Tuesday, March 29, 2011

St. Catherine of Genoa's Vision of Purgatory: The Last Great Infusion of Light and Heat

“I believe no happiness can be found worthy to be compared with that of a soul in Purgatory except that of the saints in Paradise; and day by day this happiness grows as God flows into these souls, more and more as the hindrance to His entrance is consumed. Sin's rust is the hindrance, and the fire burns the rust away so that more and more the soul opens itself up to the divine inflowing.”

-St. Catherine

The best description and explanation of purgatory is from St. Catherine of Genoa. At least that is my opinion. There have been some Catholic books that have depicted purgatory to be a torture chamber. There is pain there, no doubt. But this partial truth casts a dim light on the subject. The vision of St. Catherine of Genoa on purgatory takes place within the context of God’s fiery love and purity. The soul who is bound for heaven experiences an intense happiness similar to that of paradise. She also undergoes an unprecedented degree of suffering. These two opposite extremes do not mitigate each other. Rather, the integrity of extreme happiness and extreme suffering is fully intact until the imperfections of the soul are purged away.

Before I get into the details of St. Catherine’s vision, allow me to sketch the parameters by calling your attention to something Pope Benedict XVI said when he was a Cardinal. He had given an address on the “Memory of Conscience” which was based on the writings of Blessed John Henry Newman. He proffered the idea or theory that when God creates each soul there is some sort of contact between God and the soul; a contact that the soul remembers. This memory is not composed of an image of course; it is more like an impression that the Lord imparts. This impression is especially fresh and delicate in the childhood years. But as life unfolds the choices a person makes is either consistent with or a departure from this divine impression within the soul.

With particular acts, one’s conscience confers peace on the soul when an action is good; and when an action is evil, it imposes guilt. With a guilty conscience, the soul’s memory is essentially saying: “This is not what you were created for; nor is it consistent with the memory you have of God.” And through a peaceful conscience we are reminded that the good deeds we do are a fulfillment of that impression God made at the very beginning.

Now we come to St. Catherine’s vision of purgatory which begins as such: “This holy Soul found herself, while still in the flesh, placed by the fiery love of God in Purgatory, which burnt her, cleansing whatever in her needed cleansing, to the end that when she passed from this life she might be presented to the sight of God, her dear Love. By means of this loving fire, she understood in her soul the state of the souls of the faithful who are placed in Purgatory to purge them of all the rust and stains of sin of which they have not rid themselves in this life.”

The “rust of sin” which the Saint from Genoa refers to is no man-made doctrine; it comes straight from Scripture. In the New Testament especially, the sacred authors admonish their readers to be found without “spot,” “blemish,” “stain” or “wrinkle.” Here are just a few texts:

“…be eager to be found without spot or blemish before him [God].” (II Peter 3:14)

“…keep the commandment without stain or reproach until the appearance of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (I Timothy 6:14)

“…discern what is of value, so that you may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ.” (Philippians 1:10)

“…let us cleanse ourselves of every defilement of flesh and spirit, making holiness perfect in fear of God.” (II Corinthians 7: 1)

“...To the one who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you unblemished and exultant, in the presence of his glory…” (Jude 24)

These admonitions to be without blemish, stain, defilement and blame when the Lord comes for us presupposes that we can be found with blemish, stain, defilement, and blame. These imperfections are nothing less than the rust of sin (not its guilt but its effect) which holds us back from enjoying the Beatific Vision of God when we die.

To use another analogy, St. Paul likens the imperfection of the soul to a house built with hay, straw or wood in addition to good material such as gold and silver. The house- a symbol of our life –must withstand the pure and holy fire of God if we are to live in his presence. As is well known, however, straw and wood, which represents those unholy qualities of the soul, will not withstand fire. But in God’s mercy such unworthy building material will be purged away with nothing but gold and silver remaining. The burning of this flammable material will be at a cost; as such, the soul will suffer. As St. Paul said, “But if someone's work is burned up, that one will suffer loss; the person will be saved, but only as through fire.”

Now that we sketched out some parameters, we can give our full attention to St. Catherine of Genoa’s vision of purgatory, let’s see what she has to say…in the next blog.