Purgatory Is Real!

Today's catechism lesson is inspired by an instagram received from my daughter Didi. Driving through the godforsaken heart of Indiana, she noted a billboard ominously inscribed: HELL IS REAL! Her mordant tag; "I know, I'm IN it!" In no way wishing to dispute the infernal qualities of Muncie or Fort Wayne, I still would argue that it is Purgatory, rather than Hell (or Heaven) that seems most REAL, at least to this Catholic Agnostic.

The irony of course is that there are plenty of biblical sources for those other eschatological pieces of real estate, and almost none for purgatory. Whatever else Mohammed observed when he sprang from the Noble Mount to Jannah (Paradise), we learn from the haddiths (pious commentaries) about those now notorious 72 virgins awaiting the martyrs in that celestial garden. Jesus, the reforming rabbi from Nazareth, often invoked heaven, even while on the cross promising the Good Thief "this day thou shalt be with me in Paradise." Judaism (wisely to my mind) is vague about post- life arrangements, though they seem to involve a one-way ticket to a restored Jerusalem. In his incomparable Divina Commedia, Dante locates the source of heaven's joys in the "Beatific Vision" awaiting all who are saved. But then, as Samuel Beckett fearfully queried, "What if, in the long run, the Beatific Vision is a source of boredom?"

Of course it was also Dante who wrote the most memorable descriptions of the Inferno and the Purgatorio. It was that imaginative Florentine who most adroitly made all the tortures of hell fit the sins of earth. But the perverse cruelties of Dante's visions now seem absurd. Consider this recent New Yorker cartoon: fire and flames surround a horned devil shaking his pitchfork before a class of the dancing damned, one of whom laments, "Somehow, I never imagined Hell would be an eternal Zumba class." It was this sort of theological oxymoron that may have lead one of my Jesuit professors to confess, "there is a hell, but no one is in it."

The trouble with binary versions of the afterlife is that they're static. Contemplating a trillion years shouting hallelujah is hardly more appealing than being stuck in an eternal Zumba class. Which bring us to purgatory: A holding area where souls of the Dead are purged of their sins before being allowed into the necessary perfection of heaven. The existence of such a liminal space, which seemed logical to Dante, also proved lucrative to his Church, which offered one-way passes out of purgatory for the price of a requiem or indulgence.

Luther denounced these buy-an-indulgence scams, and along with the other reformers, wound up denying the existence of purgatory itself. While the reformers were correct about the human genesis of this bit of post-life real estate, they failed to perceive its imaginative appeal. What the Catholic Church recognized, in its usual half-assed way, was the popular need for a two lane highway to what Buddhists call the Bardo state, a reflection of indeterminacy on either side of the grave which is far more real than heaven or hell. Dramas continue in purgatory: regrets, strategies, escape plans. As the Catholic apologist, François-René de Chateaubriand, wryly noted, "Purgatory surpasses heaven and hell in poetry, because it represents a future and the others do not." Saints live in the timeless bliss of the beatific vision, deaf to the howls of suffering souls trapped in purgatory. Those are spirits anxious to strike a deal, on the prowl for that 'Get Out of Jail Free' card.

If this sounds like a spiritual Mafia, you're not far off. Consider the theological speculations of Paulie "Walnuts" Gualtieri, Tony Soprano's capo regime, who describes purgatory as "a little detour on the way to paradise." When his anxious side-kick Christopher asks, "How long do you think we've got to stay there?," Paulie (who had just offed an old woman in a retirement home for her canasta change) explains, "That's different for everybody. You add up all your mortal sins and multiply that number by 50. Then you add up all your venial sins and multiply that by 25. You add that together and that's your sentence. I figure I'm gonna have to do 6,000 years before I get accepted into heaven and 6,000 years is nothin' in eternity terms. I can do that standing on my head. It's like a couple of days here."

The Yoruba people of West Africa, whose philosophic ideas have inspired Black religions on both sides of the Atlantic, recite this profound proverb, "The world is a market, heaven is home." Paulie "Walnuts" Gualtieri knew all about that market thing, and how it might get you into heaven. So do my Italo-American relatives who never go to church except to light candles for their beloved dead, or my Angeleno compañeros who paint their faces like skeletons, and dance in Hollywood Forever Cemetery on El Dia de los Muertos. They pay no attention to Dante, or Luther, or that billboard in Indiana. Instead, they live out the words of that wicked old atheist Frederich Nietzsche, "Is it the real things or the imaginary things which have contributed most to human happiness? What is certain is that the extent of the space between the highest happiness and the deepest unhappiness has been produced only with the aid of imaginary things." Now to that, let us say, "Amen."