Wednesday, November 2, 2011

The Poetry of Purgatory

Sisters and friends process to our burial chapel in Boston
at Sr. Cecilia Livingston's funeral last spring.
Given the firestorms that the doctrine on purgatory has sparked, it’s a good thing that today’s liturgical solemnity commemorating All Souls is not an optional memorial. Yet ritually remembering our ancestors, whether in family or faith, and praying them through their journey answers such a universally felt need, that it has come spontaneously to us humans as long as history has recorded it.

The Christian practice of praying for those who’ve gone before us dates back to antiquity. The earliest evidence of private prayer for the dead appears in the middle of the second century in Asia Minor, or what is western Turkey today. A generation later, a liturgy celebrated in north Africa in remembrance of the deceased is mentioned in the writings first of Tertullian and then of St. Cyprian in the early third century.

In the centuries that followed, this communal prayer was coupled with distribution of food among the poor. This seems to be a throwback to the pagan Roman practice of the refrigerium—a kind of ritual picnic that family members held at the graves of their loved ones. As perennial geniuses in “baptizing” cultural expressions, Christians offered the Eucharist on the graves of the martyrs, praying also by association, for the deceased buried nearby. Instead of pouring out libations to honor and supplicate the gods on behalf of the deceased, they shared the body and blood of the Lord and then extended that love to the poor in their memory. That kind of almsgiving has always been one of the suffrages we’ve been encouraged to offer for the deceased. The outreach that springs from the social dimension of our faith is one of the most important crossroads where belief and life intersect.*

First Martyrs of the
Church of Rome
I’ve been to Rome a few times now, most often to study or work. Depressing as it may sound, what draws me each time, probably more than the churches, are the catacombs. Sixty-three of these underground burial networks circle the city, nine of them Jewish and the others either Christian, or pagan and Christian. Relatively few are open to us, the public, but those that are, are treasure houses of Christian identity and history. I feel so connected with those who were, or still are, buried there, my ancestors in faith. Even as I thank them, I can’t help praying for them as I visit. If they can’t use my prayers, somebody can.

What kind of understanding fuels this current of devotion? Despite the likelihood that the vast majority of us human beings make a pit stop in purgatory on the speedway to the kingdom, the Church’s teaching on the topic that’s outlined in the Catechism of the Catholic Church is surprisingly sparing. I remember my father’s disappointment that the section consisted of just three paragraphs and two quotes (nn. 1030-1032). That alone told him exactly what the Church intended to say—that the mystery, which is hardly central to her teaching and can easily spin out of control, is best expressed plainly. What’s clearly intended, too, is that to avoid reducing it to a caricature, it’s supposed to be understood in connection with a host of other teachings that are central, like redemption, resurrection, love, sin, faith, and human destiny. But for a man like my dad, who referred to the people there as his “friends,” such a dearth of devotion called for strenuous objection. It was personal.

If brevity is the soul of wit, there’s a deliberate pedagogy in that short text. After you reread it a few times, certain words jump out. A key concept is purification. Not once is it described as punishment, even though it’s implied when it states that this “purification of the elect” is “entirely different from the punishment of the damned” (n. 1031). Words like “cleansing” and “deliverance” highlight the healing, restorative nature of this purging experience.

In the Divine Comedy, Dante Alighieri’s poetic imagination hunts for words to express this purifying process of the discovery and growth in love. Discussions about the work’s political scope aside, the Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso are awash with an array of images that acclaim love vindicated, love purified, and love celebrated. Both in hell and in purgatory, the action of the Comedy is driven by Dante’s contrapasso, the type of suffering that the characters undergo according to the type of their sin or vice. The monumental difference between the two conditions is that the suffering in hell punishes, while that in purgatory refines and redirects.

R to L: Aurelia, Sr. Frances, my
sister, and Sr. Bernardine (a friend
of our parents--and ours, too!)
It was hard for my sister, my father, and me to watch my mother live with Alzheimer’s Disease for over ten years. If we hadn’t known her, we wouldn’t have understood anything of how hard it was for her, too, since the disease gradually robbed her of her ability to speak. We struggled with the seeming senselessness of it all. Just as we shared the sorrow, though, we also shared our faith in Christ. One day, my dad said, “You know, I think Mama is doing her purgatory here on earth.” Dante must have been in the room. “Yes,” I agreed, “if her love is being purified, she is ‘doing her purgatory’ here.” And she was being refined like that. A sweet person to the end, with expressive eyes and a ready giggle, she was also independent and very firm in her convictions and preferences. She expended every effort she could, even in her condition, to make life better for us and to peacefully rest in God and in our love for her. A parishioner told us that she was “no longer afraid of Alzheimer’s Disease, because I’ve known your mother.” God made Aurelia bigger than her disease.

I think that the more we trust this God, the more surely we will be awakened to hope in the face of whatever comes our way. A life like that, a day like this, draws us back to the way in which we live. There is certainty in that hope, not just wishful thinking. Regardless of the circumstances of our last days, we are in the hand of God, as the optional reading from the book of Wisdom in today’s liturgy reminds us, a hand that is always ready to receive us. 

This was brought home to me by a book that Pauline Books & Media recently published—Wisdom for Living the Final Season, by Kathy Kalina, a hospice nurse from Fort Worth, Texas. She’s already known to PBM readers as the author of one of our constant best sellers, Midwife for Souls. Refreshingly readable, Final Season’s short chapters are dotted with stories from her twenty-two years of experience. The spiritual dimension we’ve been talking about is woven in convincingly and sensitively. Although the last few pages treat the topic of purgatory, it’s the introduction that expresses it best for me:
“Courage is not the absence of fear. Rather, it’s the ability to put one foot in front of the other and to do whatever needs to be done with our eyes fixed on the goal. Somewhere on that journey toward the goal, each of us will die, but only on one day. All the rest is living.”
* Production on the film about Blessed James Alberione “the first apostle of the new evangelization” (John Paul II) is still in the works (See the video bar at right.). So is its fundraising. If you would like to make a contribution in memory of a loved one, contact me, Sr. Margaret J. Obrovac, FSP, either by e-mail at, or by phone at 617-676-4423.

1 comment:

  1. Wow. Thank you for these thoughtful insights, I really needed this "lesson" today!


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