We often imagine that purgatory is a sentence we serve before our admittance into heaven. But what if purgatory doesn’t follow judgment? What if purgatory is judgment, subjectively experienced by us?
This is precisely the view articulated by St. Catherine of Genoa (d. 1510). For her, purgatory isn’t an immersion in corporal fire but a metaphorical, spiritual fire. Our inordinate attachments to lesser goods, or to false goods, which distract us from God are impurities of the soul. Our masked sins and our unwillingness to admit them to God, to ourselves, or to anyone else, are obstacles to our union with him, who, of his very nature, is Truth itself. As we approach God—a process which, for Catherine, begins in this life—these impurities and obstacles must be “burned away” until only God and the soul remain, with nothing left to come between them.
In the process, those suffering in purgatory are at once overwhelmed with the joy and consolation of God’s love and overwrought with anguish in the face of a self-knowledge so authentic that no personal fault or sin can evade detection. The light of Truth lays bare the fig-leaved soul (Genesis 3:7) and reveals us to ourselves with stark and lucid honesty.
Many theologians today favor this understanding of purgatory, both because it makes sense on its own terms and because it integrates well with other experiences of Christian life and conversion. Anyone who’s ever struggled to look at himself in the mirror or strained to name his sins in the confessional knows full-well that truth hurts and that facing it can be a terrifying and dreadful event. The contrast between who we are and who we ought to be, the awareness that every sin of ours is a cause of suffering in the crucified Christ, the knowledge that when we “look upon the Man” (John 19:5) we look upon the truth of our own iniquity, can cause us to turn away in horror.
But a penitent Christian also knows the liberation and joy that comes from being seen as we really are and still loved, our wretchedness notwithstanding. Being reconciled in an outpouring of gratuitous mercy, no longer living in the dark shadows of guilt and shame but under the bright cloud of the Holy Spirit (Matthew 17:5), who’s descended upon us and surrounded us with songs of deliverance (Psalm 32:7): such is our joy.
Even at the level of the merely inter-human, we understand this dynamic of guilt and forgiveness, shame and mercy, anguish and ecstasy. Human beings, though, love imperfectly and forgive imperfectly. But God isn’t like us. His love is pure—unalloyed with any needfulness of his own, nor sullied by any fault. And so, while his Holiness awakens the greatest dread, his infinite Love inspires the most abundant confidence.
Catherine’s view of purgatory allows us to see all the moments of this life as an integral whole, as steps along what St. Bonaventure (d. 1274), writing in a different but not unrelated context, called, “the mind’s journey into God.” While Bonaventure, though, saw purgation as a step that allowed us to see the truth, for Catherine, we’re purged in and through our truly seeing and being-seen. To the extent that we don’t surrender ourselves to such disclosure, we remain in our impurity. But to the extent that we accept the truth about ourselves and allow God to see us and to reveal us to ourselves as we really are, all our grotesque scabs and scars and all the pustules of our sin and sorrow are exposed to his healing touch. We know and are known; we’re purified; and we enter his embrace.
Thus, the sacrament of Reconciliation can be seen, in light of Catherine’s vision, as a stage of the purgative process experienced here and now. From this perspective, purgatory isn’t merely an event of the next life but the quality of Christian conversion, which is already, or ought to be, an essential feature of the present life. The Christian lives in Judgment, stands before the mercy seat of God, which is nothing other than Christ crucified. We live as thieves to his right or to his left—our eyes open to, or our gaze averted from, the awful Truth of what our sins mean before the tremendous mystery of God’s Love and how we squander it. This truth must be faced.
In our final installment in our series on purgatory, we’ll look at the idea of surrender as it touches on this mystery.