Saturday, January 29, 2011

Purgatorio, the fire within

Sandro Magister's 17 January article over on Chiesa in which, prompted by Pope Benedict XVI's 12 January catechesis on St. Catherine of Genoa (1447-1510), he took up the topic of purgatory is something I have thought a lot about this past week. St. Catherine of Genoa is best known for her vision of purgatory. In particular, Magister points out the congruence between the Holy Father's audience and a passage from his magnificent encyclical letter, which is too little known and read: Spe Salvi. I cannot think of purgatory, however, without taking into consideration N.T. Wright's objections to what he sees as a late-developing and uniquely Catholic doctrine.

Wright lays out his objection to the doctrine of purgatory in a chapter of his book Surprised By Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church. In fact, Wright's vehement argument that purgatory is effectively a made-up doctrine, like the doctrine of limbo- that place in between heaven and hell that was posited to give unbaptized infants a place to go and that was effectively retracted by the International Theological Commission, which belongs to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, in a 2007 document that was some ten years in the making, The Hope of Salvation for Infants Who Die Without Being Baptized- sparked a charge of anti-Catholicism against him by the late Fr. Richard John Neuhaus. The good news is that these two friends, while never agreeing about purgatory, did attain reconciliation. Anyone who is interested can read Fr. Neuhaus' objections to Wright's critique in his piece The Possibilities and Perils in Being a Really Smart Bishop in the April 2008 issue of First Things and Wright's response in the June/July 2008 issue of the same journal.

It is not my intent to lay out Wright's argument contra purgatory at great length. "Purgatory," he correctly observes, "is basically a Roman Catholic doctrine. It is not held as such in the Eastern Orthodox church, and it was decisively rejected, on biblical and theological grounds and not merely because of antipathy to particular abuses [i.e., the selling of indulgences] at the Reformation." Wright goes on to accurately observe that purgatory was intially laid out at some length by "Aquinas in the thirteenth century and Dante in the early fourteenth." It is here that Bishop Wright points out something very vital about purgatory that gives the idea impetus and theological credibility, namely that as a result of these treatments of purgatory, likely more Dante's than Aquinas', "the notion became woven deeply into the entire psyche of the whole period." Of course it remains deeply woven into the psyche of subsequent periods, too. Wright goes on to note that "[t]he poetic and dramatic power of the idea of purgatory is evident," not only in Dante, but also in Newman's lovely poem Dream of Gerontius.

Lust, which artwork based on Dante's Purgatorio I chose due to another post I read and commented on today

The his catechesis on St. Catherine of Genoa, the pope notes that "Catherine, in her mystical experience, never received specific revelations on purgatory or on the souls being purified there." Nonetheless, in her writings about purgatory we encounter "characteristics that were original in her time." First among her unique insights is "the 'place' of the purification of souls." Prior to her time purgatory "was depicted mainly using images linked to space: a certain space was conceived of in which purgatory was supposed to be located." For Catherine purgatory is "an interior fire." This insight flows from "her own experience of profound sorrow for the sins committed, in comparison with God’s infinite love." So, from the first "moment of [her] conversion... [she] suddenly became aware of God’s goodness, of the infinite distance of her own life from this goodness and of a burning fire within her. And this is the fire that purifies, the interior fire of purgatory." So, rather than locating purgation in the afterlife, St. Catherine "begins with the inner experience of her own life on the way to Eternity."

"'The soul', Catherine says, 'presents itself to God still bound to the desires and suffering that derive from sin and this makes it impossible for it to enjoy the beatific vision of God'. Catherine asserts that God is so pure and holy that a soul stained by sin cannot be in the presence of the divine majesty." We, too, are "aware of the immense love and perfect justice of God and consequently [we] suffer for having failed to respond in a correct and perfect way to this love." The Holy Father concludes that "love for God itself becomes a flame, love itself cleanses it from the residue of sin."

Magister points out that the relevant parts of Spe Salvi are paragraphs 43-48. Central to this part of the Holy Father's letter on hope is when he points to the writings of "recent theologians" who "are of the opinion that the fire which both burns and saves is Christ himself, the Judge and Saviour. The encounter with him is the decisive act of judgement. Before his gaze all falsehood melts away. This encounter with him, as it burns us, transforms and frees us, allowing us to become truly ourselves. All that we build during our lives can prove to be mere straw, pure bluster, and it collapses. Yet in the pain of this encounter, when the impurity and sickness of our lives become evident to us, there lies salvation. His gaze, the touch of his heart heals us through an undeniably painful transformation 'as through fire'. But it is a blessed pain, in which the holy power of his love sears through us like a flame, enabling us to become totally ourselves and thus totally of God" (par. 47).

As Pope Benedict and Bishop Wright both indicate, such matters are too important to be left entirely to theologians. Painters, poets, composers and, in modern times, film-makers demonstrate how consonant the doctrine of purgatory is with the human heart (how deeply woven it is into our Christian psyche), arising from our experience of being fallen creatures in a fallen world, albeit one in the process of being redeemed and purified (Rom. 8:18-30). The obvious example is the Purgatorio of Dante's Divine Comedy (I urge you to check out the Divine Comedy via the University of Texas' wonderful website). Cardinal Newman's Dream of Gerontius holds a special place for me, as does Elgar's brilliant oratorio that sets Newman's poem to music, which I was privileged to hear at The Cathedral of the Madeleine back in August 2009.

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