Purification Before The Beatific Vision

Anthony Zimmerman
The Homiletic and Pastoral Review
January, 1993
Reproduced with Permission

The departed in Purgatory know that the Beatific Vision is not for them before the process of purification is completed. They would suffer more from exposure in the ravishing light than they do in Purgatory. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, O.P. (d. 1964) thus summarizes Chapter 16 of the treatise on Purgatory written by St. Catherine of Genoa (d. 1510).(1) In other words, the souls in Purgatory wouldn't want to be in heaven until they are ready; until they are re- conditioned for complete and painless translucence in the vision..

Monsignor Anton Ceska, retired Prefect Apostolic of Niigata, Japan, told me about a dream he said he had the night before, about life in the next world; he was then on his death bed in 1951, and would enter that next world only two weeks later. His face glowed as he spoke. To this day I am not decided whether he actually had the dream he spoke of, or whether he was telling a story, an art for which his priests and people loved him:

Last night I had an incredibly beautiful dream. I found myself walking on a path in another world. The path led through a deep forest; the breath of spring was in the air, flowers greeted me on the roadside, and birds made the forest ring with song. I dared to hope that heaven would greet me at the end of the path. But now I came to a fork in the road, one branch going to the right, the other to the left. Which way leads to heaven? I stood bewildered and sad. Just then a traveler approached from the right branch of the road. His face radiated kindness.

"Which road leads to heaven?" I asked.

"This way," he said. "This way, where I came from." Then he pointed to my clothes. They needed cleaning. Gravy and grease spots showed.

"If you take this other path first," he advised, "you can have those clothes laundered perfectly. It shouldn't take long. Come back here when all is clean. Then you can take this path."

"I woke up then," finished Monsignor Ceska, deeply stirred by his thoughts. it was evident that he was looking forward keenly to his coming rendezvous with God.

Theologians and saints state that souls doing penance in Purgatory accept their pains willingly because they know they are being prepared to appear before the face of God. St. Thomas explains: "The soul wills to bear (the pains) as benefits imposed upon it by divine justice. It realizes the suitableness of this vivid pain, to purify the depths of the soul, to erase all egoism and self-seeking. The soul, though it had not courage during life to impose upon itself this deep interior suffering, now accepts that suffering voluntarily" (Summa Theologica, Appen. to Supp.a.4).

Sweetened and consoled by the certain hope of possessing God

These souls have received, at the particular judgment, the revelation that they are saved, states Garrigou-Lagrange (p. 179) from whom I draw much of what follows. They know they are neither in heaven nor in hell, and that when their temporary abode in Purgatory is completed, they are certain to be admitted to heaven. The temporary deprivation of the sight of God is felt as a great suffering, "but it is sweetened and consoled by the assured hope of once possessing Him. From this hope there arises an incredible joy, which grows in measure as the soul approaches the end of its exile" (Lagrange, p. 166, citing St. Robert Bellarmine). Perhaps they recite more devoutly than ever before the prayer of Psalm 42: "Like the deer that yearns for running streams, so my soul is yearning for you, my God."

"Nothing that is impure will enter the city, nor anyone who does shameful things or tells lies" (Rev. 21:27). Heaven endures no lie, no wrong whatsoever. Earth witnesses many sins, of course, which, if not repaired, distort characters, cause scandal in others; when massive wrongs are not righted, whole nations slide into moral decadence. That does not happen in the next world. Therefore whatever wrongs remain must be righted before a soul enters heaven. St. Thomas explains the function of punishment for sin as follows:

When the act of sin has ceased, the guilt remains; because the act of sin makes man deserving of punishment, in so far as he transgresses the order of Divine justice, to which he cannot return except he pay some sort of penal compensation, which restores him to the quality of justice; so that according to the order of Divine justice, he who has been too indulgent to his will, by transgressing God's commandments, suffers either willingly or unwillingly, something contrary to what he would wish. Consequently it is evident that when the sinful or injurious act has ceased there still remains the debt of punishment (Summa Theologica 1-11,87,6).

The souls in Purgatory have seen their lives in retrospect at the particular judgment, illumined now with the light of God's penetrating truth. Lagrange observes:

Under the light of the particular judgment, the soul sees all its sins singly and consequently repents of each singly....

We on earth see events along the horizontal line, where it is hard to distinguish good from evil.... The souls in purgatory, on the contrary, have rather the vertical view, where God's holiness penetrates the most profound depths of perversity. Adoration of this holiness constitutes the purgatorial liturgy (ibid. p. 181; p. 183).

