Picturing Purgatory

The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein once made an observation that I’ve often repeated in seemingly endless contexts: a picture can hold you captive. He meant that how we envision a thing can either limit, or expand, our understanding of it. Take, for instance, your body. Before you begin to count calories, or grey hairs, or lack of any hair; before you feel that tightness in your back or think about the stiffness in your knees, perhaps a more fundamental picture needs to be challenged: is it really your body?

“Who else’s would it be?” You ask. Consider this excerpt from a New Yorker article by Michael Specter entitled, “Germs Are Us.” It’s about all of the bacteria that live within us. We now know that many of them are quite essential to our health:


We inherit every one of our genes, but we leave the womb without a single microbe. As we pass through our mother’s birth canal, we begin to attract entire colonies of bacteria. By the time a child can crawl, he has been blanketed by an enormous, unseen cloud of microorganisms — a hundred trillion or more. They are bacteria, mostly, but also viruses and fungi (including a variety of yeasts), and they come at us from all directions: other people, food, furniture, clothing, cars, buildings, trees, pets, even the air we breathe. They congregate in our digestive systems and our mouths, fill the space between our teeth, cover our skin, and line our throats. We are inhabited by as many as ten thousand bacterial species; these cells outnumber those which we consider our own by ten to one, and weigh, all told, about three pounds — the same as our brains. Together, they are referred to as our microbiome — and they play such a crucial role in our lives that scientists...have begun to reconsider what it means to be human (Oct. 22, pg. 33).

In other words, to adapt a line from Hillary Clinton, it takes more than a village to be you. It takes a metropolis. Your body isn’t the chassis your mind drives around the world, the picture bequeathed to us by the philosopher of the Enlightenment, René Descartes. It’s more akin to a grand hotel.

That wasn’t the only unhelpful picture given to us by the Enlightenment. The other is the notion that what is most real about yourself is a mind, one uniquely your own, standing over and against the world. One can understand how the picture got its legs. Close your eyes and the world disappears. Open them; there it is again.

The German Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner warned that we mustn’t think of ourselves as ending with our skin. He was picking up a helpful corrective from the philosophy of Martin Heidegger. None of us really stands over and against the world. In fact, none of us can explain ourselves, even to ourselves, without immediately summoning up our cares, our concerns, our interests and our dreams, and all of these are drawn from the world around us. As Rahner and Heidegger saw it, trying to pull a human person out from the world is like peeling an onion in search of its core.

If I’ve given you slightly richer pictures of your body and your soul, allow me to try for a third. Purgatory is not a prison where you go to do time until you’ve earned a ticket to heaven. It’s much better to think of purgatory as the process by which God gathers up the pieces of yourself.

Begin with that epic injunction of Deuteronomy: “Hear, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord alone! Therefore, you shall love the Lord, your God, with your whole heart, and with your whole being, and with your whole strength” (6: 4-5). There is a fundamental difference between ourselves and God. God is, as Saint Thomas Aquinas would say, “Pure Act,” meaning that everything God does, God does completely. There’s nothing partial or tentative about the way God knows and acts. Likewise, God’s love lacks for nothing. As Hebrews puts it, speaking of Christ, “He has no need, as did the high priests, to offer sacrifice day after day, first for his own sins and then for those of the people; he did that once for all when he offered himself” (7: 27).

That’s not the case with us, is it? As long as we live, we’re still learning, hopefully! That means that what we currently know — even about ourselves — is partial. All of our actions are likewise incomplete. We make decisions about the future only to discover that there are parts of ourselves we haven’t yet met. Indeed, to be human is constantly to discover more of ourselves each day, and each discovery prompts a new decision: what will I affirm and embrace? What will I reject?

If “body” is our word, and our picture, for an ever-changing metropolis of living matter, then “soul” really designates a vast, unknown country of care and commitment. We “discover and decide” ourselves in an endless cycle, until death claims us. Put another way, a soul is something we forge.

Of course the saint is the one who, as Kierkegaard so aptly put it, “wills the one thing.” In other words, the more the saint encounters and discovers interacting with the world, the more she brings all of that under her desire to give herself totally to the God. Hence the life of a saint is marked by a singleness of purpose, a unity of self, that most of us can’t match. Put another way, the saint is much closer to being what Aquinas would call a complete and single act. The rest of us are still strewn across of fields of desires and fragmentary designs.

However it is accomplished, in a realm of reality we will never adequately picture, purgatory is the merciful intervention of God into the disparate realm we call ourselves. The very metaphor “purgation” says as much. That which is our deepest, our truest, self is purged away from all that is dross.

