Purifying Flames, by Venerable Fulton Sheen, 19 March 1933

1952 photograph of Venerable Fulton John Sheen produced as promotional material for the television show 'Life is Worth Living'There is one word which to modern ears probably signifies the unreal, the fictional and even the absurd in the Christian vision of life, and that is the word ‘Turgatory.” Although the Christian world believed in it for sixteen centuries, for the last three hundred years it has ceased to be a belief outside the Church, and has been regarded as a mere product of the imagination, rather than as the fruit of sound reason and inspiration. It is quite true to say that the belief in Purgatory has declined in just the proportion that the modern mind forgot the two most important things in the world: the Purity of God and the heinousness of sin. Once both of these vital beliefs are admitted, the doctrine of Purgatory is unescapable. For what is Purgatory but a place or condition of temporal punishment for those who depart this life in God’s grace, but are not entirely free from venial faults or have not entirely paid the satisfaction due to their transgressions? In simpler language, love, without suffering is Heaven; suffering without love is Hell; and suffering with love is Purgatory. Purgatory is that place in which the love of God tempers the justice of God, and secondly, where the love of man tempers the injustice of man.

First, Purgatory is where the Love of God tempers the Justice of God. The necessity of Purgatory is grounded upon the absolute purity of God. In the Book of the Apocalypse we read of the great beauty of His City, of the pure gold, with its walls of jasper and its spotless light which is not of the sun nor moon but the light of the Lamb slain from the beginning of the world. We also learn of the condition of entering into the gates of that Heavenly Jerusalem: “There shall not enter into it anything defiled, or that worketh abomination, or maketh a lie, but they that are written in the book of the life of the Lamb.” Justice demands that nothing unclean, but only the pure of heart shall stand before the face of a pure God. If there were no Purgatory then the Justice of God would be too terrible for words, for who are they who would dare assert themselves pure enough and spotless enough to stand before the Im- maculate Lamb of God? The martyrs who sprinkled the sands of the Coliseum with their blood in testimony of their faith? Most certainly! The mission- aries like Paul who spend themselves and are spent for the spread of the Gospel? Most assuredly! The cloistered saints who in the quiet calm of a voluntary Calvary become martyrs without recognition? Most truly! But these are glorious exceptions. How many millions there are who die with their souls stained with venial sin, who have known evil, and by their strong resolve have drawn from it only to carry with them the weakness of their past as a leaden weight.

The day we were baptized, the Church laid upon us a white garment with the injunction: “Receive this white garment which mayest thou carry without stain before the judgment seat of Our Lord Jesus Christ that thou mayest have life everlasting.” How many of us during life have kept that garment un- spotted and unsoiled by sin so that we might enter immediately upon death into the white robed army of the King? How many souls departing this life have the courage to say that they left it without any undue attachment to creatures and that they were never guilty of a wasted talent, a slight cupidity, an uncharitable deed, a neglect of holy inspiration or even an idle word for which every one of us must render an account? How many souls there are gathered in at the death-bed, like late season flowers, that are absolved from sins, but not from the debt of their sins? Take any of our national heroes, whose names we venerate and whose deeds we emulate. Would any Englishman or American who knew something of the Purity of God, as much as he loves and respects the virtues of a Lord Nelson or a George Washington, really believe that either of them at death were free enough from slight faults to enter immediately into the presence of God? Why, the very nationalism of a Nelson of a Washington, which made them both heroes in war, might in a way make them suspect of being unsuited the second after death for that true internationalism of heaven, where there is neither English nor American, Jew nor Greek, Barbarian nor Free, but all one in Christ Jesus Our Lord.

All these souls who die with some love of God possessing them are beautiful souls, but if there be no Purgatory, then because of their slight imperfections they must be rejected without pity by Divine Justice. Take away Purgatory, and God could not pardon so easily, for will an act of contrition at the edge of the tomb atone for thirty years of sinning? Take away Purgatory and the inflnite Justice of God would have to reject from heaven those who resolve to pay their debts, but have not yet paid the last farthing. And so, I say, Purgatory is where the Love of God tempers the Justice of God, for there God pardons because He has time to retouch these souls with His Cross, to recut them with the chisel of suffering, that they might fit into the great spiritual edifice of the Heavenly Jerusalem, to plunge them into that purifying plac^ where they might wash their stained baptismal robes to be fit to enter into the spotless purity of heaven; to resurrect them like the phoenix of old from the ashes of their own sufferings so that, like wounded eagles healed by the magic touch of God’s cleansing flames, they might mount heavenward to the city of the pure where Christ is King and Mary is Queen, for regardless of how trivial the fault, God cannot pardon without tears, and there are no tears in Heaven.

