The Eternal Question

The Ransom of the Soulby Peter Brown

Harvard University Press. 288p $24.95

Heaven Can Waitby Diana Walsh Pasulka

Oxford University Press. 224p $31.95


If one of your dear friends is dying, what would you do to comfort him or her at the prospect of approaching death? Perhaps the last thing you would think of is writing a book, but that is precisely what Julian, bishop of Toledo, did. In A.D. 688, to help his dying friend Idalius, bishop of Barcelona, Julian decided to compose an anthology of the great writers of the Latin Church on the subject of the afterlife. Entitled Prognosticon Futuri Saeculi (A Medical Report on the Future World), the three-part work, about 100-pages long and destined to become a bestseller in the Middle Ages, sets out to explain the origin of death and describe the three possible destinations of the soul after death—heaven, hell and the “purifying fire.” It is with this story that Peter Brown, an eminent historian of late antiquity, opens his book The Ransom of the Soul: Afterlife and Wealth in Early Western Christianity.

As is intimated by its subtitle, the book is not a study of patristic eschatology as such. Rather, adopting Prv 13:8 (“The ransom of the soul of a man is his wealth”) for the title of his book, Brown studies the impact of the belief in the afterlife on the wealth of the early church, a topic he has broached in his hefty 760-page book Through the Eye of the Needle: Wealth, the Fall of Rome, and the Making of Christianity in the West, 350-550. The issue under consideration is twofold: First, how can the living help the dead who dwell in what Brown calls the “twilight zone”; and, second, what can the living do for themselves so as to avoid—or at least shorten—the stay in the twilight zone after their death. Obviously, those who have gone to heaven immediately after death, including the martyrs, as Cyprian (d. 258) has pointed out, do not need any help, and those who have gone to hell are beyond helping. But martyrs are the few and far between elite who enter into paradise immediately after death. The majority of Christians have to settle in a waiting period—what Tertullian (ca. 225) calls a refrigerium interim—a refreshing period of rest awaiting for the “Big Future of the Resurrection.”

It is Augustine (354-430) who supplies the clearest categorization of types of eternal destiny with his threefold division of souls into the valde boni (the altogether good), the valde mali (the altogether bad) and the non valde boni (the not altogether good). (Augustine includes his mother Monica among this last group.) For the first group help from the living is not needed; for the second it is impossible; for the third, it is necessary. But how can the living help souls of the third group? Augustine mentions three ways: prayer, remembering the dead during the Eucharist and almsgiving. Of course, the first two ways, while efficacious, do not bring wealth to the church, but the third does; and about how much and for what purposes Brown gives ample information throughout his book.

There is also another way in which the belief in the afterlife dramatically brought wealth to the church, this time by actions on behalf of not the dead in the twilight zone but the living themselves. Since the majority of Christians are the non valde boni, they need to ensure that they escape the twilight zone after death, or at least shorten their stay in it. This is done by “ransoming the soul,” or transforming the wealth on earth into “a treasure in heaven,” a sort of celestial investment, which is achieved by giving things of monetary value to the church, and the more the safer, since it is rare if not impossible to bypass the twilight zone altogether, and the oftener the better, since we all sin daily. This kind of “almsgiving,” according to Augustine, can expiate sins. The wealth thus accumulated for the church is—in principle—used for the care of the poor, support for the clergy and the building and maintenance of churches.

In the fifth century, with the rise of monasticism in southern Gaul, especially at Lėrins, and with the selection of bishops from the ranks of monks (for example, Honoratus of Arles, Hilary of Arles, Faustus of Riez and Caesarius of Arles), there was a strong emphasis on conversion and public penance, made all the more urgent by the alleged imminent coming of the end of the world. The fear of hell and of the Last Judgment, which is much in evidence in the widespread “Apocalypse or Vision of Saint Paul” (“Visio Pauli”), acts as a powerful stimulus to repentance and, as a result, generous donation of wealth to the church. In the following century, the apocalyptic cast of mind was heightened by Gregory of Tours (538-94), who, like Salvian of Marseille (d. 470s) a century earlier, believed passionately in the “judgment in the here and now.” Gregory still holds that almsgiving to the poor is the best preparation for a happy afterlife; and those who appropriated church lands or withheld legacies made to the church were regularly denounced as, in an arresting phrase, necatores pauperum (murderers of the poor).

Brown concludes his book with an epilogue on Columbanus (590-615), the Irish abbot who brought an extremely ascetic form of monasticism and the system of private confession to northern Gaul (Francia). Thanks to him, within a century there were over 100 monasteries and convents all over Francia. By the end of the seventh century, Brown notes, “many convents had endowments of up to 20,000 hectares of some of the richest and most intensely worked farmland in Europe.” There also arose a new kind of devotional literature about the afterlife narrating the “journeys of the soul” to the next world—precursors of today’s “near-death experiences”—during which the soul encounters not the proverbial soothing light at the end of the tunnel but demons and angels, who examine and determine in the minutest and most precise details its sins that have not been purged during its life on earth.

The most famous of these are The Vision of Fursa, set in distant Ireland, and The Vision of Barontus. For Brown, these theological, spiritual, monastic and economic practices marked the end of late antiquity and the coming of the Middle Ages: “When the bond between the living and the dead, constantly cemented by the rituals of the church, became a cosmos of its own—a subject of deep preoccupation, the stuff of visions, and the object of regular prayers and donations of millions—then we can say, around 650 AD, that the ancient world truly died in Western Europe.”

