In the third installment in our series on purgatory, we examined the opinion that purgatory involves actual corporeal fire. We saw that this odd-seeming view has some basis in a sound understanding of the relationship between the soul and the body, and that it concerns an undo attachment to merely material goods. We saw, too, that this view is related to other models of purgatory. In Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Jacob Marley is sentenced to wander about the world dragging a heavy set of chains he’d forged, “link by link, and yard by yard . . . [and which he’d] girded . . . on of [his] own free will. . . .”
Marley’s not in hell but purgatory. He’s remorseful. He desires to do good for the suffering, but he suffers himself because he can’t. His punishment consists in his frustrated compassion for those from whom he’d averted his gaze in his life on earth. What’s more, Marley admits that his apparition before Scrooge in a sensible form is “no light part of [his] penance,” and that it presents Scrooge with a chance of redemption, “a chance and hope,” says Marley, “of my procuring.”
Marley interceded for Scrooge in an act of penance for the sins he’d left unatoned for in this life. He experiences, in his present state, their enduring temporal consequences, and states that, “this earth must pass into eternity before the good of which it is susceptible is all developed.” Marley’s condition parallels time. It has some kind of duration, and his misuse of life has its accounting in another realm, yet there’ll be an end to his agonizing suffering in the resolution to come at the end of time.
Dickens paints a compelling and intriguing portrait of purgatory, indeed. For Aquinas, our undue attachment to the goods of this world and our failure to attend to the harm our sins had done in this life lead us to experience the essence of the world’s futility in the form of corporeal fire. For Dickens, somewhat similarly, our neglect of spiritual goods for material vanities leads him to turn on its head the saying, “you can’t take it with you.” On the contrary, for Dickens, the problem is precisely that you can’t leave it behind—that you drag it around with you. Every link in Marley’s chain is an earthy good which had distracted him from the goods of heaven, measured in God’s concern for the poor, the lame, and the downtrodden.
C. S. Lewis offers another approach to the mystery of purgatory. In his novella, The Great Divorce, purgatory is depicted as a region midway between heaven and hell. Lewis isn’t speaking here of a permanent intermediate state but of a spiritual space that needs to be moved across—the space that moves from our prior attachments to lesser goods on through to our perfect resignation to God’s pure vision of who we ought to be. For Lewis, purgatory is the process of leaving those lesser goods behind in favor of the perfect Good of heaven. Lewis describes these lesser goods in terms of macabre shadows with little substance, and the perfect Good of heaven as so real and solid that our shadowy, purgatorial state can barely endure it. The blades of grass cut through our feet like knives.
C. S. Lewis’ image of purgatory is based, as far as I can tell, on the description of the Italian mystic, St. Catherine of Genoa (d. 1510). She saw purgatory in the form of an interior, spiritual “fire,” burning away all the impurities still intermixed with our aspirations for heaven in our approach to God. We want to move forward into God’s embrace, but the contrast between what we truly are and God’s perfect holiness is agonizing to behold.
Many Protestants object to purgatory because they see it as a kind of “second chance” at heaven, which can’t be if it’s, “appointed unto human beings to die but once and, after this, to face judgment” (Hebrews 9:27). Yet none of the positions we’ve seen articulated in this series involves a second chance at heaven prior to judgment. In some of the views we’ve seen, purgatory involves a sentence imposed for an interval, following our being judged. In others, like those of Lewis and Catherine of Genoa, purgatory, for all intents and purposes, is the judgment.
We’ll take a closer look at that idea in our next installment.