November is the month dedicated to the Holy Souls on the Church calendar, and it is a golden opportunity to deepen our understanding of Purgatory while praying for those on their way to the Beatific Vision.
You can’t spend too much time thinking about Purgatory and the afterlife without having your thoughts turned towards Dante.
The most well-known of Dante’s three-part Divine Comedy is the macabre Inferno, in which the poet Dante is guided down through the depths of hell by Virgil. However, while a third of the Comedy does explore the descent into hell away from God, this is only a third of the story – the majority of the poem explores the ascent through Purgatory and the celestial realms towards God.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains the purpose of Purgatory as being a place in which “all who die in God’s grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified. . . undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven” (CCC 1030).
While the Inferno focuses on the punishments of the unrepentant sinner’s soul for the deadly sins he willfully embraced in life, the Purgatorio reflects on the purification of the repentant sinner’s soul from the remaining effects of these same sins. As the CCC states, “[Purgatory is] the final purification of the elect, which is entirely different from the punishment of the damned” (CCC 1031).
And I will sing about that second realm
Given the human soul to purge its sin
And grow worthy to climb to Paradise.
(Purgatorio, Canto 1:4-6)
This intermediate stage before entering the pearly gates is perhaps best seen not so much as a punishment, but as a necessary purification to fully enjoy the blessedness of Heaven. Think about it – we would need to be totally free from anything that might blur the Image of God in our souls if we are to stand before Him, face to Face, in total unity.
With this in mind, here are a few things to learn about Purgatory through Dante’s writings:
1. Praying for the souls in purgatory is an act of mercy
One of Dante’s first conversations in his journey through Purgatory is with Manfred of Sicily, who explains that the prayers of those on earth can shorten the time of those in purgatory:
See now if you can bring me happiness,
Revealing to my daughter the good Constance
The law that binds me here. For we can gain
Much profit from what prayers on earth obtain.
This concept is also reiterated elsewhere in the poem, and is a longstanding tradition of the Church, rooted in Scripture (look up 2 Maccabees Chapter 12 to read about how Judas prayed for his fallen soldiers). While many of us are at least vaguely aware of this practice, connecting with the stories of the characters throughout the Purgatorio can really open our hearts to an emphatic understanding of why praying for their release is a real act of mercy and love.
2. A deathbed conversion isn’t all it’s cracked up to be
Said I, Now feast your eyes, my gentle Master,
upon this picture – he’s so careless, he,
that Laziness herself should be his sister!
‘Living it up’ and then converting at the end of your life may sometimes sound like the best of both worlds, but beware! Dante imagines that the indolent souls who willfully put off the hard work of conversion until their deathbed spend the same number of years that they lived on earth waiting outside of Purgatory, before they are even allowed to start the climb!
The angel of the Lord who guards the gate
Would never let me meet my punishment,
For first the heavens must turn about me here
As often as they passed me in this life,
For I put off my good sighs till the end.
I’ll wait outside, unless I’m helped by prayer
Arising from a heart that dwells in grace.
3. It’s all about love
Hurry to scrape away the scales that keep
the Lord from being manifest to you!
Since sin is ultimately an absence of, or disordered take on, love, Purgatory is in place to strip away and heal the effects of ego, pride, selfishness, and any other sin that blurs the Image of God in our souls and creates any barriers between us and the Lord, so that we might be fully united by love with Love. Again, we want to reflect God’s Image back to Him as perfectly as possible, so we may be in the most intimate union with Him imaginable!
From its most holy waters I returned
as remade as a new young plant appears
renewed in every newly springing frond,
Pure, and in trim for mounting to the stars.
May the souls of the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace. Amen!
All quotations taken from Anthony Esolen’s excellent translation, which can be found here.