The desire of the departed souls, then, is to right the wrongs they had done by accepting the remedy of suffering. We can help them by voluntary prayers and sacrifices, especially by the Sacrifice of the Mass. The story is told that St. Catherine of Ricci suffered during forty days to free a soul from Purgatory. When a novice touched her hand she felt that it was hot like fire. St. Catherine agreed: "This fire is not seen, but it consumes like a burning fever" (recounted in Lagrange p. 174). When the balance of justice is restored by satispassion, the holy souls have completed this penal aspect of their stay in Purgatory.

However, another aspect remains: a person's entire attitude must be made right before one enters heaven. One who has hated perversely must renounce hatred and embrace love. One who has wickedly shut out knowledge and embraced ignorance must finally embrace the truth. One who wasted his life by drink, drugs, flight from duty, must clear the grooved tendency out of his or her system. Heaven, with its sea of glass clear as crystal (cf. Rev. 4:6), the Holy City "shining with the glory of God" (Rev. 21: 11), a city "made of pure gold, as clear as glass" (Rev. 21:18), is only for people whose purity matches the environment. The Holy City employs no street cleaners.

Were we to enter heaven without renouncing and purging out the sinful attitudes - those "remnants of sin" - the pain of exposure to the bright lights would drive us away in shame to seek the shelter of darkness. To illustrate what "remnants of sin" are, St. Thomas uses the example of Christ's healing of the blind man in Mark 8: Christ placed his hands on him and asked: "Can you see anything?" He looked up and answered that he can see people but they look like trees walking around. Christ then put his hands on the man's eyes. With that the man's eyesight was restored completely. That signifies the delivery of a sinner, states Thomas:

After the first remission of sin, whereby the sinner is restored to spiritual sight, there still remain in him some remnants of his past sin. . . . There is no reason why, after the guilt has been forgiven the dispositions caused by preceding acts should not remain, which are called the remnants of sin. Yet they remain weakened and diminished, so as not to domineer over man, and they are after the manner of dispositions rather than of habits, like the fomes which remains after Baptism (ST III, 86,5).

The greatest suffering of the Holy Souls is that of having sinned against divine goodness, and finding still in themselves the rusty "remnants of sin" writes Lagrange (p. 192, citing St. Catherine of Genoa). Do these dispositions remain in the separated souls after death? "Yes," responds Lagrange to his own question. "They are like rust penetrating at times to the depths of the intelligence and the will. Does this rust disappear suddenly upon entrance into purgatory? Some theologians think so, because an intense act of charity can immediately take away these evil dispositions" (ibid. p. 182). But St. Thomas is not among these theologians, continues Lagrange. He cites Thomas: "The rigor of suffering corresponds properly speaking to the gravity of the fault, and the duration of the suffering corresponds to the rootedness which the sin has in the subject" (IV Sent. dist. 21, 1,3). Uprooting is generally a long process, continues Lagrange, demanding long affliction or a long penance. "Hence we are inclined to think that, although venial sins are immediately remitted on entrance into purgatory, evil dispositions, as a rule, disappear progressively. We say, as a rule. Exceptions may occur, as on earth, so in purgatory (ibid. p. 182). But in general the uprooting of the remnants of sin is a progressive process during which the soul grows in beauty as the purification takes effect. Lagrange quotes St. Catherine of Genoa, who speaks from her own experience:

No peace is comparable to that of the souls in purgatory except that of the saints in heaven. This peace grows as hindrances disappear. As the rust disappears, the soul reflects more and more perfectly the true sun, which is God. And its happiness grows in the same measure.

The souls in Purgatory therefore accept their satispassion with an act of the will, continues Lagrange (p. 183), and offer it with ardent charity as an act of adoration. They now see the infinite value of redemption, of the sacrifice of the cross, of the sacrifice of the Mass, of the sacraments; they also see, without distraction, the value of eternal life, of the possession of God; they experience great joy when Mass is celebrated on their anniversary days. He continues:

These souls love their suffering. On earth they were not generous enough to impose on themselves a condign punishment. Now that punishment becomes an expiatory sacrifice. And the more this suffering penetrates the depth of their will, the more lovingly they accept it. Egoism, selfishness, the rust of sin, is burnt away, and charity reigns without rival in the depths, rooted there forever (p. 183).

To the question whether souls can grow in acquired virtue in Purgatory, Lagrange responds positively; they grow thus by the "repetition of natural acts." Virtues such as justice and prudence, he observes, can grow in this life even when one is in the state of mortal sin wherein one cannot merit. And in Purgatory defective attitudes, the "remnants of sin," disappear gradually as they are "replaced by acquired virtue." He mentions prudence and justice in particular, because they reside in the purely spiritual faculties which separated souls possess (p. 186).

