The New (& the Old) EvangelizationSt. Catherine of Genoa's vision of Purgatory

After having received a vision of purgatory, St. Catherine of Genoa could not say enough about the happiness which is to be found there. Of course, the Saint did not mince words about the pain souls experience as well. In her treatise on purgatory, she wrote, “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 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 theme in her writings.

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.

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.”

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.

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.

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.”

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.

Indeed, after the soul is purged by God’s divine mercy and justice, he or she shall shine with a supreme happiness that lacks nothing.

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