Celebrating the Mass of All Souls’ has me contemplating the afterlife and our hope for the souls of the departed. One of the versicles we said was “From the gates of Hell, O Lord…” and the response was “Deliver them.” What does it mean to ask for prayers for those who have died and yet have not received their final reward?

Purgatory is derived from the Latin purgatorius or cleansing. References to the cleansing of purgatory are found in both the Eastern and Western traditions as early as the third century. It is a state in which those, ultimately assured of salvation and Heaven, are made ready for their rest in the Father. It is a process that most certainly involves some form of suffering.

The word has taken on an unfortunate association as a sort of mini-Hell or the outlet version of Hell. Not quite as fully realized as the fires of retail damnation – but still rather unpleasant.

In considering purgatory, it might be best not to capitalize it overly much. It seems a state or process as opposed to a location on a supernatural map. What does Holy Scripture offer in considering purgatory? There are a few verses that imply its existence. It is recorded by Judas Maccabaeus that by means of “a sacrifice for sin” offered “he made the propitiation for them that had died, that they might be released from their sin.” (2 Macc. xii. 42-45) Blaspheming the Holy Ghost would be forgiven “neither in this world nor in that which is to come” according to Matthew’s Gospel. (Matt. xii. 32) The offender cast into prison would not be released until he or she has “paid the last farthing” (Matt. v. 26)

In the time after the New Testament, writing seems to have focused on two groups of the holy dead. There were those that have received the beatific vision in full and those awaiting that reward. The Eucharist came to have a three-fold action regarding the departed. Saints were asked for their intercession, thanksgiving was offered for their work, and prayers were offered in propitiation for the departed in general. There was also mention made of the purifying fire that the departed must pass through which would cleanse the soul from sin.

In the Middle Ages, purgatory took on a rather more precise form. The sufferings of purgatory differed from Hell’s only in that the sufferings of Purgatory would come to an end. This was a suffering not only of a delay in receiving the beatific vision but of material fire as well.

The Roman Doctrine

The Reformation brought a renunciation of the popular doctrines of Purgatory that had begun to spread. It was maintained that those worthwhile went straight into Heaven after death. The Council of Trent answered this by stating, “There is purgatory, and the souls of the faithful detained there are aided by the prayers of the faithful and most of all by the acceptable sacrifice of the altar.” The bishops encouraged priests to preach on the doctrine of purgatory but to avoid and discourage that which smacked of superstition or base financial gain.

This doctrine is rather restrained if one compares it to the popular practices. It does not encourage indulgences or promise that the Church has a formula by which it can determine the appropriate amount of penance by which Purgatory can be avoided. It merely says that there is purgatory and that those there are aided by our prayers and especially by the most sacred of our prayers, the Mass, in which we encounter the present Christ and remember the sacrifice made for all of us.

The catechism of 1566 issued in accord with the Council of Trent stated simply that “There is the fire of purgatory, in which the souls of the holy, being disciplined for a fixed time, receive expiation, so that way may be made open for them into the eternal country into which nothing that is defiled entereth.”

This Roman doctrine should not be confused with what is “Romish.” The popular excesses, the selling of indulgences, and the like are not the stuff of doctrine but of human practice. The doctrine itself encourages an understanding of life as extending beyond what we see for we are ever in relationship with those who have gone on. The doctrine of purgatory, like all teaching, may be abused and is especially dangerous when taught with mechanical or transactional specificity.

Catherine of Genoa offered a vision of purgatory that suggested that the joy of the soul in purgatory exceeds any joy possible on Earth and can be compared only to the joy of those who had attained Heaven. Suffering co-exists with joy in purgatory and that suffering is that of bitter regret for imperfect living and a spiritual longing for the fullness of the vision of God.

Newman and the Dream

The doctrine of purgatory is, perhaps, most beautifully expressed in John Henry Newman’s The Dream of Gerontius. It is poetic and lyrical in the way that our language of death and the afterlife so often must be. He writes that the departed live in a world of “signs and types” and are “wrapped and swathed around in dreams, dreams that are true yet enigmatical” they know of “space and time and size, of fragrant, solid, bitter, musical, of fire, and of refreshment after fire” only through symbols as they wait in blindness for the beatific vision.

Newman says that the soul’s encounter with God is then a moment of joy like “a lightning-flash” of sight and sound and the soul is then “plunged amid the avenging flame” and there is “one sight of him to strengthen.” It is a sight that pierces and gives joy for “the flame of the Everlasting Love doth burn ere it transform.”

Newman offers a vision of a state of being in which those that have not longed for God do so with ardent desire. Those who have never given a thought to God are suddenly offered the hope of an everlasting rest in the Presence. Newman writes that the longing to see God and the shame of seeing him without being ready will be their own torment, “thy veriest, sharpest purgatory.”

The Eastern Church

Eastern Orthodox theologians sharply criticize the idea of an actual fire in which people are punished. It has been said, tongue in cheek, that the Orthodox strongly assert happiness and grudgingly admit suffering (and perhaps the Romans strongly assert suffering and grudgingly admit happiness). The Russian Orthodox Churches now state that souls “endure discipline for the sins which they have committed” and that they may be delivered, in part, by prayers (and especially the Eucharist) offered on their behalf.

What about Us?

The opinions of the 16th and 17th century Anglican divines were sharply influenced by the reaction to much of the medieval praxis and teaching around Purgatory. This often manifested itself in a rejection of the notion of an intermediate state for the soul between Heaven and Hell. The belief never entirely died out though and was revived by the Oxford Movement.

The 22nd Article of Religion gives an explicit condemnation of “Romish” doctrines of purgatory. This seems to indicate a doctrine of material fire and bought escape. It would certainly imply a rejection of mechanically proportional suffering to sin ratios and the like as well as exact offering/penance to release formulas.

This does not imply a rejection of a mediating state though. Lutheran theologian Martensen wrote, in Christian Dogmatics,

“As no soul leaves this present existence in a fully complete and prepared state, we must suppose that there is an intermediate state, a realm of progressive development in which souls are prepared and matured for the final judgment. Though the Romish doctrine of purgatory is repudiated because it is mixed up with so many crude and false positions, it nevertheless contains the truth that the intermediate state must, in a purely spiritual sense, be a purgatory designed for the purifying of the soul.”

In any discussion of the departed we must be careful not to try and be overly precise while still striving for some illumination. It is poetry rather than prose that seems to best describe the life after. To grasp for notions of what a disembodied soul’s existence may be like (or unlike) requires reaching for language, metaphor, and hope beyond what the mortal mind can hold.

A balanced sense of who we are, in our deepest being, and what we bring with us to the afterlife are necessary to think about purgatory in any sense. If we believe that we are just fine as we are, that we are ever in this life completely holy and blameless, then perhaps we need purgatory now more than ever! It seems an entirely Anglican thing to hold that those who don’t believe or whose life has been less than pure will have a chance to be caught up in the love of God – but that there will be some period (without our knowing its length or breadth) of transformation into the fullness of holiness.

A time of preparation for the fullness of the beatific vision seems entirely appropriate as our time here on earth is short and it seems the height of hubris to believe that utter holiness is the work of a soul’s short span in this earthly coil.

We maintain the hope of the life to come. We maintain that we are called to some form of justice/judgment/accord in the afterlife. If our core essence is bound to our soul, rather than to our bodies alone, then prayers for those who have gone on are entirely appropriate as they go from strength to strength and glory to glory and come, through cleansing love, to the fullness of life in God.