

        Thanks WJ,
        I am still working on my doctoral thesis. The purgatory book is the second incarnation of my Master’s thesis.
        As for the time, I really don’t know. I mean, I had to write a Master’s thesis to get the degree, so that one was looked after, but the other book just squeezed itself in somewhere. It cost me at least a semester of the doctorate though.
        I guess one could ask the same question (vis-a-vis time) about blogging. I’m sure all my blog posts here add up to at least a book manuscript. Not a very well-organized one, but certainly long enough.

  • Liam

    Just to clarify: the “duration” approach to indulgences was not actually tied to a duration of “time” in purgatory, but originally was a derivative of the penances in penitential manuals – in other words, doing X was the equivalent of so many days of such a penance.

    Also, the East not only has the hospital but the “toll houses”.

    • brettsalkeld

      Ah yes, the toll houses. They initially struck me as bizarre, though I later came to appreciate that they can be used to effectively communicate a spiritual truth.

  • Perhaps the reason that “this particular sort of devotional bookkeeping has not been revived” is likely to be that Paul VI suppressed the denomination of partial indulgences in the terms ‘days’ and ‘years’ with his Indulgentiarum Doctrina. ’68? ’69? late ’60s at any rate.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      True enough, though in various ways traditionalists have pushed back against other changes made at the same time.

      • My own suggestion is that this represents an authentic increment in the famous ‘development of doctrine’.

  • brettsalkeld

    Best homily I ever heard about purgatory was at a funeral. The priest said it was like turning on the lights after spending too much time in the dark. Hurts the eyes.

  • I’d like to address David’s questions:

    “would it be equally beneficial to ask the souls in purgatory to pray for us?”

    Many theologians believe so.

    “Among many other questions, I would ask how the souls in purgatory would be aware of prayers of the living.”

    God would have to reveal the prayers to them, or perhaps through the mediation of Angels (which does mean “messengers” after all). It, indeed, would not be within their natural capacities.

    “Recalling previous discussions of what the soul is, I would also want to know how it could be in purgatory, whether purgatory is a state or a place.”

    Heaven, hell, purgatory, are all states, given that the soul is disembodied at that point and that “place” is a property of matter.

    However, there may be a sort of “analogical” relationship between the state of souls and various “places” in the material universe.

    “How does a soul exist apart from a body?”

    http://www.newadvent.org/summa/1089.htm

    “How can it suffer “physically” when it is not physical? (Correct me if I am wrong, but I was always given the impression that the suffering in purgatory would be physical pain, or something like it.)”

    Not necessarily. I mean, God COULD directly infuse the qualia of physical pain, the subjective conscious experience of physical pain, into the soul without a body. But more likely the suffering is purely “spiritual.” Self-improvement always takes effort, always “burns” somewhat, whether in this life or the next. Talk of “flame” is analogical.

    “One might also ask how saints in heaven hear the prayers of the living, but whether or not there is an answer as to how, clearly the Church teaches that they do.”

    They know them in the Beatific Vision! Souls who possess the Beatific Vision know everything or, rather, everything that God makes them able to know.

    “If saints can hear mental prayers, can they also read our thoughts when we are not praying?”

    Possibly yes, but not necessarily. If they have the Beatific Vision then, by definition, they have all knowledge available to them in some sense. The question is, basically, whether they are made able to “access” that knowledge.

    There are two opinions on this question, the answer in the Summa seems best:

    ‘regarding others [besides the human soul of Christ] who see the Divine essence there are two opinions. For some say that all who see God in His essence see all that God sees by His knowledge of vision. This, however, is contrary to the sayings of holy men, who hold that angels are ignorant of some things; and yet it is clear that according to faith all the angels see God in His essence. Wherefore others say that others than Christ, although they see God in His essence, do not see all that God sees because they do not comprehend the Divine essence. For it is not necessary that he who knows a cause should know all its effects, unless he comprehend the cause: and this is not in the competency of a created intellect. Consequently of those who see God in His essence, each one sees in His essence so much the more things according as he sees the Divine essence the more clearly: and hence it is that one is able to instruct another concerning these things. Thus the knowledge of the angels and of the souls of the saints can go on increasing until the day of judgment, even as other things pertaining to the accidental reward. But afterwards it will increase no more, because then will be the final state of things, and in that state it is possible that all will know everything that God knows by the knowledge of vision.’

    So, basically, the angels and Saints don’t necessarily know everything which God knows “by the knowledge of vision” (ie, all real events) because our intellects are still somewhat limited (though the created human soul of Christ DOES know everything real.)

    After the Last Judgment, however, THEN we will all possibly know everything that ever occurred in history (yes, private thoughts included).

    “The most popular saints are no doubt prayed to by thousands of people every day. Are they aware of all of these requests?”

    Yes.

    “When a saint in heaven receives requests to intercede on someone’s behalf, does the saint decide to do so in some cases and not in others?”

    Probably they intercede in all cases in which they are called upon.

    “And when a saint intercedes, does God automatically intervene to grant what was prayed for, or does he sometimes tell the saints he won’t grant their requests on behalf of the person praying?”

    The Saint, united with God in knowledge and will, can pretty much only pray, “Thy will be done.” It’s always God’s decision in the end, of course.

    “Is there a change in our intellectual capacity when we die that would allow us to keep track of thousands of requests a day…?”

    Yes. We become like gods, after all. The Beatific Vision (as well as the lack of Time) certainly makes this possible.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      Could you be more specific about which theologians? I have been thinking about this question for a number of years, and have never read anything that gave me an inkling that others had thought of this point.

    • A Sinner,

      Thanks for taking the time to answer in detail. Do you recommend just taking the plunge and reading Aquinas himself, or are there good (but brief, I hope!) introductions out there that it might be better to read first?