Building on what Lagrange states here, we can follow through by proposing that the souls in Purgatory perfect their acquired virtues to that degree which the duties they had in life would have required; duties which were proper to individuals in their vocation of life, whether bishop, priest, religious, teacher, parent, whatever. They exercise in Purgatory the respective virtues which they should have perfected in life, and by so doing cast out the "remnants of sin." Thus they prepare themselves to appear before the intense footlights of the Beatific Vision not only without fear, but with joy and confidence, with a self image that is positive and perfect. However, we need not imagine that God deals with souls by the old law of eye for eye and tooth for tooth. God can infuse healing instantly when he is satisfied. We also know that as charity grows, the entire family of all the virtues grows with it, so that the acquired virtues perfect themselves naturally and supernaturally as charity intensifies.

The purgatorial process of perfecting acquired virtues

The question whether infused virtues- those which are increased by the action of God-might be increased by God in Purgatory, is disputed. Lagrange cites the commonly held view that the degree of glory is proportioned to the merits acquired BEFORE DEATH: "After death there is no way to acquire grace or to increase it" (ST, Supp. 71,12). On the other hand he cites the opinion of many Thomists that souls who merit an increase of charity on earth but did not obtain this augmentation at once, obtain the fullness of this charity when they make their correspondingly intense act of love for God in Purgatory (see ibid. pp. 187-188). That appears to be a reasonable conclusion, as we might compare it to cashing checks at the bank which were not cashed during one's lifetime.

The above considerations of Lagrange suggest that in Purgatory wisdom is accumulated not at once but by degrees, and charity intensifies gradually as new energies are generated from powers previously established. According to this view the souls may keep for a time their "Linus towel" of accustomed dispositions (Thomas does not like the word "habits") until they are comfortable with newly acquired virtues. Those who have lived for so long in rationalized rejection of Humanae Vitae may feel more comfortable if they can peel their rationalizations away one by one, rather than suffering themselves to be struck by the lightning of instant recognition. Or to change the metaphor, the tighter the adhesive tape sticks to the rationalizations, the more it pains when removed. The Hatfields and McCoys gradually see no sense in continuing a feud which delays entrance into joy. To rid self of these and similar rutted dispositions may require repeated and strenuous action, as souls climb from one spiritual episode to the next. God stands by them, assisting them, comforting them at each new victory in the process of perfecting acquired virtues.

Separated souls live neither in the continuum of solar time, nor in the simultaneousness of eternity. Thomas, citing Boethius, has given the term of "eviternity" to the measure of successive thoughts and affections which takes place in Purgatory (see ST 1, 10, 4-6; Lagrange, pp. 90-91). Solar time, it is noted, has both a beginning and an end; eternity has neither beginning nor end; whereas eviternity has both, beginning and end.

We may venture to say, then, that a soul in Purgatory, aided by God, proceeds from lower stages of still imperfect wisdom and charity to progressively higher stages; each next stage is but a step higher, still within range without doing violence to itself. At each next step the soul accepts its own correction, perhaps with some chagrin and breast-beating, but with a sense of accomplishment. The soul moves forward and upward gradually, like professional mountaineers who climb one day at a time, and rest at night to acclimatize themselves; on each day of their ascent the air become more rare and limpid, the sky turns into pure cobalt, and the vista of the world below grows in breathtaking beauty; they relish with anticipation and joy the coming day of the assault to the top; finally they summon all their energies to reach the summit, to view the world from the top. When the holy souls reach their Summit, they view more than merely this world, and can stay forever and ever.

We may imagine that Peter, dangling the keys to the Holy City, asks every new arrival about the important issue of Humanae Vitae, so critical for the Church today; that includes bishops, pastors, theologians, teachers, catechists, and married persons especially. Those who do not give the correct password may be told to update their wisdom in Purgatory and then come again. While serving time in eviternity they must educate themselves about the correctness of the teaching they had assumed to be wrong. Perhaps they did not sin mortally because the truth was hidden from them by socially induced invincible ignorance. But ignorance has no place in heaven: "They do not know my ways. So I swore they shall not enter into my rest" (Ps. 95). Perhaps they did sin mortally, but a good priest absolved them from mortal sin on their deathbed. In eviternity they are finally freed from obstacles hindering their agreement with Humanae Vitae: the pull of the flesh no longer befogs pure thought; peer pressure is gone, and the crackling media finally fall silent; it is a matter of repairing their thoughts and wills now, to pass muster with Peter who stands at the gate. Those who have built their lives upon this rebellion may not be instant converts even in Purgatory. But they will stay there, we may be sure, until they have the correct password for Peter (cf. Matt. 16:18).

