This evening I read through The Treatise on Purgatory by St. Catherine of Genoa after hearing about its incredible influence on one’s perception of purgatory. And it’s true, the information she provides pulls back the veil of obscurity surrounding purgatory and tells us much about it.
Purgatory is the place, or state depending on your interpretation, in which a soul is submitted to purification after death before they can enter heaven. When a person dies, their will becomes “fixed” to either an inclination for sin or an inclination for God, depending upon their sins. Those who are inclined to sin are immediately judged on the spot and cast into hell. Those who are inclined to God can be broken into two camps: those who have no stain of sin, sanctifying grace, and can immediately enter heaven, and those with the “rust of sin” which must undergo painful purification.
Fire is central to the purification of souls who are submitted to purgatory. With St. Catherine of Genoa describing purgatory as “a Divine furnace which purifies the soul of rust and stain of sin.” (pg.2) God’s Justice demands punishment for their sins which will hinder their vision of Him. The delay of the Vision of God causes a fire to well up inside of them. The pain of which is like that of hell, but the state of the soul undergoing purification is not mindful of this pain. What is meant by this, is that they experience unimaginable pain but they no longer any awareness of themselves but only behold the goodness of God. Past sins, virtues, good or evil, none of these things can enter the mind of the soul in purgatory save their perpetual fixation on God. Rather, they think more of their opposition to the Will of God as the reason for the hindrance of beatitude which is far more agonizing than the pain of fire.
“It is as with a covered object. The object cannot respond to the rays of the sun, not because the sun ceases to shine,-for it shines without intermission,-but because the covering intervenes. Let the covering be destroyed, again the object will be exposed to the sun, and will answer to the rays which beat against it in proportion as the work of destruction advances.”St. Catherine of Genoa, The Treatise on Purgatory. pp.6-7
Juxtaposed to this state of increasing pain, the soul is also filled with profound joy almost like that of the blessed in heaven. This joy increases with each passing day as more and more of God is revealed to the soul. Yet their pains also increase because of the continued hindrance of the Divine vision due to the punishment of sin.
Compare this to the sufferings of hell, which are infinite in duration and the damned soul has only absolute hopelessness due to knowledge of never being able to share in the goodness of God. Although, according to St. Catherine, the rays of God’s Mercy reach even the pit of hell allowing lesser punishment than is due to those wretched souls. The damned soul deserves a punishment infinite in pain and infinite in duration, but through the Divine mercy is only infinite in duration. St. Catherine uses a parable of a single loaf of bread to illustrate the comparison of hell and purgatory:
“Let us suppose that there existed in the world but one loaf of bread to satisfy the hunger of every creature, and that the mere sight of it could do this. In such a case a man, having naturally, if in good health, a desire for food, would find himself, so long as he was kept from dying or falling sick, getting more and more hungry; for his craving would continue undiminished,-he would know that the bread, and nothing but the bread, could satisfy him, and not being able to reach it, would remain in intolerable pain; the nearer he got to the bread without seeing it, the more ardently he would crave for it, and would direct himself wholly towards it, as being the only thing which could afford relief; and if he were assured that he never could see the bread he would have within him a perfect hell, and become like the damned, who are cut off from all hope of ever seeing God their Saviour, who is the true Bread.
The souls in purgatory, on the other hand, hope to see that Bread, and satiate themselves to the full therewith; whence they hunger and suffer pain as great as will be their capacity of enjoying that Bread, which is Jesus Christ the true God, our Saviour and our love.”Ibid. pp.17-19
This brilliant parable of the sufferings of the absence of God illustrates why the souls in purgatory have an increase in pain to match their increase in joy. They hunger for that knowledge of God that they know they will reach, and the closer that they come to that knowledge the more their hunger pains them. And it is through this purifying pain that the rust of sin is cast away and consumed by the fire of Divine love. St. Catherine states that the Love of God is directed at the soul like burning rays and shafts of light, which can annihilate both body and soul, but are instead used to purify and annihilate sin. The purification of the soul can be hastened by the prayers of the living, which the souls in purgatory accept out of complete submission to God’s Will. Otherwise, they would reject these prayers out of fear of self-love.
This fear of self-love is a motivating factor which could drive each soul to despair upon reflection of their imperfections, had God not blinded them to the self. It is only once the imperfections of the soul have been destroyed by the fire and consumed that God lifts their blindness and shows them just how great His Mercy is. This ardent, burning love is further compared to the purification of gold:
“Look at gold: the more it is melted, the better it becomes; and it could be melted so as to destroy every single defect. Such is the action of fire on material things… Gold which has been purified to a certain point ceases to suffer any diminution from the action of fire, however great it be; for the fire does not destroy gold, but only the dross that it may chance to have.”Ibid. pg.29
The Seraph of Genoa goes on to compare this process to the effect that purification has on the soul. Those who have been completely refined and purified of the rust and stain of sin, who shine with the transcendent luster of holiness, can no longer be effected by the intense fires of purgatory. It is this consumption through fire which also directs us to reflect on the words of St. Paul regarding mortification:
“Now, if any man build upon this foundation, gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, stubble: Every man’s work shall be manifest. For the day of the Lord shall declare it, because it shall be revealed in fire. And the fire shall try every man’s work, of what sort it is. ” Now, if any man build upon this foundation, gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, stubble: If any man’s work abide, which he hath built thereupon, he shall receive a reward. If any mans work burn, he shall suffer loss: but he himself shall be saved, yet so as by fire.”1 Corinthians, 3:12-15. Douay-Rheims translation.
It is through temperance of the soul and the accrual of virtue that we can hope to build upon the foundation Jesus Christ has laid for us. Those who do not sow virtue, but sow sin have no foundation to stand upon. Whereas those who do very little in way of virtue, will be consumed by fire before they may enter God’s Presence.
After reading this treatise, which you can download free here, I am reminded of an image that came to mind while I was meditating a few weeks ago:
I found myself kneeling upon a marble floor, with Our Lady standing off to my left side and Christ enthroned before me. The Blessed Virgin was immaculate and pure, with her eyes downcast in humility. Our Lord sat before us, consumed in fire with only his intense gaze visible in the blaze. I was immediately set aflame in this blaze and I watched as my body was reduced to a blackened husk. I reached into my chest and pulled out my heart, which shone bright like a great ruby. I offered it to Our Lady, who placed it on a silver platter and proceeded to offer it to Christ on my behalf. Immediately the flames dissipated, and I was able to look upon the serene countenance of Jesus Christ overjoyed with my offering.
This is how I picture the moment a soul is released from purgatory. Their purified offering is accepted by God, and we are freed from the Divine flames to enjoy the beauty of His Face. Until I read this treatise, I had an unclear, indifferent attitude about purgatory. Kind of like the lukewarm Catholics who say that they are just aiming for purgatory. Now that the veil has been drawn back, and I can see it for what it is, I find myself erupting with admiration for the great mercy which God provides those who may have imperfections but put God above all else.
Source: The Treatise on Purgatory, St. Catherine of Genoa. 1858.