      • Ryan Klassen

        David – go ahead and jump in! At first the structure of Aquinas’ writing might seem odd, but it starts to flow quite nicely once you get into the rhythm of it. And don’t be intimidated by the length. While there is certainly benefit from reading it from start to finish, the topical structure allows you to find your way around. I recommend starting with the Tertia Pars and moving your way backwards.

        If you want a guide along the way, I second brettsalkeld’s recommendation of F.C. Bauerschmidt’s “Holy Teaching: Introducing the Summa Theologiae of Thomas Aquinas” (http://www.patheos.com/blogs/voxnova/2011/01/18/best-online-homilies-part-2-frederick-bauerschmidt/). His commentary on the key sections of the Summa is second to none.

        • brettsalkeld

          My Aquinas teacher says Aquinas is like a hologram. The whole is present in every part.

  • There’s an entire section in the CE about prayer of dead in P. for us. http://bit.ly/dVPvYW S Thomas, according to Dr Hanna, rejects the notion; in varying ways, evidently, SS Robert Bellarmine and Alphonsus Liguori et alii say ‘yes’.

  • muldoont

    See Robin Ryan’s meditation on John of the Cross, who had a marked influence on JPII’s theology of purgatory:
    http://thepassionists.org/reflections/2010/12/14/st-john-of-the-cross/

  • Peter John

    An excellent essay on Purgatory along these same lines by Fr. Al Kimel:

    http://pontifications.wordpress.com/purgatory/

    Peter

  • Ronald King

    Reflections on Purgatory from Vox Nova initiated my thinking about souls on earth, purgatory and heaven. This reminded me of the Buddhist work The Path of Purification along with John of the Cross’ work The Dark Night of the Soul. Each treatise describes the human being’s attachment to this physical existence and how these attachments inhibit our understanding of and our ability to love. Each step along the way can be seen as the process of dying and being born again as each attachment to our human identity that doesn’t resonate with love. Some of these attachments that define us are experienced as healthy and meaningful and others are considered unhealthy and sinful. In each instance they necessarily must be discarded in order to more closely resonate with the frequency of the luminous light of God.
    Now this luminous light of God is a light that is not caused by friction and thus it does not burn. What does burn in the soul is to be connected to this light, but it must develop within the senses of the body to have this desire to be connected. In the beginning of the soul’s life it is connected to a body that is created for love and everything that is loving nourishes the body and awakens the soul to the feeling of pleasure being sparked by that nourishment. Everything that is not love causes a burning desire to seek the substitute of pleasure. We cannot get enough pleasure and there is then a constant attachment to seeking what gives us a sense of pleasure and the illusion of fulfillment. Since the soul is God’s own breath of life, then once it experiences self awareness within the body its natural tendency is to seek the image that gives it the physical pleasure of the love of its origin which it knows nothing about intellectually and only instinctively. This is what differentiates us from the angels. It is only through our senses that this unmet burning desire for union with the source of our love and creation can be experienced both spiritually and physically.
    The soul then learns about emotional pain and pleasure through the experiences of life and death. The soul that is self-aware knows that purgatory is being lived in the body throughout its life. The soul that is not self-aware becomes so in purgatory and experiences the conscious awareness of its suffering during its physical life and the pain it attempted to avoid and the pain of the loss of attachments to the distractions that were used to avoid this pain.

  • Fr Alvin Kimel

    I am presently reading *Life After Death* by Metropolitan Hierotheos. Hierotheos’ presentation of St Gregory of Nyssa is of particular interest. I do not know if he gets Gregory right–Hierotheos does not, e.g., interpret Gregory as an exponent of apocatastasis–but as presented, we are given a view of post-mortem purification that bears similarities to Pope Benedict’s understanding of Purgatory.

    • brettsalkeld

      Hi Father Kimel,
      Thanks for stopping by Vox Nova. I noted a year or so back that you and I seem to be following parallel trajectories. I went from work on purgatory (Master’s thesis) to work on the Eucharist (doctoral dissertation) as well. I read your blog and your piece in Pro Ecclesia.

      Gregory of Nyssa is a very interesting fellow, it seems to me. In my thesis (now available from Paulist Press), I also found his view of post-mortem purification very compatible with more contemporary versions.

      • Fr Alvin Kimel

        Thank you, Brett, for your kind welcome. I will most definitely get a copy of your book. I look forward to reading it.

  • Bender

    On communion and prayer —

    If you are one with God and others are one with Him, and He is one with you and one with them, then you are necessarily one with those others by and through Him. Thus, by and through Him, those others can “hear” your prayers. That is, the words and thoughts of your heart are “communicated” to them.

    Those who are “in” purgatory, whether it be a place or state of being or process, are necessarily in communion with God, even though not yet in heaven. They are still within the Body of Christ that is the Church. Thus, they can “hear” prayers.

    And, being still within the Church, being in communion with God, they do what those who are in communion with Him do — they love Him and love others. One act of love is to intercede in prayer for others.

    Those who are in purgatory are not self-centered and inwardly focused! If they were, then they would not be in purgatory, but would be in Hell! In order to be in purgatory, in order to be made pure so as to enter the glory of heaven, one must necessarily be in a state of love. A love which cares about others and prays to God for them.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      Bender, that is a beautiful summary of what I was thinking. The only thing I would quibble about is that you do not make clear what the distinction is between Heaven and Purgatory is for those who are experiencing each. I would think it is more than a matter of degree. Perhaps we could say that those in Purgatory are not irredeemably self-centered (which is Hell) but are learning through Divine grace (the purifying fire of Christ) to be more open to love.