Purgatory: What’s it like?

11-12-2023Weekly Reflection

What the Church teaches about Purgatory can be found in the Catechism of the Catholic Church:

III. The Final Purification, or Purgatory

1030 All who die in God's grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified, are indeed assured of their eternal salvation; but after death they undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven.

1031 The Church gives the name Purgatory to this final purification of the elect, which is entirely different from the punishment of the damned. The Church formulated her doctrine of faith on Purgatory especially at the Councils of Florence and Trent. The tradition of the Church, by reference to certain texts of Scripture, speaks of a cleansing fire:

As for certain lesser faults, we must believe that, before the Final Judgment, there is a purifying fire. He who is truth says that whoever utters blasphemy against the Holy Spirit will be pardoned neither in this age nor in the age to come. From this sentence we understand that certain offenses can be forgiven in this age, but certain others in the age to come.

1032 This teaching is also based on the practice of prayer for the dead, already mentioned in Sacred Scripture: "Therefore Judas Maccabeus] made atonement for the dead, that they might be delivered from their sin. "From the beginning the Church has honored the memory of the dead and offered prayers in suffrage for them, above all the Eucharistic sacrifice, so that, thus purified, they may attain the beatific vision of God. The Church also commends almsgiving, indulgences, and works of penance undertaken on behalf of the dead:

Let us help and commemorate them. If Job's sons were purified by their father's sacrifice, why would we doubt that our offerings for the dead bring them some consolation? Let us not hesitate to help those who have died and to offer our prayers for them.

The purification is necessary because, as Scripture teaches, nothing unclean will enter the presence of God in heaven (Rev. 21:27) and, while we may die with our mortal sins forgiven, there can still be many impurities in us, specifically venial sins and the temporal punishment due to sins already forgiven.

St John of the Cross says: At the end they will examen you on love, learn to love as God desires to be loved, and abandon your present state. Sayings of Light and Love #60 God has told us how he desires to be loved: Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. Deuteronomy 6:5 St. Thomas Aquinas refers to shadows in the soul as the stain of sin: The stain is neither something positive in the soul, nor does it denote a pure privation: it denotes a privation of the soul's brightness in relation to its cause, which is sin; wherefore diverse sins occasion diverse stains. It is like a shadow, which is the privation of light… Summa Theologiae I,II, 86 q.1, ad 3

An apt description: shadows in our love for God. St. Thomas reminds us that the stain of sin remains after the act of sin is gone. It’s a blemish in the brightness of the soul. Even after sin is forgiven, the person does not return to the state of brightness he had before unless he moves towards God willingly which is contrary to the movement that took him away from God. St. Thomas puts it this way: when someone is parted from another person through movement, he is not reunited with that person when the movement stops. He needs to draw near to the person by a contrary movement. ibid. 86 q.2

Saint Thomas when treating of Purgatory has sobering things to say. He believes that the least suffering in Purgatory is greater than the greatest suffering on earth. He says this: …In purgatory there are two punishments: one of loss, namely, inasmuch as souls are held back from the divine vision; the other, of sense, according as they are purified by material fire. And in both, the least punishment of purgatory exceeds the greatest punishment of this life. For the more something is desired, the more troubling is its absence. And because the affection by which the highest good is desired in holy souls after this life is the most intense, since the affection is not held back by the weight of the body, and since the enjoyment of the highest good would have arrived by then had nothing impeded it; for these reasons they suffer extremely from this delay.

Julian, Bishop of Toledo, says: "If the soul of a living man is held by the body, why shall it not be held after death by a bodily fire?" and Augustine says that "just as the soul is spiritual and the body material, man is so fashioned that the soul is united to the body as giving it life, and on account of this union conceives a great love for its body, so it is chained to the fire, as receiving here purification therefrom a cleansing pain.

St. Catherine of Genoa, endowed with mystical graces, describes aspects of Purgatory. For example:

This holy soul, while still in the flesh, was placed in the purgatory of the burning love of God, in whose flames she was purified from every stain, so that when she passed from this life she might be ready to enter the presence of God, her most sweet love.

By means of that flame of love she comprehended in her own soul the condition of the souls of the faithful in purgatory, where they are purified from the rust and stain of sins, from which they have not been cleansed in this world. And as in the purgatory of that divine flame she was united with the divine love and satisfied with all that was accomplished in her, she was enabled to comprehend the state of the souls in purgatory, and thus discovered concerning it:

"As far as I can see, the souls in purgatory can have no choice but to be there; this God has most justly ordained by his divine decree. They cannot turn towards themselves and say: `I have committed such and such sins for which I deserve to remain here;' nor can they say: `Would that I had refrained from them, for then I should at this moment be in paradise;' nor again: `This soul will be released before me;' or `I shall be released before her.'

They retain no memory of either good or evil respecting themselves or others which would increase their pain. They are so contented with the divine dispositions in their regard; and with doing all that is pleasing to God in that way which he chooses, that they cannot think of themselves, though they may strive to do so.

They see nothing but the operation of the divine goodness which is so manifestly bringing them to God that they can reflect neither on their own profit nor on their hurt. Could they do so, they would not be in pure charity. They see not that they suffer their pains in consequence of their sins, nor can they for a moment entertain that thought, for should they do so it would be an active imperfection, and that cannot exist in a state where there is no longer the possibility of sin.

At the moment of leaving this life they see why they are sent to purgatory, but never again, otherwise they would still retain something private, which has no place there. Being established in charity, they can never deviate therefrom by any defect, and have no will or desire, save the pure will of pure love, and can swerve from it in nothing. They can neither commit sin, nor merit by refraining from it.

From that furnace of divine love I see rays of fire dart like burning lamps towards the soul; and so violent and powerful are they that both soul and body would be utterly destroyed, if that were possible. These rays perform a double office; they purify and they annihilate.

"Consider gold: the oftener it is melted, the more pure does it become; continue to melt it and every imperfection is destroyed. This is the effect of fire on all materials. The soul, however, cannot be annihilated in God, but in herself she can, and the longer her purification lasts, the more perfectly does she die to herself, until at length she remains purified in God.

"When gold has been completely freed from dross, no fire, however great, has any further action on it, for nothing but its imperfections can be consumed. So it is with the divine fire in the soul. God retains her in these flames until every stain is burned away, and she is brought to the highest perfection of which she is capable, each soul in her own degree. And when this is accomplished, she rests wholly in God. Nothing of herself remains, and God is her entire being. When he has thus led her to himself and purified her, she is no longer passable, for nothing remains to be consumed. If when thus refined she should again approach the fire she would feel no pain, for to her it has become the fire of divine love, which is life eternal and which nothing mars.