Purgatory Explained, Part 1, Chapter 9

Saint Robert BellarmineArticle

The Pains of Purgatory, their Nature, their Rigor – Doctrine of Theologians – Bellarmine – Saint Francis of Sales – Fear and Confidence

There is in Purgatory, as in Hell, a double pain – the pain of loss and the pain of sense.

The pain of loss consists in being deprived for a time of the sight of God, who is the Supreme Good, the beatific end for which our souls are made, as our eyes are for the light. It is a moral thirst which torments the soul. The pain of sense, or sensible suffering, is the same as that which we experience in our flesh. Its nature is not defined by faith, but it is the common opinion of the Doctors that it consists in fire and other species of suffering. The fire of Purgatory, say the Fathers, is that of Hell, of which the rich glutton speaks, Quia crucior in hac flamma, “I suffer,” he says, “cruelly in these flames.”

As regards the severity of these pains, since they are inflicted by Infinite Justice, they are proportioned to the nature, gravity, and number of sins committed. Each one receives according to his works, each one must acquit himself of the debts with which he sees himself charged before God. Now these debts differ greatly in quality. Some, which have accumulated during a long life, have reached the ten thousand talents of the Gospel, that is to say, millions and ten of millions; whilst others are reduced to a few farthings, the trifling remainder of that which has not been expiated on earth. It follows from this that the souls undergo various kinds of sufferings, that there are innumerable degrees of expiation in Purgatory, and that some are incomparably more severe than others. However, speaking in general, the Doctors agree in saying that the pains are most excruciating. The same fire, says Saint Gregory, torments the damned and purifies the elect. (In Psalm 37). “Almost all theologians,” says Bellarmine, “teach that the reprobate and the souls in Purgatory suffer the action of the same fire.” (De Purgat., i. 2, cap. 6).

It must be held as certain, writes the same Bellarmine, that there is no proportion between the sufferings of this life and those of Purgatory. (De Gemitu Columbae, lib. 2, cap. 9). Saint Augustine declares precisely the same in his commentary on Psalm 31: Lord, he says, chastise me not in Thy wrath, and reject me not with those to whom Thou hast said, Go into eternal fire; but chastise me not in Thine anger: purify me rather in such manner in this life that I need not to be purified by fire in the next. Yes, I fear that fire which has been enkindled for those who will be saved, it is true, but yet so as by fire. (1 Cor. 3:15). They will be saved, no doubt, after the trial of fire, but that trial will be terrible, that torment will be more intolerable than all the most excruciating sufferings in this world. Behold what Saint Augustine says, and what Saint Gregory, Venerable Bede, Saint Anselm, and Saint Bernard have said after him Saint Thomas goes even further; he maintains that the least pain of Purgatory surpasses all the sufferings of this life, whatsoever they may be. Pain, says Blessed Peter Lefevre, is deeper and more acute when it directly attacks the soul and the mind than when it reaches them only through the medium of the body. The mortal body, and the senses themselves, absorb and intercept a part of the physical, and even of moral pain. (Sentim. du B. Lefevre sur la Purg., Mess, du S. Coeur, Nov. 1873).

The author of the Imitation explains this doctrine by a practical and striking sentence. Speaking in general of the sufferings of the other life: There, he says, one hour of torment will be more terrible than a hundred years of rigorous penance done here. (lib. 1, chap. 24).

To prove this doctrine, it is affirmed that all the souls in Purgatory suffer the pain of loss. Now this pain surpasses the keenest suffering. But to speak of the pain of sense alone, we know what a terrible thing fire is, how feeble soever the flame which we enkindle in our houses, and what pain is caused by the slightest burn; how much more terrible must be that fire which is fed neither with wood nor oil, and which can never be extinguished! Enkindled by the breath of God to be the instrument of His Justice, it seizes upon souls and torments them with incomparable activity. That which we have already said, and what we have still to say, is well qualified to inspire us with that salutary fear recommended to us by Jesus Christ. But, lest certain readers, forgetful of the Christian confidence which must temper our fears, should give themselves up to excessive fear, let us modify the preceding doctrine by that of another Doctor of the Church, Saint Francis of Sales, who presents the sufferings of Purgatory soothed by the consolations which accompany them.

We may, says this holy and amiable director of souls, draw from the thought of Purgatory more consolation than apprehension. The greater part of those who dread Purgatory so much think more of their own interests than of the interests of God’s glory; this proceeds from the fact that they think only of the sufferings without considering the peace and happiness which are there enjoyed by the holy souls. It is true that the torments are so great that the most acute sufferings of this life bear no comparison to them; but the interior satisfaction which is there enjoyed is such that no prosperity nor contentment upon earth can equal it.

The souls are in a continual union with God, They are perfectly resigned to His Will, or rather their will is so transformed into that of God that they cannot will but what God wills; so that if Paradise were to be opened to them, they would precipitate themselves into Hell rather than appear before God with the stains with which they see themselves disfigured. They purify them selves willingly and lovingly, because such is the Divine good pleasure.

They wish to be there in the state wherein God pleases, and as long as it shall please Him. They cannot sin, nor can they experience the least movement of impatience, nor commit the slightest imperfection. They love God more than they love themselves, and more than all things else; they love Him with a perfect, pure, and disinterested love. They are consoled by angels. They are assured of their eternal salvation, and filled with a hope that can never be disappointed in its expectations. Their bitterest anguish is soothed by a certain profound peace. It is a species of Hell as regards the suffering; it is a Paradise as regards the delight infused into their hearts by charity – Charity, stronger than death and more powerful than Hell; Charity, whose lamps are all fire and flame. {Canticle 8). “Happy state!” continues the holy Bishop, “more desirable than appalling, since its flames are flames of love and charity.” (Esprit de Saint François de Sales, chap. 9, p. 16).

Such are the teachings of the doctors, from which it follows that if the pains of Purgatory are rigorous, they are not without consolation. When imposing His cross upon us in this life, God pours upon it the unction of His grace, and in purifying the souls in Purgatory like gold in the crucible, He tempers their flames by ineffable consolations. We must not lose sight of this consoling element, this bright side of the often gloomy picture which we are going to examine.

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