Those who died without forgiveness, without sanctifying grace, after having committed with full knowledge and consent a sin of contraception, or abortion, or sterilization, will not get past Peter. They lose all hope when abandoned here. Nothing is left for them but to wander "outside the city ... (with) the perverts and those who practice magic, the immoral and the murders, those who worship idols and those who are liars in words and deeds" (Rev. 22:15). Humanae Vitae is today for many a ladder into heaven, and for others - but we hope against hope that it is not true -for others it may be the stumbling block which proved final; forever and ever.

How will the bishop who had to deal with Humanae Vitae judge himself when he knocks at the gate and signals to Peter? Perhaps he decided to teach the message against contraception only with muffled voice, and the people read his lips wrongly. Perhaps he reasoned that it was the correct pastoral thing to "not argue or shout, or make loud speeches in the streets"; to "not break off a bent reed nor put out a flickering lamp" (see Matt. 12: 19-20). Was it right? Or does he reproach himself with the words of Isaiah: "All leaders, who are supposed to warn my people are blind! They know nothing. They are like watch dogs that bark - they only lie around and dream" (Isa. 56: 10). And then there are nuances of positions in between, which the bishop may have followed. And if a whole Conference of Bishops arrives at Peter's gate, who did not bark like watch dogs, what will Peter say to them?

In principle, we know, the people have the right to be told the truth by their bishop. We also know that the present Pope does not hesitate to teach loudly and clearly that every act of contraception is a grave matter, is intrinsically evil. Bishops who follow his example and teach openly in their dioceses as the Pope does, will be eternally grateful to God, I believe; to God who helped them do their ardent duty of teaching faithfully. And the souls who knock at the portals of heaven will be grateful to the bishops who supported them with truth during their one-time-only contest of life.

We should know that Catholic couples who reach Purgatory after a valid marriage, followed by divorce and remarriage, will have to retrace all their false steps. Perhaps there was even a nod from an official who perversely declared a marriage null although it was actually valid. In Purgatory all pretense is meaningless, and reality reasserts itself. Before such souls make their final exit from Purgatory they will be of a mind to renew their original marriage vows "to be true to you in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health, to love you and honor you all the days of my life."

And should Jack Kevorkian show there, with people whom he assisted to crash into the next world without God's permission, we expect this challenge to be made: "The commandment stands for eternity: 'Thou shalt not kill.'When you agree with that, come again."

To this abbreviated list of serious postVatican troubles -land mines endangering the approach of pilgrims to heaven - the reader will surely know others which ought to be mentioned. It is our joint task to remove scandals and false teachings, to make the way to heaven more safe for ourselves and for our neighbor.

Each soul in Purgatory is struggling to reach God, gravitating toward him, getting closer at each newly achieved episode of insight and repentance. We can take on some of their burdens, turn their stairway into a moving escalator. "Many believe too easily in the prompt deliverance of their dear ones, and after a period of time, say a month, no longer pray for them," writes Lagrange sadly (p. 200). The Church certainly teaches us to come to the aid of the departed, especially by offering for them the Sacrifice of the Mass, by gaining indulgences, by receiving the Sacraments frequently and devoutly, by performing works of charity and penance. Our generosity will surely be rewarded by Christ who promised: "Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy" (Matt. 5:7). Lagrange also gives us the excellent advice to work off our Purgatory here on earth by generous acceptance of all contrarieties; accepting them now provides growth in charity, a growth which closes with the change of our abode (p. 194).

Those of us who will pass through Purgatory on the way to heaven will finally agree that all God's commandments are GOOD, that they MUST BE KEPT, and that they CAN BE KEPT. That is good reason to pray daily: "Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven." Also: "Train me to observe your law, to keep it with all my heart" (Ps. 119). If we pray thus, and live in that pattern, then perhaps - just perhaps - we may be privileged, like the martyrs, to by-pass Purgatory; to pop out of solar time directly into timeless eternity. Note, however, that St. Teresa of Avila learned that among the good religious she knew, only three had completed their purgatory on earth (see Lagrange, p. 194).

We ask God to grant eternal rest to our near and dear ones in Purgatory. And we ask to hear the kindly words when we are called into the next life: "Come, you that are blessed by my Father! Come and possess the kingdom which has been prepared for you ever since the creation of the world" (Matt. 25:34).