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Purification Of The Soul Here Or Hereafter

by Inez Fitzgerald Storck


A brief explanation of the effects of sin, the need for purgatory, and the use of everyday trials.

Larger Work

The Catholic Faith


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Publisher & Date

Ignatius Press, San Francisco, CA, November/December 2001

At the end of time, the Church, wearing a dress of "finest linen brilliant white," will have prepared herself for the wedding (Rev. 19:7-8). Mystically united to the unblemished Lamb, she will "gleam with the splendor of God" (Rev. 21:12). All those among the saved who were with stain of sin at the time of their death will have been purified in purgatory.

The Effects Of Sin

To understand the Church's teaching on our cleansing in purgatory, it is first necessary to understand sin and its effects, since purgatory has the purpose of purifying us from our sins. Those who die with no stain of sin on their souls, such as baptized babies, go straight to heaven when they die. Those who have reached the degree of perfect love of God, such as martyrs who give their lives for Him, also avoid purgatory. But many, perhaps the vast majority of those who are saved, because of the effects of sin still present in their souls, must endure the purifying fire of purgatory.

Each sin committed entail several negative consequences: an offense against God who is Love itself, frequently an offense against our neighbor, a lessening of the beauty of the Mystical Body, and a wounding of the soul, or, when mortal sin is committed, death to the life of the soul. When these weighty outcomes are considered, it is not surprising that forgiveness of a sin in confession does not automatically return things to where they were before the sin was committed. Thus, there may remain the temporal punishment due to sin, the debt to God that must be repaid either in this life or in purgatory. (The eternal punishment due to mortal sins is, of course, fully remitted when these sins are absolved.)

Traditional Church teaching has focused on this concept of the satisfaction (i.e., payment) of a debt to explain the need for temporal punishment on earth or in purgatory. The Catechism of the Council of Trent (also called the Roman Catechism), while stressing the super-abundant satisfaction for our sins made by Christ, explains that sacramental forgiveness removes the stain and guilt of sin, through the atonement of Christ, but does not always remit the debt of temporal punishment. This debt is required by God's justice, inasmuch as the sinner had received many divine gifts (numerous graces, the gifts of the Holy Spirit, all that is entailed in living in God's friendship as His adopted child), and had rejected these gifts at least partially. Satisfaction for sins also makes atonement to the Church, betrayed by our crimes, which have diminished her splendor.

Along with this concept of debt, the Roman Catechism offers a secondary explanation of temporal punishment based on the need for purification and healing, which is more satisfying to our modern minds, loathe to accept the idea of chastisement: " . . . some have defined [satisfaction] as a cleansing, which effaces whatever defilement may remain in the soul from the stains of sin, and which exempts us from the temporal chastisements due to sin."1 Thus, the debt due to sin is seen here to result from our own impurity, and when removed heals us. The Roman Catechism quotes St. John Chrysostom: " . . . it is not enough that sin has been pardoned; the wound which it has left must also be healed by penance."2 It is apparent that the concepts of satisfaction and purification are two sides of the same coin. In satisfying the Divine Justice, repayment of the debt of sin also operates according to the dispensation of Divine Mercy, since satisfaction for sin effects the cleansing of the sinner.

It is the latter aspect that the Catechism of the Catholic Church (no. 1472) emphasizes, referring to the "unhealthy attachment to creatures" inherent in every sin. Purification on earth or in purgatory "frees one from . . the 'temporal punishment' of sin." Temporal punishment, as well as the eternal punishment of hell incurred by unforgiven mortal sin, "must not be conceived of as a kind of vengeance inflicted by God from without, but as following from the very nature of sin."

In view of the multifaceted need for satisfaction, the Church has instituted the requirement for a penance to be performed as part of the Sacrament of Penance. The penance has a sacramental value which does not depend on the devotion of the penitent; when performed it brings a sharing in Christ's merits. Thus the prayers and acts which comprise the penance serve to fulfill at least some of the temporal punishment due to sin. Yet some of this debt may remain, as the soul of the penitent may need to be cleansed from the effects of sin.

The Need For Purgatory

Our Lord in His Mercy has provided purgatory for those "who die in His grace and friendship," but who "must undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven" (CCC 1030). Nothing defiled can enter heaven. Christ admonishes us to be perfect even as our heavenly Father is perfect (Matt. 5:48). After death souls understand more fully the great love that God has for them, manifested during the life, passion and death of Our Lord, undergone for each individual soul as though no other existed. His love has also been poured out on each soul during the entire course of his life, so that God can truly ask him, "What more could I have done for you that I have not done?" St. Catherine of Genoa in her Treatise on Purgatory refers to the "burning love of God" as the central operation there,3 as it is indeed on earth, although not perceived as clearly as in purgatory.