In the gospel, Jesus tells his young interlocutor, “You are not far from the kingdom of God” (Mk 12: 34). To bring the soul to that kingdom is the sole purpose of life, but the soul isn’t simply an object we port. It’s a world of diverse and often divisive desires, which must be won for God. In a way, a soul becomes a kingdom when all is ordered toward God. That’s the very task of life.

If death comes before that work is complete, then the mercy of God mends. It knits together the partial and the broken in a manner we can never imagine. Purgatory is nigh impossible to picture, but nevertheless essential to proclaim.

Deuteronomy 6: 2-6 Hebrews 7: 23-28 Mark 12: 28b-34

Rev. Terrance W. Klein 

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Marie Rehbein
6 years 4 months ago
This is very interesting and well expressed.
Eric Styles
6 years 4 months ago
Thanks for this. It is very moving. If only we were able to offer this kind of catechesis to a larger number of adults.
Michael Barberi
6 years 4 months ago
Thanks for an insightful and inspiring article on Purgatory. If I may, there is a more important message that needs more clarity and awareness.

The reparation for sins is not fully explained or often emphasized enough in basic Catholic education. More importantly, as adult Catholics we are never reminded of it from the pulpit. The emphasis is on the sacrament of reconciliation and Eucharistic reception, prayer and sacrifice. However, in all my years of confession, I never heard a priest suggest any prayers or works for the reparation of sins. Perhaps confession is not the forum for a discussion of it, but there is no excuse for more education from the pulpit or in a weekly Church bulletin. As a result, few of us ever think about how we can attone for past sins in this life in order to avoid, as best we can, reparation in the next (e.g., purgatory). 

There are many ways the Church offers Catholics for the reparation of sins. I will not go into detail but they can be found in the Manual of Indulgences. In the 1990s, JP II brought into existance through the sainthood of Saint Maria Faustina Kowlaska, Divine Mercy Sunday with its plenary indulgence.

We need not despair over purgatory and the reparation of sins. The gift of divine mercy is available to us in this life. 
Michael Barberi
6 years 3 months ago
If fear is a consequence of a picture of purgatory, as the inevitable completion of the human person, then it would be difficult for most sinners to experience the joy that we should all have at the hour of our death. If there is no reparation of sins in this world, then purgatory is inevitiable and a place of suffering, not joy. 

Would it not be better to focus on the joy of going to God and the place he created for us from the begining of time, and not fear of purgatory at the hour of our death? Should we rather trust in his divine mercy and the belief that His Spirit has been guiding us to everlasting life? Granted, all of our prayers and good works gain nothing for us, but does He not heal us? For the grace of God does He not welcome us into his kingdom? This does not mean we should have no fear of a purgatory or hell. Far from it. However, it does mean that if we strive to become the person he wants us to become, then there is more hope in his divine mercy than in the inevitable suffering of purgatory. Is this not the truthful picture we should have at the hour of our death?

Julio Vidaurrazaga
6 years 4 months ago
A very interesting article.
 I think you should look at the(French )  poen "AVE"  of Catherine Pozzi
(one of the most beutiful French poemea )
Molly Roach
6 years 4 months ago
Having endured childhood catechesis which suggested that Purgatory-where we were all headed!-was the backsteps of hell, I have come to envision it as the front porch of heaven.  I love what you said here though

 ...purgatory is the merciful intervention of God into
         the disparate realm we call ourselves.

Mary Keane
6 years 4 months ago
Lovely and thought provoking.  I recently heard purgatory described (by Msgr. Rohlfs at Mt. St. Mary's) as 'summer school' for the soul.   Perhaps a place to learn what we slacked off about throughout our earthly days.  The image is not only humorous but offers the promise of redemption - if only we get those lessons learned at last!

But in seriousness...who knows how or in what manner we might recalibrate ourselves when the microbes have taken up tenancy for eternity?  I am only happy to have a new notion of purgatory as not quite so dreary as I once imagined. 
Regina Werntz
6 years 3 months ago
I need to spend more time with this insightful imagery-''God picking up the pieces of our dreams and desires, knitting them together. I recently painted a picture of myself, a vase with an aqua background resembling water, flecked with red, darker blue, and green, and gold. Each color represented a different chunk of my life, as I see it. This article got me thinking how the pieces are separate yet all held swimmingly together by my earthly vessel yet not yet whole. Thanks to this article, I can begin to see purgatory as God's action in completing this work of art.

Thank you! 


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