What is Purgatory, Really?

What can we really say about the condition of those we pray for on All Souls’ Day?

Dante Before the City of Florence (fresco by Domenico di Michelino, 1465 in Florence Cathedral Santa Maria del Fiore). The fresco depicts Mount Purgatory directly behind Dante.
Dante Before the City of Florence (fresco by Domenico di Michelino, 1465 in Florence Cathedral Santa Maria del Fiore). The fresco depicts Mount Purgatory directly behind Dante. (photo: Public Domain)

What is purgatory?

Is it the case, as some spiritual writers suggest, that the least pains in purgatory surpass the greatest earthly suffering? Or, as others propose, that the joys of purgatory surpass the greatest earthly happiness? Is purgatory something to fear or something to embrace? 

Separate the theology from the imagery, the Church’s teaching from the pious speculation, and what remains? 

As with heaven and hell, as with God himself, purgatory is nothing we can discuss in unequivocal terms, or rather univocal terms (words that mean one and only one thing). All human language grows out of human experience; we have no univocal vocabulary to discuss realities about which we have no direct experience.

Even divine revelation can tell us nothing positive about God, heaven, hell, or purgatory in univocal language. Realities beyond our direct experience can be positively apprehended only by analogy.

For example, we say God is omniscient, all-knowing, but all our ideas about “mind” and “consciousness” and “knowledge” are intractably finite, human realities that do not exist in God.

We do believe that there is something in God that is in some way like human knowledge, and this analogy gives us meaningful access to a truth about God, but the infinite distance between God and ourselves means that God is far more unknown than known, even by the best analogies. The mind and the knowledge of God are realities no more imaginable or comprehensible to us than is human knowledge to a mouse.

Likewise, when we say that God is “good” and “loving,” we start with our human understanding of goodness and love and go from there. The goodness of God is different from ours, and the love of God is not like our love — but they are not wholly unlike either, and these analogies give us meaningful access to truths about God.

Every truly unequivocal statement about God, heaven, hell, or purgatory is negative. For example, when we say God is eternal, by e-ternal we mean “not temporal.”

Purgatory has traditionally been imagined as a “place.” This term is necessarily analogical, inasmuch as everything we mean by “place” involves physical location and extension in space and proximity within the material universe as we know it.

In fact, though, the term purgatory “does not indicate a place, but a condition of existence,” according to Pope St. John Paul II.

What can we say about this condition of existence?

Based on the teaching of the Church, purgatory can be described as

  1. some kind of sequential or temporal process, involving
  2. some sort of difficult, painful, or arduous transition, by which
  3. the soul is freed from whatever makes in unready for the fullness of heaven.

Also, of course,

  1. the souls in purgatory can be aided in this journey by the prayers and sacrifices of those in the wayfaring state — and therefore, of course, we ought to pray for our beloved dead and offer Masses for them (with particular attention to those who may not have anyone else to pray for them).

That’s about all we can really say.

Even this proceeds by way of analogy. For example, it would seem that temporality in purgatory can’t be anything like the temporality we know, which is mediated by the experience of physical processes and change.

Our perception of time is actually shaped by the gravity of our planet and our velocity through space; time is slightly different for astronauts in the low gravity of space, for objects traveling at different speeds (most dramatically near the speed of light), and different again for objects in very strong gravitational fields. How could it be, then, that the soul leaving behind the body, and with it the material/time-space universe as we know it, would continue to experience seconds and minutes and hours and days and weeks and months and years in a manner tracking with our earthly temporality?

We believe there is some kind of temporality or sequential experience to purgatory; we cannot imagine what it is like or how it is or is not like time as we know it. As Pope Benedict XVI notes in his encyclical Spes Salvi (“Saved in hope”):

It is clear that we cannot calculate the “duration” of this transforming burning in terms of the chronological measurements of this world. The transforming “moment” of this encounter eludes earthly time-reckoning—it is the heart's time, it is the time of “passage” to communion with God in the Body of Christ 

That said, the Church also teaches that we can pray to saints whom the Church declares with the fullness of her authority to be in the fullness of heaven. Perhaps they have passed through purgatory, but, without tracking the temporality of the afterlife to time as we know it, we can pray to them in heaven.

It has traditionally been taught that the pains of purgatory include the denial of the Beatific Vision, the fullness of communion with God. Some have taken this to mean that the souls in purgatory have no communion with God at all. Taken to the extreme, purgatory has sometimes been imagined as temporary hell.

I cannot think that. Whatever pains purgatory may entail, I think purgatory must be joyful, inasmuch as those undergoing purgation belong to Christ and are united with him and share in the communion of the saints.