On the other hand. Purgatory is a place not only where the Love of God tempers the Justice of God, but where the love of man may temper the injustice of man. I believe that most men and women are quite unconscious of the injustice, the ingratitude and the thanklessness of their lives until the cold hand of death is laid upon one that they love. It is then, and only then, that they realize (and oh, with what regret!) the haunting poverty of their love and kindness. One of the reasons why the bitterest of tears are shed over graves is because of words left unsaid and deeds left undone. “The child never knew how much I loved her.” “He never knew how much he meant to me.” “I never knew how dear he was until he was gone.” Such words are the poisoned arrows which cruel death shoots at our hearts from the door of every sepulchre. Oh, then we realize how differently we would have acted if only the departed one could come back again. Tears are shed in vain before eyes which cannot see; caresses are offered without response to arms that cannot embrace; and sighs stir not a heart whose ear is deaf. Oh, then the anguish for not offering the flowers before death had come and for not sprinkling the in- cense while the beloved was still alive and for not speaking the kind -s^^ords that now must die on the very air they cleave. Oh, the sorrow at the thought that we cannot atone for the stinted affection we gave them, for the light answers we returned to their pleading and for the lack of reverence we showed to one who was perhaps the dearest thing that God had ever given us to know. Alas, too late! It does little good to water last year’s crop, to snare the bird that has flown, or to gather the rose that has withered and died.

Purgatory is a place where the Love of God tempers the Justice of God, but also where the love of man tempers the injustice of man, for it enables hearts who are left behind to break the barriers of time and death, to convert unspoken words into prayers, unburned incense into sacrifice, unoffered flowers into alms, and undone acts of kindness into help for eternal life. Take away Purgatory and how bitter would be our grief for our unkindnesses and how piercing our sorrow for our forgetfulness. Take away Purgatory and how meaningless are our Memorial and Armistice Days, when we venerate the memory of our dead. Take away Purgatory and how empty are -our wreaths, our bowed heads, our moments of silence. But if there be a Purgatory, then immediately the bowed head gives way to a bent knee, the moment of silence to a moment of prayer, and the fading wreath to the abiding offering of the sacrifice of that great Hero of Heroes, Christ.

Purgatory, then, enables us to atone for our ingratitude because through our prayers, mortifications and sacrifices, it makes it possible to bring joy and consolation to the ones we love. Love is stronger than death and hence there should be love for those who have gone before us. We are the offspring of their life, the gathered fruit of their labor, the solicitude of their hearts. Shall death cut off our gratitude, shall the grave stop our love, shall the cold clod prevent the atoning of our ingratitude? The Church assures us that not being able to give more to them in this world, since they are not of it, we can still seek them out in the hands of Divine Justice and give them the assurance of our love, and the pur- chasing price of their redemption.

Just as the man who dies in debt has the maledictions of his creditors following him to the grave, but may have his good name restored and revered by the labor of his son who pays the last penny, so too the soul of a friend who has gone to death owing a debt of penance to God may have it remitted by us who are left behind, by minting the gold of daily actions into the spiritual coin which purchases redemption. Into the crucibles of God these departed souls go like stained gold to have their dross burned away by the flames of love. These souls, who have not died in enmity with God, but have fallen wounded on the battlefield of life fighting for the victory of His cause, have not the strength to bind their own wounds and heal their own scars: it remains for us who are still strong and healthy, clad with the armor of faith and the shield of salvation, to heal their wounds and make them whole that they might join the ranks of the victors and march in the procession of the conquerors. We may be sure that if the penny that gives bread to the hungry body delivers a soul to the Table of Our Lord, it will never forget us when it enters into the homeland of victory.

While yet confined to that prison of purifying fire, they hear the voices of the angels and saints who call them to their true fatherland, but they are incapable of breaking their chains for their time of merit is passed. Certainly God cannot be unmindful of a wife who offers her merits to the captive soul of a husband waiting for his deliverance. Surely the mercy of God cannot be such that He should be deaf to, the good works of a mother who offers them for the liberation of her offspring who are yet stained with the sins of the world. Surely God will not forbid such communication of the living with the dead, since the great act of Redemption is founded on the reversibility of merits. Responsive, then, will we be to the plea not only of our relatives and friends but of that great mass of unarmed warriors of the Church Suffering who are yet wearing the ragged remnants of sin, but who, in their anxiety of soul to be clothed in the royal robes fit for entrance into the Palace of the King, cry out to our responsive hearts the plaintive and tender plea: “Have mercy on me, have mercy on me, at least you, my friends, for the hand of the Lord has touched me.”