This article was originally published in The Catholic News Herald of the diocese of Charlotte.
This past year, I’ve been working my way through a reading of Dante Alighieri’s epic poem “The Divine Comedy,” in which the poet narrator travels first through the circles of hell, then climbs the mountain of purgatory, and ultimately reaches the paradise of heaven. As we enter into the month of November, a time the Church has designated especially for praying for the souls of the dead, it is particularly fitting that I am about halfway through my reading of purgatory.
One of the things that struck me as I read of the trials of the souls in purgatory, especially compared with the punishments of the souls in hell, is the hope and the knowledge that there will ultimately be joy. The souls in purgatory have already been judged, and heaven awaits them.
The theology surrounding purgatory is not always easy for our minds to grasp. It’s easy for us to naively equate the purifications of purgatory with the punishments of hell, but they are not the same. The Catechism of the Catholic Church says, “All who die in God’s grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified, are indeed assured of the eternal salvation; but after death they undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven” (CCC 1030). In C.S. Lewis’ book “Letters to Malcolm, Chiefly on Prayer,” he puts it this way: “Our souls demand purgatory, don’t they? Would it not break the heart if God said to us, ‘It is true, my son, that your breath smells and your rags drip with mud and slime, but we are charitable here and no one will upbraid you with these things, nor draw away from you. Enter into joy.’? Should we not reply, ‘With submission, sir, and if there is no objection, I’d rather be cleaned first.’ ‘It may hurt, you know’ – ‘Even so, sir.’”
There are times in our lives, especially as children, when we may have played a little too hard outdoors, and when it’s time to come inside we are caked with dirt and sweat, perhaps a little blood from scraped knees and elbows, our hair in knots and tangles. Our loved ones do not love us less because of the dirt, just as God does not love us less because of our sins. But we still want to look presentable and attractive to those we love. So we submit to the bath, perhaps a very hot one, and we scrub the dirt and grime from our skin, perhaps needing enough force to leave us red and chafed at first. We comb out the tangles and knots. In the end, we might feel a little raw from all these ministrations, but we will also feel rejuvenated, purified, ready to present our clean, sweet-smelling selves as worthy of the finest of company.
In this same way, purgatory washes and cleanses our souls from the stains of our earthly sins, preparing us to enter heaven and present ourselves before the Lord. It is a mercy and a kindness He grants us, to allow us to make ourselves presentable for Him – not for His sake, but for ours.
Just as we know ourselves to be sinners, and we know those around us are sinners, it is important that we remember our beloved dead most likely still had sins to atone for, as well. The souls of the dead are still members of the Body of Christ, and they can benefit by our prayers in the same way that we pray for each other and ask for prayers in this earthly life. There are also many souls in purgatory who may have already been forgotten in this world, who have no one to remember to pray for them. The Catechism reminds us, “’In full consciousness of this communion of the whole Mystical Body of Jesus Christ, the Church in its pilgrim members, from the earliest days of the Christian religion, has honored with great respect the memory of the dead; and ‘because it is a holy and wholesome thought to pray for the dead that they may be loosed from their sins,’ she offers her suffrages for them. Our prayer for them is capable not only of helping them, but also of making their intercession for us effective” (CCC 958).
As souls are being chafed and scrubbed clean in purgatory, our prayers can be a soothing balm and comfort. In Dante’s portrayal, the holy souls in purgatory are continually asking for prayers from those still living on earth. God’s love and mercy is abundant, but it must still be asked for; we must bring Him our petitions. In the Diary of St. Faustina, she records several visions she received of souls in purgatory who were aided by her prayers and those of her community.
Even the smallest prayer benefits those souls, bringing them relief and expediting their path to heaven, as well as allowing them to pray for us in return. The Blessed Virgin Mary and the saints have given us many forms and weapons to use in prayer, some of the most powerful being the rosary and the Chaplet of Divine Mercy. Even a single Hail Mary offered in earnest can be a gift to a suffering soul.
As we pray for our most beloved dead, let us do so with hope as we look forward to meeting them again in heaven. Here are the words of the Scottish writer George MacDonald, from a letter he wrote after three of his own children had died in the span of eight years: “Perhaps we may never all meet again together in this world. God knows: but I have all my life been attended… by the feeling of a meeting at hand. It must come one day – the hour when our hearts, all of them, will come together as they have never come before – when, knowing God, we shall know each other in a way infinitely beyond any way we have now. But the new way will fold the old way up in it. The Kingdom of Heaven has come near us that we may enter into it, and be all at home together. Kingdom and home are one.”
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