BY JULIA DU FRESNE
I once knew a parish priest who didn’t believe in purgatory. He said so. From the pulpit. Another concedes that it exists — but not for the faithful, for whom apparently God is a glorified insurance agent, with Masses offered for them after death a celestial endowment fund delivering immediate admission to heaven.
Now what would Mother Seraphim of the Adorers of the Sacred Heart make of that?
Not much, I suspect, as at a Carmelite retreat at Ngakuru recently she visited our dinner table with a small book that made our hair stand on end, the tales it tells.
Hungry Souls — Supernatural Visits, Messages and Warnings from Purgatory, by renowned psychotherapist Gerard van den Aardweg, has many scholarly annotations, a bibliography and photographs. Photographs? Of purgatory? No; of the church of the Sacred Heart of Suffrage in Rome, its glass and marble images of saints who promoted devotion to the holy souls, including Thomas Aquinas, Bonaventure and Margaret Mary Alacoque, and a mural Benedict XV called “a visual compendium of Catholic doctrine on purgatory”.
More tellingly, the church has a museum giving evidence of visits from holy souls, among them scorch marks left by fiery fingerprints on clothing or prayer books. . . . Hold on. How can spiritual beings leave physical marks? Immaterial spirits, Dr van den Aardweg says, take on material form to make themselves visible, a form expressing essential features of their spiritual state.
If we Carmelites were thinking ourselves exempt, we had another think coming. The “theologian of purgatory”, St Catherine of Genoa, insists that even the smallest imperfections must be burned away. How many NZ Catholic readers would believe that a pious, cloistered nun, who took two painful years to die of tuberculosis, could find herself in purgatory? But there’s her fingerprint, burned into the pillow of a fellow religious, to prove she’d sinned against faith by wanting to die, and therefore had need of suffrage.
So we Carmelites’ nearest and dearest should take heed. If our obsequies turn out to be occasions for eulogising and celebrating, assuming we’re in heaven and lulling everyone into a sense of false security, they could be in for hauntings too.
St Catherine describes the fire of purgatory as the fire of the love of God, enkindled in the soul imediately after death. “At . . . a glance (God), so transforms the soul in Him that it knows nothing other than God . . . the soul feels itself melting in the fire of that love of its sweet God. . . . The greatest suffering of the souls in purgatory . . . is the awareness that they have deliberately gone against his great goodness . . . the soul feels within it a fire like that of hell.”
How wise, then, to pre-empt that fire by learning to love God now in meditation and contemplative prayer, in the knowledge that patient suffering and prayer, especially in the Mass where our beloved dead pray with us, accelerate not only their journey to ineffable joy , but our own.