Purgatory Explained, Part 1, Chapter 11

illustration of Saint Bede the Venerable, from the Nuremberg Chronicle, 1493Article

The Pain of Sense – Torment of Fire and Torment of Cold – Venerable Bede and Drithelm

If the pain of loss makes but a feeble impression upon us, it is far different with the pain of sense; the torment of fire, the torture of a sharp and intense cold, affrights our sensibility. This is why Divine Mercy, wishing to excite a holy fear in our souls, speaks but little of the pain of loss, but we are continually shown the fire, the cold, and other torments, which constitute the pain of sense. This is what we see in the Gospel, and in particular revelations, by which God is pleased to manifest to His servants from time to time the mysteries of the other life. Let us mention one of these revelations. In the first place, let us see what the pious and learned Cardinal Bellarmine quotes from the Venerable Bede. England has been witness in our own days, writes Bede, to a singular prodigy, which may be compared to the miracles of the first ages of the Church. To excite the living to fear the death of the soul, God permitted that a man, after having slept the sleep of death, should return to life and reveal what he had seen in the other world. The frightful, unheard-of details which he relates, and his life of extraordinary penance, which corresponded with his words, produced a lively impression throughout the country. I will now resume the principal circumstances of this history.

There was in Northumberland a man named Drithelm, who, with his family, led a most Christian life. He fell sick, and his malady increasing day by day, he was soon reduced to extremity, and died, to the great desolation and grief of his wife and children. The latter passed the night in tears by the remains, but the following day, before his interment, they saw him suddenly return to life, arise, and place himself in a sitting posture. At this sight they were seized with such fear that they all took to flight, with the exception of the wife, who, trembling, remained alone with her risen husband. He reassured her immediately: “Fear not,” he said; “it is God who restores to me my life; He wishes to show in my person a man raised from the dead. I have yet long to live upon earth, but my new life will be very different from the one I led heretofore.” Then he arose full of health, went straight to the chapel or church of the place, and there remained long in prayer. He returned home only to take leave of those who had been dear to him upon earth, to whom he declared that he would live only to prepare himself for death, and advised them to do likewise. Then, having divided his property into three parts, he gave one to his children, another to his wife, and reserved the third part to give in alms. When he had distributed all to the poor, and had reduced himself to extreme indigence, he went and knocked at the door of a monastery, and begged the Abbot to receive him as a penitent Religious, who would be a servant to all the others.

The Abbot gave him a retired cell, which he occupied for the rest of his life. Three exercises divided his time – prayer, the hardest labor, and extraordinary penances. The most rigorous fasts he accounted as nothing. In winter he was seen to plunge himself into frozen water, and remain there for hours and hours in prayer, whilst he recited the whole Psalter of David.

The mortified life of Drithelm, his downcast eyes, even his features, indicated a soul struck with fear of the judgments of God. He kept a perpetual silence, but on being pressed to relate, for the edification of others, what God had manifested to him after his death, he thus described his vision:

“On leaving my body, I was received by a benevolent person, who took me under his guidance. His face was brilliant, and he appeared surrounded with light. He arrived at a large deep valley of immense extent, all fire on one side, all ice and snow on the other; on the one hand braziers and caldrons of flame, on the other the most intense cold and the blast of a glacial wind.

“This mysterious valley was filled with innumerable souls, which, tossed as by a furious tempest, threw themselves from one side to the other. When they could no longer endure the violence of the fire, they sought relief amidst the ice and snow; but finding only a new torture, they cast themselves again into the midst of the flames.

“I contemplated in a stupor these continual vicissitudes of horrible torments, and as far as my sight could extend, I saw nothing but a multitude of souls which suffered without ever having repose. Their very aspect inspired me with fear. I thought at first that I saw Hell; but my guide, who walked before me, turned to me and said, ‘No; this is not, as you think, the Hell of the reprobate. Do you know,’ he continued, ‘what place this is?’ ‘No,’ I answered. ‘Know,’ he resumed, ‘that this valley, where you see so much fire and so much ice, is the place where the souls of those are punished who, during life, have neglected to confess their sins, and who have deferred their conversion to the end. Thanks to a special mercy of God, they have had the happiness of sincerely repenting before death, of confessing and detesting their sins. This is why they are not damned, and on the great day of judgment will enter into the Kingdom of Heaven. Several of them will obtain their deliverance before that time, by the merits of prayers, alms, and fasts, offered in their favor by the living, and especially in virtue of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass offered for their relief.'”

Such was the recital of Drithelm. When asked why he so rudely treated his body, why he plunged himself into frozen water, he replied that he had seen other torments, and cold of another kind.

If his brethren expressed astonishment that he could endure these extraordinary austerities, “I have seen,” said he, “penances still more astonishing.” To the day when it pleased God to call him to Himself, he ceased not to afflict his body, and although broken down with age, he would accept no alleviation.

This event produced a deep sensation in England; a great number of sinners, touched by the words of Drithelm, and struck by the austerity of his life, became sincerely converted.

This fact, adds Bellarmine, appears to me of incontestable truth, since, besides being conformable to the words of Holy Scripture, Let him pass from the snow waters to excessive heat (Job 29:19), Venerable Bede relates it as a recent and well-known event. More than this, it was followed by the conversion of a great number of sinners, the sign of the work of God, who is accustomed to work prodigies in order to produce fruit in souls.

MLA Citation