St. Catherine of Genoa's Vision of Purgatory: The Last Great Infusion of Light and Heat
St. Catherine of Genoa's Vision of Purgatory: The Last Great Infusion of Light and Heat
Originally posted as two blogs: "St. Catherine of Genoa's Vision of Purgatory: The Last Great Infusion of Light and Heat.: For All Souls Day the treatise on purgatory by St. Catherine of Genoa is a great source to learn more about this intermediate state between earth and heaven.
“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.”
"I see, too, certain rays and shafts of light which go out from that divine love towards the soul and are penetrating and strong enough to seem as though they must destroy not only the body but the soul too, were that possible."
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.
Memory of Conscience:
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.
The Apologetics of Rust and Stains:
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.”
Not a Torture Chamber:
Now to St. Catherine of Genoa’s vision of purgatory, generally considered: St. Catherine depicts purgatory not so much as a place but rather as a process through which the effects of sin- referred to as the “rust of sin” –are purged away. Although the idea of divine punishment is not to be disregarded in her account, what comes to the fore, nevertheless, is the application of God’s burning love for the soul. This is to be the context in which purgatory is considered. The idea of a torture chamber, portrayed in so many books, is not the main context.
God's Love: Burning Off Imperfections
It is the infusion of this fiery love of God into the soul- so attractive, yet, at the same time, so painfully felt -which burns away the real substantive effects selfishness and other vices leave upon the soul. Scripture refers to these effects as blemishes, spots and defilements. As we garnered from the New Testament already, we are called to be found without these effects when the Lord calls us to heaven. This implies one important truth: it is possible that we, as Christians, can be found with imperfections. Even more importantly, by being baptized into Christ we can purify these imperfections through faith, love and sacrifice. “By kindness and piety guilt is expiated, and by fear of the Lord man avoids evil.” (Proverbs 16:6) “Above all, let your love for one another be intense, because love covers a multitude of sin.” (I Peter 4:8) And to add yet one more passage from the same epistle: “…whoever suffers in flesh has broken from sin.” (4:1) This is why St. Therese the Little Flower could say that when she dies there would be nothing left for her to burn. Her life of love and sacrifice for the Lord would be the holocaust that would make purgatory unnecessary.
Willing To Be There
But for those souls for which purgatory is a necessity upon death, it is curiously not something that is resisted in a way a child resists punishment from his parents; but it is rather something that is desired. As St. Catherine says, “The souls who are in Purgatory cannot, as I understand, choose but be there, and this is by God's ordinance who therein has done justly.” In fact, the soul sees this purification as an act of God’s burning charity and would rather suffer this a thousand times rather than go straight to heaven. Again, she says, “Never can the souls say these pains are pains, so contented are they with God's ordaining with which, in pure charity, their will is united.”
The Beatific Instinct:
Upon death, the soul sees itself as it really is and it sees it in contrast to what it was created to be. And it is the latter, that is, what the soul was created to be, which St. Catherine of Genoa refers to this as the “beatific instinct.” This beatific instinct is the capacity or desire each person was created with to love God; and with each person this beatific instinct varies. For instance, even if I were to be perfect in what God created me to be, my beatific instinct or capacity to love God would never equal that of the Blessed Virgin’s. As stars in the night sky have a different capacity to shine, souls are created with a different capacity to love God in heaven. In any case, the soul in purgatory sees- as if in an instant –his sins and how far away he had fallen from what he was created to be.
Moving Beyond Sins:
It needs to be said, however, that purgatory is not a state of lamenting sins. According to St. Catherine, focusing on past sins would be a form of imperfection. As such, “They cannot turn their thoughts back to themselves, nor can they say, ‘Such sins I have committed for which I deserve to be here’, nor, ‘I would that I had not committed them for then I would go now to Paradise’, nor, ‘That one will leave sooner than I’, nor, ‘I will leave sooner than he’.” Therefore, after having seen its sins and imperfections upon death, the soul no more considers them. From here on out, the object of the soul’s vision and orientation is the beauty and glory of God.
The Pain: Being Held Back
Similar to the first instant of its creation, the soul’s contact with God in purgatory is profound and an occasion of supreme happiness. But because it cannot possess what it tastes or what it partially beholds, it suffers exceedingly. As St. Catherine reminds us, “Again the soul perceives the grievousness of being held back from seeing the divine light; the soul's instinct too, being drawn by that uniting look, craves to be unhindered.” Yet, these two realities- supreme happiness and intense suffering –exists side by side with each other. “So that the souls in Purgatory enjoy the greatest happiness and endure the greatest pain; the one does not hinder the other.”
Infusion of God's Fiery Love:
As the soul travels to heaven- as if by the speed of light –God’s consuming fire of love is infused into it. As the shades of sin recede, the soul begins to shine brighter, resembling- little by little -the splendor of God. The book of Wisdom provides the following illustration of these justified souls: “As gold in a furnace, he proved them, and as sacrificial offerings, he took them to himself. In the time of their visitation they shall shine, and shall dart about as sparks through stubble.” (3:6-7) St. Catherine continues this thought by saying that day by day happiness increases in the soul as God flows into them. More and more, the rust of sin- the very thing which hinders them from fully possessing God –is burned away by divine love. As such, the soul is better able to open itself up to the divine inflowing.
She then gives the following analogy: When gold has been purified up to twenty-four carats, it can no longer be consumed by any fire; not gold itself but only dross can be burnt away. Thus the divine fire works in the soul: God holds the soul in the fire until its every imperfection is burnt away and it is brought to perfection, as it were to the purity of twenty-four carats, each soul however according to its own degree. When the soul has been purified it stays wholly in God, having nothing of self in it; its being is in God who has led this cleansed soul to Himself; it can suffer no more for nothing is left in it to be burnt away; were it held in the fire when it has thus been cleansed, it would feel no pain.
To the Extent We Accept Suffering:
Such is the work of God in purgatory where the imperfections of human love is burned away. However, we are all called to be Saints; to be followers of Christ without these imperfections. Heaven, like purgatory, is a choice. Every soul is created with a certain capacity to love God which, as we said, is referred to as the beatific instinct. To the extent we fill that capacity with love and desire for God, we become Saints. But love and desire for God is tested through and measured by sacrifice and suffering. As with our created capacity to love, God has preordained, for every person, an exact measure of trials and suffering. To the extent we accept with love the trying and difficult circumstances of life- and endure them for his sake –to that extent, our life becomes a holocaust before God. Burning up our personal imperfections, we become like God. And with St. Theresa the Little Flower, we can say that there is nothing left to burn at the hour of our death.