The souls in purgatory belong to the Church, the communion of saints, which is communion in God, and therefore communion with God and with the blessed in heaven, even if the Beatific Vision in its fullness is not yet theirs. Again, John Paul II (same source):

Those, in fact, who find themselves in the state of purification are united both with the blessed who already enjoy the fullness of eternal life, and with us on this earth on our way towards the Father’s house (cf. CCC, n. 1032).

Just as in their earthly life believers are united in the one Mystical Body, so after death those who live in a state of purification experience the same ecclesial solidarity which works through prayer, prayers for suffrage and love for their other brothers and sisters in the faith. Purification is lived in the essential bond created between those who live in this world and those who enjoy eternal beatitude.

So I think that purgatory must involve communion with God of some imperfect sort, which is perhaps gradually increased throughout the process of purgation, in keeping with one’s increasing capacity and readiness for it. 

Perhaps this itself is the process of purgation: Perhaps the fire of divine love that burns all in us that is not eternal, just so much as we can bear at a time, until all is refined gold and silver and there is nothing left that burns. Benedict XVI considers this notion (same source): 

Some recent theologians are of the opinion that the fire which both burns and saves is Christ himself, the Judge and Saviour. The encounter with him is the decisive act of judgement. Before his gaze all falsehood melts away. This encounter with him, as it burns us, transforms and frees us, allowing us to become truly ourselves. All that we build during our lives can prove to be mere straw, pure bluster, and it collapses. Yet in the pain of this encounter, when the impurity and sickness of our lives become evident to us, there lies salvation. His gaze, the touch of his heart heals us through an undeniably painful transformation “as through fire”. But it is a blessed pain, in which the holy power of his love sears through us like a flame, enabling us to become totally ourselves and thus totally of God. In this way the inter-relation between justice and grace also becomes clear: the way we live our lives is not immaterial, but our defilement does not stain us for ever if we have at least continued to reach out towards Christ, towards truth and towards love. Indeed, it has already been burned away through Christ's Passion. At the moment of judgement we experience and we absorb the overwhelming power of his love over all the evil in the world and in ourselves. The pain of love becomes our salvation and our joy. 

Do the least pains in purgatory surpass the greatest earthly suffering? Do the joys of purgatory surpass the greatest earthly happiness? I neither affirm or deny these opinions, which are not, for what it’s worth, mutually exclusive!

One of the most hopeful notions about purgatory is the idea that perhaps the great majority of people go there, and that those who are damned, like those who die ready for heaven, are rare exceptions. This seems to be suggested by Benedict XVI’s reflections on the actual state of people around us:

With death, our life-choice becomes definitive — our life stands before the judge. Our choice, which in the course of an entire life takes on a certain shape, can have a variety of forms. There can be people who have totally destroyed their desire for truth and readiness to love, people for whom everything has become a lie, people who have lived for hatred and have suppressed all love within themselves. This is a terrifying thought, but alarming profiles of this type can be seen in certain figures of our own history. In such people all would be beyond remedy and the destruction of good would be irrevocable: this is what we mean by the word Hell. On the other hand there can be people who are utterly pure, completely permeated by God, and thus fully open to their neighbours—people for whom communion with God even now gives direction to their entire being and whose journey towards God only brings to fulfilment what they already are.

Yet we know from experience that neither case is normal in human life. For the great majority of people — we may suppose — there remains in the depths of their being an ultimate interior openness to truth, to love, to God. In the concrete choices of life, however, it is covered over by ever new compromises with evil — much filth covers purity, but the thirst for purity remains and it still constantly re-emerges from all that is base and remains present in the soul. What happens to such individuals when they appear before the Judge? Will all the impurity they have amassed through life suddenly cease to matter? What else might occur? Saint Paul, in his First Letter to the Corinthians, gives us an idea of the differing impact of God's judgement according to each person's particular circumstances.… “Now if any one builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw—each man's work will become manifest; for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. If the work which any man has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. If any man's work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire” (1 Cor 3:12-15). In this text, it is in any case evident that our salvation can take different forms, that some of what is built may be burned down, that in order to be saved we personally have to pass through “fire” so as to become fully open to receiving God and able to take our place at the table of the eternal marriage-feast.

Is purgatory, then, something to be feared or welcomed? My own thought is that, whatever the pains may be, I find that I cannot fear them. God will do with me whatever he knows to be best, and whatever that may be, there is nothing I want more than that he should do so.

I am a sinner in need of much grace, but I believe the Lord has wrought this much in me: Whenever I think about my death, which is neither very frequent nor very infrequent, I believe the prayer of my heart echoes the words of our Lord and our Lady: “In manus tuas, Domine, commendo spiritum meum; fiat mihi secundum verbum tuum” (“Into your hands, Lord, I commend my spirit; let it be done to me according to your word”).

This article originally appeared Nov. 2, 2017, at the Register.