This new world is laid out in Diana Walsh Pasulka’s book Heaven Can Wait, whose title is also that of a movie from 1978. It is, however, the subtitle that best reveals its approach: Purgatory in Catholic Devotional and Popular Culture. The operative word is purgatory. This term—with the attendant theology of sin (mortal and venial), penalty, purgatory as a space and punishment of the souls by means of physical pains, satisfaction, indulgences, devotions, prayers and Masses for the “holy souls” in purgatory, artistic representations, visions and private revelations by saints and sinners, reports of visits to purgatory and of apparitions of the souls in purgatory, privileged altars, holy sites, pilgrimages and lots and lots more of “Catholic Devotional and Popular Culture”—was not coined until the 12th century. Note that I say the term, not the beliefs and practices associated with it, since many of these are already found, and abundantly, as Brown has documented, in the first seven Christian centuries, especially the seventh.

Pasulka traces the loss of what has been called “material Christianity” in contemporary understanding of purgatory, that is, its reality as a physical space and its nature as physical punishment, and the eclipse of narratives of purgatory “featuring souls scorched by fire, suspended in blocks of ice, and engaged in epic battles with demons.” Her narrative begins with “when purgatory was a place on earth,” allegedly located on Saints Island and Station Island in Lough Derg, known as St. Patrick’s Purgatory, and the various devotional practices and pious literature surrounding it. It moves on with an account of the fate of Lough Derg and the development of medieval theology of purgatory, the loss of the “physicality” of purgatory and the emergence of a more spiritual interpretation of it as a “state,” “condition” or “process” of purification in Bishop John England, and the disappearance of the “sensible neighborhood to hell” in John Henry Newman and William Faber.

The last chapter, “The Ghosts of Vatican II,” documents the rise of the “Purgatory Apostolates”—especially by Susan Tassone—to revive the belief in purgatory as “a punitive and often physical place of punishment” in opposition to the view of St. John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI of purgatory as a nonspatial and noncorporeal process, which devotees of the Purgatory Apostolates dismiss as “statements as individual theologians, not as popes.” Heaven Can Wait is a curious blend of historical scholarship (most of it, fortunately, already available), theological shoddiness (its tendentious interpretation of “Vatican II,” whatever they mean by this capacious term, adopted from the Purgatory Apostolates) and the bizarre. (Read Pasulka’s story of her listening to “Box of Rain” by the Grateful Dead and finding a skull-like shell on a beach and Tassone’s insinuation that Pasulka’s dead father “is there with you.”)

So “purgatory” or “purgation”? Far from being a lis de verbo, a distinction without a difference, the two terms represent radically different conceptions of God and the human person. To understand this point, let us return to the bishop of Hippo, whose notion of non valde boni plays a key role in the medieval formulation of the theology of “purgatory.” Augustine’s African Christianity was awash with dreams and visions of the dead (Bishop Evodius’s reports of visions of his deceased young stenographer).

There were attempts to secure the protection of the saints by burying the dead near their tombs (Bishop Paulinus of Nola buried Cynegius near the shrine of St. Felix). Augustine was firmly convinced that the non valde boni need purgation (note the term!) by the ignis purgatorius (purging fire); but, as Brown carefully notes, “Augustine did not see purgation in terms of the pain that its fire might inflict, he saw it in terms of time.” As for dreams and visions of the dead, Augustine warns Evodius to be extremely careful, since there is no way to know “what distinguishes [from true visions] the visions of those who are deluded by error or impiety, as many events are described in them that are the same as those seen by pious and holy people.”

As to the benefits of burial near the tombs of the saints, Augustine was blunt, as Brown summarizes his view: “Burial beside the saints did nothing whatsoever to aid the soul.” Finally, what is most important is that for Augustine and Gregory of Tours, devotion for the dead in the twilight zone is practiced primarily through helping the poor. Thus the rejection of the “physicality” of purgatory in favor of social concern is not, pace the ministers of the Purgatory Apostolates and perhaps Pasulka, an invention of “Vatican II” or now of Pope Francis, but is deeply rooted in the Catholic tradition (which is not the same as “Catholic Devotional and Popular Culture”). So if you are on a tight budget, go with Brown’s book—its breath and depth of scholarship, judiciousness in theological judgment, verve and humor and elegance of style, not much in evidence in the other book, are worth its price.

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Henry George
3 years 5 months ago
Please correct me if I am mistaken but it seemed we used to openly pray for the souls in Purgatory when I was a child before the changes of the 1960's and Vatican II. Not being "Valde Boni" and hoping against hope that I not "Valde Mali" who will pray for me and the rest of us "Non Valde Boni" ? Every funeral I go to, save mine, has the Minister saying the deceased is now in Heaven. Yet, somehow I do not feel that I am living among saints... In our 'after dinner' prayers we always prayed for a deceased great Uncle who was "as ornery as they came" and thus was presumed to be, at best, in Purgatory on the Long-Term plan. I would hope that he has moved on to Heaven, but if he is still there, that he is not taking offence that we/I no longer pray as earnestly for him and the rest of the souls that need deep refurbishing before we meet our Judge and Creator. Ora pro nobis, sancta Dei Genitrix Ut digni efficiamur promissionibus Christi.


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