The time from Michaelmas until the Hallowtide, for me, has always been a time to reflect upon Hell itself. After all, as fall settles on the Northern Hemisphere, people tend to reflect upon the afterlife as the days grow shorter and darker. And didn’t Christ talk about perdition quite a bit? It used to be said that you ought not eat blackberries after Michaelmas, for the Devil fell out of Heaven after that day, landing on the blackberry bush, cursing its thorns and defecating upon it.
As Halloween approaches and we gear up for All Souls’ Day, Purgatory also comes to mind.
Now about Purgatory. It’s not an easy place. It is a place of purgation. Purgatory – that place between this world and Heaven – is a realm where you are purged of all your worldly evil so you are presentable to God. Everyone who goes to Purgatory eventually goes to Heaven. But once in Purgatory, you’re not waiting in a waiting room. You are on fire. You are burning. You are suffering. And most frustrating of all, none of your prayers will be effective. You cannot appeal to God’s mercy there. You are stuck there until you’ve been cleaned off by fire.
Many Catholics realize these facts. Yet what most Catholics don’t understand is that Purgatory shares the fires of Hell. Think on this. Hellfire is utilized to burn away your evil. Should you be wicked enough not to merit a direct route to Heaven when you die, you will have to be touched by Hell before you can ascend and be with your Lord.
There is in Purgatory, as in Hell, a double pain – the pain of loss and the pain of sense. The pain of loss consists in being deprived for a time of the sight of God, who is the Supreme Good, the beatific end for which our souls are made, as our eyes are for the light. It is a moral thirst which torments the soul. The pain of sense, or sensible suffering, is the same as what we experience in our flesh. Its nature is not defined by faith, but it is the common opinion of the Doctors that it consists in fire and other species of suffering. The fire of Purgatory, say the Fathers, is that of Hell, of which the rich glutton speaks, Quia crucior in hac flamma, “I suffer,” he says, “cruelly in these flames.”
–From Chapter IX of Purgatory: Explained by the Lives and Legends of the Saints by Rev. Fr. F.X. Schouppe, S.J.
This opinion, says Fr. Schouppe, is shared by great theologians and even Church fathers, although he will admit that their teaching on this is not unanimous. Still, it’s a topic worthy to pursue. The following statements come from the saints of the Church, all who will attest that the fire of Purgatory is shared by Hell itself.
The greatest punishment of Purgatory is in the first level above the darkness. The demons can touch it there. There is heat and cold, darkness and confusion, all coming from the punishment of Hell.
–Revelations to St. Bridget
The lowest region is filled with a fierce fire, but which is not dark like that of Hell; it is a vast burning sea, throwing forth immense flames.
–Revelations given to St. Frances of Rome
“The same fire torments the damned and purifies the elect.”
–Pope St. Gregory the Great
As to the suffering, it is equal to that of Hell.
–St. Catherine of Genoa
Almost all theologians teach that the damned in Hell and the souls in Purgatory, suffer the action of the same fire.
–St. Robert Bellarmine
Bellarmine goes on to say there is no comparison between the sufferings of what you experience here in this world and what you suffer in Purgatory. St. Thomas Aquinas goes even farther, telling us the smallest pain of Purgatory surpasses all the sufferings of this life, no matter how great they are. It is said that St. John Bosco severely burned his hand by merely touching the most outer wall of Hell itself. How much more dreadful, then, to be scorched by Hell’s fires?
Hellfire is not like our fire in this world. In fact, our fire is cold compared to that of Hell and Purgatory. The fire of Hell is created expressly to torment. In Hell you are immersed in an abyss of fire, like a fish in the water, and the flames get inside you so that even your insides are scorched. It is an irrevocable pain that will never go away. You suffer it for all eternity. And yet, in spite of this fire, you cannot see, for it does not emit any light whatsoever.
Light is a gift from God – probably the first gift ever. Yet there are no gifts in Hell. Even if you could see, the smoke and sulfurous fumes of Hell sting the eyes to such an extent that you cannot see, and the damned are like helpless blind men. But in Purgatory, there is at least some light. This is one of the things that differentiates Purgatory from Hell.
There is something even more comforting about Purgatory that makes it better than life in this world: the fact that the souls of Purgatory are secure and safe in the guarantee that they will one day be united with God:
The souls are in a continual union with God … They are perfectly resigned to His will, or rather their will is so transformed into that of God, that they cannot will but what God wills; so that if Paradise were to be opened to them, they would throw themselves into Hell, rather than appear before God with the stains with which they see themselves disfigured. They purify themselves willingly and lovingly, because such is the Divine good pleasure. …
They wish to be there in the state wherein God pleases, and as long as it shall please Him. “Their bitterest anguish is soothed by a certain profound peace. It is a kind of Hell as regards the suffering; it is a Paradise as regards the delight infused into their hearts by charity – Charity, stronger than death and more powerful than Hell; Charity, whose lamps are all fire and flame. Happy state! More desirable than it is appalling, because its flames are flames of love and charity.
–From Chapter IX of The Spirit of St. Francis de Sales
There is no peace to be compared with that of the souls in Purgatory, except that of the saints in paradise, and this peace is ever increased by the inflowing of God into these souls, which increases in proportion as the impediments to it are removed. The rust of sin is the impediment, and this the fire continually consumes.
– St. Catherine of Genoa
It is disturbing in many ways to realize that most people will eventually at some point in their existence experience the pains of hellfire. Most people end up in Hell, after all. Of those who do avoid an eternity in Hell, most must pass through purgatorial fires first. But, at St. Bridget once said, knowing that Heaven is their ultimate end is a comfort, much like a bedridden sick person receiving visits and well-wishes from guests.
How much more, then, for a person in Purgatory to be suddenly graced by the prayers of his loved ones in this life? How much more incredible and wonderful to be suffering in a pool of fire, when suddenly your burdens are lifted and your waiting time is shortened because of the prayers of someone? On Earth, in the world of the living, our prayers can help those who suffer in Purgatory. We can ask God to shorten the time that people suffer. The poor souls who are trapped in that place cannot ask God for help. But we can be their advocates to God and ask for His mercy.
It would behoove all of us to remember our dead loved ones and our friends who may be suffering and waiting in that place. Purgatory shares the ever consuming fire of Hell. During the Hallowtide, remember your passed on loved ones. Pray for their souls, and appeal to God to release them from that pain once and for all, that they may finally be admitted through the gates of Heaven.