It is a hallmark of the modern mind to reduce incredible things to their lowest utilitarian component. The splendor of nature becomes an evolutionary algorithm, the mysterious workings of love are reduced to chemical reactions in the brain. Neil deGrasse Tyson, an astrophysicist-turned-celebrity, is notorious for this on Twitter, sending out depressingly reductionist gems like “Total Solar Eclipses occur somewhere on Earth every two years, or so. Just calm yourself when people tell you they’re rare”. For some people, it seems, the world can only be endured if it is stripped of anything mysterious or sublime.
Few concepts in Catholic theology suffer from this treatment quite like Purgatory. It is a thing steeped in confusion and misunderstanding, not only among non-Catholics, but Catholics as well. A common response to that confusion is to reduce Purgatory down to a bare bones utilitarian concept, to sanitize it by distilling it into clinical observations.
Even the treasure trove that is the Catechism has something of a dry feel to its description:
“All who die in God’s grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified, are indeed assured of their eternal salvation; but after death they undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven.” – CCC 1030
There is a danger in reducing the sum total of Purgatory down to “purification”. That is, of course, its nature and purpose, but to the modern ear, the “process of purification” sounds like something with little room for third party involvement. It becomes something tidy and safe and understandable, something like a chemical reaction that takes place just between the soul and the process. So, by reducing Purgatory down to its lowest utilitarian components, we fool ourselves into thinking we’ve got it all figured out, and the process, the place, and the souls slip from our active thoughts.
The truth is that Purgatory is far more complex, rich, mysterious, and plain old weird than the modern mind is comfortable with. Rather than a predictable, straightforward process, numerous people, from saints to sinners, have been given glimpses of the mystical, strange landscape of Purgatory.
In his excellent article, “Fourteen Questions about Heaven”, Peter Kreeft discusses the existence of Purgatorial ghosts: the sad, joyless, wispy apparitions who appear to be earthbound as part of their purification process. To hear a respected scholar like Dr. Kreeft talk about such things should give a body pause next time a story about a ghostly spectre is passed around a campfire. We enjoy the shiver of fear such tales send up our spine, but far more efficacious it would be if we followed that shiver with a prayer for Holy Souls experiencing just such a purification. Instead, how many of us write off ghosts as “not real”, and thus smugly excuse ourselves from having to pray for the dead?
Anyone steadfastly refusing to believe in ghosts would do well to read the visions of the saints on the subject. St. Margaret Mary Alacoque was visited numerous times by Purgatorial ghosts, souls of departed religious who begged her for prayers and assistance in relieving the pain of purification. Far from being a tidy, understandable process, the stories revealed by these ghosts show how complex and strange Purgatory is, and how much the prayers of the living are needed. St. Brigid of Sweden was shown a vision of Purgatory, where an angel was comforting the Holy Souls there by constantly repeating:
“Blessed is he that, living still upon the earth, gives aid to the souls in Purgatory with their prayers and good deeds, because the justice of God demands that without the help of the living, these would necessarily need to be purified in fire.”
Christ Himself explained the great benefit of praying for the dead to St. Gertrude after she recited a Psalm for a toad-like Purgatorial ghost she encountered. “Certainly, the souls in Purgatory are lifted up by such supplications,” Christ revealed, “but also brief prayers that are said with fervor are of even greater benefit for them.”
To reduce Purgatory down to a some sort of clinical process, to deny the existence of spirits reported throughout space and time to diverse multitudes of saints, is to attempt to reduce our duty towards those suffering souls. If these spirits and their appearance aren’t real, if places like the Little Museum of Purgatory house nothing but piously fraudulent items, if there is nothing odd and messy and weird and challenging about it, then Purgatory becomes a domesticated sort of place, and it’s very easy for us to let the Holy Souls who reside there slip from our attention and go unprayed for.
How lucky we are then, that Holy Mother Church gives us an annual reminder in the form of All Souls Day. Following the great feast of All Saints Day, where the universal Church celebrates those who have gone before us and now enjoy perfect unity with God, All Souls Day is a sobering reminder of the poor souls suffering greatly and greatly in need of our prayers.
The saints who have had direct interactions with the Holy Souls and their temporary home of Purgatory send us postcards of a sort. Postcards from a weird, unsettling, deeply strange land that many of us will consider ourselves lucky to skid into upon death. Rather than shy away from contemplating this foreign landscape, of attempting to control it by stripping it of its strange other-worldliness, it would benefit us to spend this year’s All Souls Day learning more about what God has allowed the saints to see of Purgatory, and let our hearts soften towards our brothers and sisters residing there. Someday, they may be us, clinging to the prayers of those to come.