Penetration with the burning charity of Our Lord brings with it the painful realization of our many faults and failings. A good description of this piercing awareness of sins is contained in George MacDonald's fantasy Lilith: A Romance. While not based on a Catholic theology of purgatory (MacDonald was a Protestant), the novel in the words of the protagonist (Mr. Vane, a name that represents us all in our great vanity) illustrates the regret of one in the realm of the dead who have not yet entered paradise:

. . . all the wrongs I had ever done, from far beyond my earthly memory down to the present moment, were within me. Fully in every wrong lived the conscious I, confessing, abjuring, lamenting the dead, making atonement with each person I had injured, hurt or offended. Every human soul to which I had caused a troubled thought, was now grown unspeakably dear to me, and I humbled myself before it, agonizing to cast from between us the clinging offense.

Even some actions presumed by us to be good will be revealed as tainted by self-interest. "All our righteous acts are stained in your eyes" (Is 64:5). Or, as T.S. Eliot puts it in "Little Gidding" (Four Quartets) we will experience the shame:

Of motives late revealed, and the awareness

Of things ill done and done to others' harm

Which once you took for exercise of virtue.

Then fools' approval stings, and honour stains.

We will perceive that all our charity has been bestowed on us from above, that our good deeds were divine gifts to ourselves as well as to others. Needless to say, we will be profoundly grateful to be in the state of sanctifying grace, possessing God's life within us, and for every actual grace received. We will also be painfully aware that we could have done more for our Lord, that graces offered and refused have affected the Mystical Body. Near the end of the film Schindler's List, Oscar Schindler agonizes over the Jews he didn't save from the holocaust, for a moment unconsoled by the many he rescued. He realizes with immense anguish that he could have bartered his car and other possessions for even more lives. So we will see that we had numerous opportunities to obtain graces for others, graces that might have rescued them from a fate far worse than the Nazi gas chambers.

Meditation on purgatory and the regret with which souls view their "numberless sins, offenses, and negligences" (Offertory prayer, Roman Missal of 1962) will unfailingly awaken in us the desire to amend our lives, to make up for past offenses by cooperating more freely with God's grace. As we grow in holiness, we will, like the souls in purgatory, perceive our faults more clearly.

The Faults Of The Saints

The saints frequently expressed a horror of even their minor faults. St. Anthony Claret saw himself as a "monster of ingratitude" and the "first and foremost sinner of all."4 St. Teresa of the Andes called herself a "criminal nothingness."5 St. Teresa of Avila describes the enlightenment which souls in love with God receive about their imperfections: "Since there is no hidden cobweb in a room where much sun enters, the soul sees clearly that it is most unworthy; it sees its misery."6 She refers to herself as a "worm so vile."7

St. John of the Cross also analyzes the suffering undergone by the soul blessed by a deep contemplative union with God: the soul experiences the miseries of its imperfections, which, since they are deeply entrenched, cause it to feel an oppressive inner torment. This suffering, which involves a "terrible annihilation," is transformative and leads to increased holiness. Souls privileged to pass through these trials undergo a "purgation on earth . . . similar to that of purgatory. For this purgation is that which would have to be undergone there. The soul that endures it here on earth either does not enter purgatory, or is detained there for only a short while. It gains more in one hour here on earth by this purgation than it would in many there."8

It is not only for the great saints that purification on earth takes the place of purgatory. Our Lord gives us all the means we need for sanctification in the course of our earthly pilgrimage. It is we who dispose of these means. What are they? The Eucharist, in the first place, the other sacraments, prayer, good works, and the acceptance of the trials of everyday life. Holy Communion is the greatest source of grace we have. As it increases our charity, reception of this sacrament "wipes away venial sins" (CCC 1394) and preserves us from future sins (CCC 1393, 1395). The Sacrament of Penance purifies us as it removes our sins (though not always the temporal debt due to them, as explained above). Prayer, especially mental prayer, ardently practiced by all the saints, enlightens the intellect on the mysteries of faith, particularly the "breadth and length and height and depth of Christ's love for us" (Eph. 3:18), inflames the soul so that it hungers and thirsts for His holiness (Matt. 5:6), and causes the memory to bear in mind the word of God spoken in Sacred Scripture and the good inspirations sent to us in prayer. Without frequent prayer the sacraments will have less than their intended effect. The more we pray, the more the sacraments will assist in our purification and sanctification. By good works we witness to the love we have received and atone for our sins.9 "Faith without works is as dead as a body without breath" (Jas. 2:26). Acts of charity enable us to take the resources God has given us (time, energy, material goods) and use them to build up treasure in heaven. Alms expiate every sin (Tobit 12:9).

