On Purgatory

I have to admit that the doctrine of purgatory is something I’ve never known much about, except as another item on the long list of Things Catholics Believe But We Don’t. So I was interested to begin Dante’s Purgatory not only to find out what happens in the story, but to get a glimpse of how the medieval mind imagined purgatory — and perhaps a few insights into what modern Catholics believe, as well. To the latter end, I again found Sayers’s notes quite helpful, as she laid out a few common misconceptions about purgatory and their doctrinal corrections:

We may add here a few words to clear up a number of widely current perplexities and misunderstandings about Purgatory.

(1) Purgatory is not a place of probation, from which the soul may go either to Heaven or to Hell. All souls admited to Purgatory are bound for Heaven sooner or later, and are for ever beyond the reach of sin.

(2) Purgatory is not a “second chance” for those who die obstinately unrepentant. The soul’s own choice between God and self, made in the moment of death, is final. (This moment of final choice is known as the “Particular Judgement”.)

(3) Repentance in the moment of death (in articulo mortis) is always accepted. If the movement of the soul is, however feebly, away from the self and towards God, its act of confession and contrition is complete, whether or not it is accompanied by formal confession and absolution; and the soul enters Purgatory.

(4) The Divine acceptance of a repentance in articulo mortis does not mean that the sinner “gets away with it” scot-free. What it does mean is that the soul is now obliged, with prolonged labour and pains, and without the assistance of the body, to accomplish in Purgatory the entire process of satisfaction and purification, the greater part of which should have been carried out on earth.

(5) The souls in Purgatory and the souls on earth are in touch with one another and can aid each other by their prayers. But it is wrong for the living to distract the dead from their task of purgation by egotistical and importune demands for attention. […]

(6) Souls which have so persevered in virtue till the moment of death as to accomplish their whole purgation in this life, are not detained in Purgatory, but pass immediately into the Presence of God. These are the Saints. N.B.: Canonization is not (as Bernard Shaw implies in the Epilogue to St Joan) the award of an earthy honour, but the recognition of a Divine fact. There may be, and undoubtedly are, innumerable saints unrecognized and uncanonized. (59-60)

We note also that the purgations experienced by the souls in Purgatory are meant to be palliative cures, not arbitrary punishments — and even when the method is the same (as the Simoniacs in Hell and the Lustful in Purgatory are both consumed by fire), the attitude of the penitent soul ensures a very different outcome and experience:

It has been well said by a great saint that the fire of Hell is simply the light of God as experienced by those who reject it; to those, that is, who hold fast to their darling illusion of sin, the burning reality of holiness is a thing unbearable. To the penitent, that reality is a torment so long and only so long as any vestige of illusion remains to hamper their assent to it: they welcome the torment, as a sick man welcomes the pains of surgery, in order that the last crippling illusion may be burned away. The whole operation of Purgatory is directed to the freeing of the judgement and the will. […] the resolute breaking-down, at whatever cost, of the prison walls, so that the soul may be able to emerge at last into liberty and endure unscathed the unveiled light to reality. […] There is no difference in the justice; the only difference is in the repudiation or acceptance of judgement. (16)

That is the doctrinal framework through which we are to understand what Dante sees and experiences as he travels through Purgatory, accompanied and guided first by Virgil (as in Hell) and then by Beatrice. The effect of moving from Hell to Purgatory is immediate; it is obvious from the opening lines that this will be a very different book than the first installment. Dante opens Canto I with a second invocation to the muses; the tone and description are a welcome change from the grim miseries of Hell:

For better waters heading with the wind / My ship of genius now shakes out her sail / And leaves that ocean of despair behind; / For to the second realm I tune my tale, / Where human spirits purge themselves, and train / To leap up into joy celestial. / Now from the grave wake poetry again, / O sacred Muses I have served so long! / Now let Calliope uplift her strain / And life my voice up on the mighty song / That smote the miserable Magpies nine / Out of all hope and pardon for their wrong! / Colour unclouded, orient-sapphire, / Softly suffusing from meridian height / Down the still sky to the horizon-line, / Brought to mine eyes renewal of delight / So soon as I came forth from that dead air / Which had oppressed my bosom and my sight. (I.1-18)

This comes as a breath of fresh air for the reader as well as for our stalwart narrator! And the lovely tone continues throughout Purgatory as Dante climbs higher and higher up the mountain to the earthly paradise where Beatrice appears to guide him to Heaven. The souls in Purgatory tell their stories just as others did in Hell — but their attitude is, to a one, one of humble acceptance of their purgation and eagerness to complete each necessary level quickly, so as to gain Heaven with least delay. When a soul finishes its purgation and makes that final leap, the entire mountain quakes as all upon it shout Gloria in Excelsis Deo! The whole thing is surprisingly lovely, really. I was surprised at how much I enjoyed Purgatory (there’s a sentence I never thought I’d write); where Hell had turned into a bit of a grim slog by the end, Purgatory constantly enticed me on.

Now, was this enough to entice me to the doctrine of purgatory itself? No — not quite — and I would have to take a hard look at its actual origins/support/etc. before deciding something like that. But it did convince me that there is a certain logic to it, much more than I would have previously supposed. (After all, the list of Things Catholics Believe But We Don’t seems to have a fairly large overlap with the list of Catholic Beliefs Protestants Misrepresent!) But in any case, Purgatory was a thoroughly enjoyable read, and I am looking forward to finishing the journey in Paradise.