My scariest dreams always involve Satan. The most memorable among them was the shortest dream I have ever experienced. In my dream I was lying in bed, awake. A presence appeared next to me. It had no shape; it was completely black and pure evil.
I woke to find myself laying in the exact spot and in the same position as in my dream. That circumstance made the dream even more realistic. Needless to say, I turned on the bedside light for the rest of the night.
My nightmare a few weeks ago was almost as scary. Someone I loved had died. I have no idea who this person was, but I did know what was happening with his soul. I smelled the stench of hell and heard its sizzle. It was terrifying.
Then Mary appeared. She brought my loved one out of hell, but he was to remain in the lowest level of purgatory. While we should have been rejoicing that he would spend eternity with God, it was still a sad dream. Mary was full of sorrow, knowing it did not have to be this way. This person could have experienced a much richer life with God while still on earth and not found himself so near hell upon his death.
When I awoke, hell felt very near. It was frightening. I found myself intensely praying for myself and for all the people in my life. Though I do not live in fear of hell, this dream was sobering. It was a reminder that God gave us free will, and that as long as I live on this earth, I and those I care about can choose to act against Him.
Purgatory also seems scary to me, even though it tells us of God’s mercy. The Church tells us that “All who die in God’s grace and friendship but still imperfectly purified, are indeed assured of their eternal salvation; but after death, they undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven” (CCC 1030).
Indeed, Scripture tells us we cannot just enter heaven as we are. The holiness mentioned in the Catechism comes from Hebrews 12:14 (NABRE): “Strive for peace with everyone, and for that holiness without which no one will see the Lord.” How many of us die in a state of holiness?
Revelation 21:27 (NABRE) tells us that nothing unclean shall enter heaven, “nor anyone who does abominable things or tells lies.” Other scripture passages give examples of various behaviors that will keep us out of heaven. In other words, we cannot just approach the Throne in whatever spiritual shape we happen to be in.
It makes sense. Imagine if we all went to heaven still attached to our particular sins. Psalm 51, 3-5 (NABRE) says this:
Have mercy on me, God, in accord with your merciful love;
in your abundant compassion blot out my transgressions.
Thoroughly wash away my guilt;
and from my sin cleanse me.
For I know my transgressions;
my sin is always before me.
If God does not purify us, we spend eternity with our sin always before us. This does not sound like the joyous place God has prepared for us.
C.S. Lewis, in Chapter 20 of Letters to Malcolm, put it this way:
Our souls demand Purgatory, don’t they? Would it not break the heart if God said to us, “It is true, my son, that your breath smells and your rags drip with mud and slime, but we are charitable here and no one will upbraid you with these things, nor draw away from you. Enter into the joy”? Should we not reply, “With submission, sir, and if there is no objection, I’d rather be cleaned first.” “It may hurt, you know” – “Even so, sir.”
I recently read a book called Hungry Souls: Supernatural Visits, Messages and Warnings from Purgatory, written by Gerard J. M. Van Den Aardweg. The author shares stories of people who claim to have been visited by souls in purgatory. Some of these souls left proof behind, proof which is now in the Museum of the Holy Souls in Purgatory, located in Rome.
Reading this book gives much food for thought. If it is true, cleansing is a painful and sometimes long process. The suffering of these souls can be alleviated by our prayers and especially by offering Mass. According to these stories, while purging can be difficult, there is a great joy too. Every soul in purgatory is destined for heaven.
Some speculate that much of the suffering comes from a longing to be with God. That makes sense to me. I have thought about the saints who have had visions of Jesus and wondered how they managed when the visits ceased.
Despite the merciful and joyous aspects of purgatory, I spent much time after my dream thinking about it with apprehension. I expect to be lacking in holiness when I die. I suffer poorly on this earth; will I do any better in purgatory?
At Mass recently it is as if the priest knew what I was thinking. The first reading that day was Phil 2:5-11 (NAB) and included this:
Brothers and sisters:
Have among yourselves the same attitude
that is also yours in Christ Jesus,
Who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
something to be grasped.
Rather, he emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
coming in human likeness;
and, found human in appearance,
he humbled himself,
becoming obedient to death,
even death on a cross.
The priest reminded us to receive everything as a gift from God; to raise our arms and accept it all, as Christ did on the cross. I heard his words and realized that if everything is a gift, that includes purgatory. All of God’s gifts are from His abundance of love, so the cleansing fire is worthy of thanks and praise.
Purgatory helps me to make sense of some of the suffering in the world. There is suffering caused by our own personal sinfulness or from the free will of others, but much suffering is caused by illness or other situations that are beyond our control. I have written before of the suffering my mother endured, and of my response to her pain. I do not suffer well, nor do I handle the suffering of loved ones well.
We should, of course, strive for holiness and try to avoid purgatory. To be received into heaven immediately after death is what God desires for all of us. Because it is God’s desire, it follows that to love God is to desire holiness.
One way to serve God is to pray for the holy souls and offer Masses for them. According to some who claim to have met them, many souls are never prayed for. Purgatory is not much talked about or believed in anymore — even by Catholics.
Scripture reveals that God desires for us to be part of His plan of salvation. He asks us to work together to bring each other to heaven. Praying for the holy souls is an important part of that. While we can assist them, those prayers are also helping us to grow in holiness.
Recently I learned a little about my family history. A relative has traced one branch of the family back several generations. I learned that some of my ancestors came from France. Immediately I thought about St. Joan of Arc. Although my name, Janet, is derived from “Joan,” I hadn’t realized that when I was confirmed in eighth grade, because I took Joan as my confirmation name. The older I get, the more important she becomes to me.
I began to wonder, could any of my relatives have known her? Could one of them have been a friend of St. Joan, or even fought with her?
From there I wondered about relatives before her. Maybe somebody in some branch of the family tree knew St. Peter or another of the apostles. It’s possible a relative even met Jesus.
Learning about family history made me realize on a deeper level just how connected we all are. This kinship is not just with those we spend our time on earth with; it includes the multitude of the deceased.
When I pray for the souls in purgatory, I am praying for members of my own family. Some of those souls might even be genetically related.
I hope one day to meet these people and share the joys of heaven. As my prayers can help lift them to God, one day they may be doing the same for me.
If you are one of the many people who does not believe in purgatory, I urge you to reconsider. There are several Scripture passages that support it. There is also the history of Church teachings. Before we had Scripture, before people were disagreeing about biblical interpretation, we had the teachings passed down from the apostles. We even have historical evidence of the early Christian teachings in the form of prayer requests for the dead in the catacombs.
If you do not believe in purgatory you will not be aiding souls with your prayers, and growing in holiness in the process. Those are pretty big losses.
For those who do believe, remember the souls who reside there. You can aid them through your prayers and offering of Masses and sacrifices. This is another way to show your love of God.
I have had moments where I dread the thought of purgatory. To the extent that this dread motivates me to sin less, it is a good thing. For times when it does not, I need to remember what my priest said: everything is a gift of God. Purgatory is how God allows us to approach Him in purity, to find complete joy in heaven without our sins always being before us. As C.S. Lewis said, I would rather be cleaned. Even if it hurts.