The Use Of Everyday Trials

Perhaps the most neglected means for purification is the acceptance of the trials of everyday life. Part of the message of Fatima is the acceptance of the sacrifices demanded by our daily duties. It is as though we had King Midas' touch in our ability to transform acts performed in our homes and places of work into golden works of charity if we do all for Our Lord. St. Therese, whose ordinary life became extraordinary because of her intense devotion, urged that even picking up a pencil be done for the love of God.

Our sufferings, permitted by God, serve to chastise us (Heb. 12:6), atone for our sins, and prepare us to receive the fullness of Jesus Christ. St. Francis de Sales enumerates some everyday trials the acceptance of which is "more profitable for our souls than we can think":

. . . These concessions to the idiosyncrasies of others, this endurance of our neighbor's boorish and annoying acts and habits, these victories over our own humors and passions, this renouncement of our lesser inclinations, this effort against our aversions and dislikes, this heartfelt and meek admission of our imperfections . . .10

Needless to say, patient endurance of greater sufferings, such as unemployment, poverty, sickness, and the loss of loved ones, is of even greater value and can effect a rapid growth in holiness. The only Christian attitude toward such diminishment on the natural level is that it is an invitation to enrichment on the supernatural level.

Voluntary penance is another excellent means of furthering our identification with our crucified Lord. Thus, it is always possible to carry in our bodies the dying of Jesus (2 Cor. 4:10).

All these efforts of ours must be done out of love for God, not merely the desire to be purified during this life in order to escape the pains of purgatory. "If you would do works meant for penance, they must proceed from a living flame of charity . . . [I]t is love alone which secures His love, and blots out sin."11 Our Lord longed to ignite the blaze of His charity living in us during His earthly sojourn (Luke 12:49). Is it not appropriate that we experience the wound of His love for us, we who have wounded His heart by our lack of love? If our love has been wanting, then in purgatory we, like Christ, will suffer out of love. If our love is perfected, like the Good Thief's, then when we die He will say to us also "Today you will be with Me in Paradise" (Luke 23:43).

Inez Fitzgerald Storck writes from Maryland.

End Notes

1. Catechism of the Council of Trent for Parish Priests, trans. John A. McHugh and Charles J. Callan, Rockford IL, TAN, 1982, p. 297.

2. p. 301.

3. In The Spiritual Doctrine of Saint Catherine of Genoa, compiled by Cattaneo Marabotto, Rockford, IL, TAN, 1989, p. 299.

4. Autobiography, trans. Joseph Daries, ed., Jose Maria Vinas, Chicago, Charetian Publications, 1976, pp. 13, 232.

5. The Diary of Blessed Teresa of the Andes in God, the Joy of My Life, trans. Michael D. Griffin, Washington, D.C., Teresian Charism Press, 1989, p. 151.

6. The Book of Her Life in The Collected Works of St. Teresa of Avila, vol. 1, trans. Kieran Kavanaugh and Otilio Rodriguez, Washington, D.C., Institute for Carmelite Studies, p. 122.

7. Ibid., p. 123.

8. The Collected Works of St. John of the Cross, trans. Kieran Kavanaugh and Otilio Rodriguez, Washington, DC, Institute of Carmelite Studies, 1973, p. 339-340.

9. Various means of growing in charity and expiating sin are indulgenced by the Church. An indulgence remits part or all of the temporal punishment due to sin when a specific act is performed or prayer recited, and may be applied to oneself or to the souls in purgatory. Partial indulgences are granted to: 1) acts of Christian charity done out of compassion to help those in material or spiritual need, 2) abstinence from lawful pleasures, and 3) the performance of duties and endurance of the trials of life when accompanied by trust in God and a prayer. See The Handbook of Indulgences, Norms and Grants (New York, Catholic Book Publishing Co., 1991) for a complete list of indulgenced prayers and works. Unfortunately the translation of many of the prayers in this edition is inaccurate in a manner that dilutes, or in some cases distorts, doctrine. However, the book is a valuable resource, and includes Pope Paul VI's sublime Apostolic Constitution on Indulgences.

10. Treatise on the Love of God, trans. John K. Ryan, Rockford, IL, TAN, 1975, p. 269.

11. John Henry Newman, "Purity and Love" in Favorite Newman Sermons, ed. Daniel M. O'Connell, New York, The America Press, 1932, p. 169.

© The Catholic Faith 2001.

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