Of Purgatory and Homage to the Dead

Mark Twain once reportedly said about a certain Henry James story, “Once you put it down you can’t pick it up again.” I can’t imagine which one he had in mind because I’m picking them up, all the time. Twain, too, whose stories I adore. But James was the undisputed Master, who with the fire of his genius knew how to transfigure everything he touched.

Today, I’m thinking especially of “The Altar of the Dead,” which possesses a special seasonal relevance on All Souls Day. To read it properly, of course, it helps to have a lively interest in death, which I have, so my literary tastes may strike some as a bit strange.

What’s it about? It’s a story of a man whose tender regard for friends, freshly departed, moves him to arrange an altar on which many candles are lit, to the memories he cherishes of all who have gone into the dark. Only one, however, has been excluded from the shrine of his devotion. That one wronged him long ago and in a most awful way; he cannot bring himself to honor that one’s memory.

Meanwhile, as the number of candles increases, he notices that a woman has begun coming around to offer her silent witness. Which, it turns out, is for the very one to whom he had refused admittance.

Ironic, that the light surrounding his dead should become, indirectly, illumination for hers! And, then, of course, there is this added dimension, casting light upon the whole relation between living and dead: the fact that while the woman too had been most cruelly wronged by the dead man, she nevertheless had managed to forgive him, which entitles him to such prayers for the dead as are symbolized by an altar ablaze with another man’s light.

Le Jour des Morts by William-Adolphe Bouguereau, c. 1860 [Private collection]
Le Jour des Morts by William-Adolphe Bouguereau, c. 1860 [Private collection]

And mightn’t this be precisely the direction in which we all must learn to move in order truly to celebrate the Feast of All Souls? Remember all those, we ask our dear Lord, who in your name will die. And while they’ve fallen short of heavenly reward, may our prayers their souls do purify.

To how many souls, I wonder, will that apply? Surely the number is legion. Why else would Pope Benedict XVI have ventured to tell us (in his wonderful book God and the World) that, so vital a doctrine is purgatory, so necessary a place in the hereafter, that if provision for it had not already been made by a just and merciful God, then we should simply have to go out and invent it ourselves:

for who would dare say of himself that he was able to stand directly before God? And yet we don’t want to be, to use an image from Scripture, “a pot that turned out wrong,” that has to be thrown away; we want to be able to be put right. Purgatory basically means that God can put the pieces back together again. That he can cleanse us in such a way that we are able to be with him and can stand here in the fullness of life.

Purgatory is not an optional extra, in other words, a sort of detachable porch whose use is wholly unnecessary to the operation of the house. It is not, to use an automotive image, a fifth wheel, but rather an essential part if the car is to get where it’s going. Which, if your destination is Heaven, means the whole point of the drive becomes that of not ending up in a ditch along the way.

So why not think of purgatory as a rest area on the outskirts of that city where lodging awaits the weary traveler? Especially, of course, if the occupants in the car are not quite ready to be received.

Yes, it will involve a kind of suffering, but one that, in an odd way, we desire. Like the resolute soul of Cato in Dante’s Divine Comedy who urges the Pilgrim/Poet to get on with things so that he can pass, finally, through the refining fire. Chewing the fat with some Florentine musician when one might actually be hastening up the mountain. . .what a waste of good purgatorial time.

“Purgatory,” Hans Urs von Balthasar tells us, “is perhaps the deepest but also the most blissful kind of suffering. The terrible torture of having to settle now all the things we have dreaded a whole life long. The doors we have frantically held shut are now torn open. But all the while this knowledge: now for the first time I will be able to do it – that ultimate thing in me, that total thing. Now I can feel my wings growing; now I am fully becoming myself.”

It is no easy thing to become the best version of yourself. It may require so great a self-emptying that time itself will need to be extended into eternity. How else are we to assume the full stature of Jesus Christ? The value of going there, Benedict reminds us, is that the experience “strips off from one person what is unbearable and from another the inability to bear certain things, so that to each of them a pure heart is revealed, and we can see that we all belong together in one enormous symphony of being.”

And what better way is there to carry my neighbor’s burden than to bear it – through prayers, vicarious suffering – even when he is dead?

Regis Martin is Professor of Theology and Faculty Associate with the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at Franciscan University of Steubenville. Author of a half-dozen books, including, most recently, Witness to Wonder: The World of Catholic Sacrament. He lives in Wintersville, Ohio with his wife and ten children.