"And of that second kingdom will I sing/ Wherein the human spirit doth purge itself,/ And to ascend to heaven becometh worthy".
So begins Dante's Purgatorio, the second part of his legendary The Divine Comedy, in which he offers an unparalleled depiction of Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven by traveling through them. Following the despair and intensity of Hades, Dante's Purgatory is depicted as a difficult place. Nevertheless, it is a place full of hope where Heaven's closeness is always at the mind's forefront, giving the suffering souls a reason to persevere in their journey towards the top. Though the pain is real, it will end, and the Paradise awaiting will be more than enough to make the purification worth it.
This "middle stage" between Heaven and Hell has been artistically depicted in a variety of ways by authors ranging from the legendary C.S. Lewis to the "storyman" Neal Shusterman. In every unique depiction, whether or not the author calls it "Purgatory" by name, the idea that there is a place before Heaven where souls who are not damned, but not yet ready for Paradise, go until they are ready, is the same. And whether that place is one of punishment- as in Purgatorio- or one of peace- as in Cynthia Rylant's Heavenly Village- the inhabitants know that they cannot stay, and that a greater good awaits them. In every story it is up to each person to work his way to Heaven while in this stage, whether by learning to let go of earthly pleasures, enduring penitential trials, or pursuing a lifestyle until it has served its purpose. Some stories, like Tolkien's "Leaf by Niggle", combine several of these concepts, and the main character must labor to be cleansed, and must also learn to lay unfinished business on Earth to rest before he can advance to the greater glories awaiting him.
Though Catholicism is the only religion that will universally declare a belief in such a place, the varied stories surrounding it prove that it is a concept that many have pondered- but why? Why would various people of opposite backgrounds all imagine the existence of a place often thought controversial? The simple answer is: because reason demands it. When going to visit a king, one would not think of leaving the house without showering, dressing up, putting on his best things, and bringing a gift of appreciation. Why then would it be any different when going to see the King of the Universe?
The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines Purgatory as the "final purification of the elect, which is entirely different from the punishment of the damned,". It explains that "all who die in God's grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified, are indeed assured of their eternal salvation; but after death they undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven," (CCC 1030-1031). Though there are no biblical verses which clearly outline the existence of Purgatory, The Books of Maccabees depict soldiers praying for the souls of those who have died in battle- a practice which would be pointless if those who had died had certainly reached their final resting place. St. Paul also speaks of a cleansing fire in which the works of those on Earth will be tested. Since the earliest centuries prayers and Masses were offered up for the souls of the departed, in the interest of shortening their time in Purgatory and bringing the joy of Heaven closer.
In his well-known City of God St. Augustine wrote that "temporary punishments are suffered by some in this life only, by others after death, by others both now and then; but all of them before that last and strictest judgment,". Thus, Purgatory is the final cleansing place which God in His mercy provides to enable more souls who honestly lived for Him, but died with unfinished business or venial sins, to be able to enter Paradise with Him.
May we all learn to thank the Lord for this ultimate second chance to purify the good intentions and correct the failed attempts of our mortal life, so as to enjoy immortality with Him.
See Catholic Answers' "Purgatory" tract for more information and biblical connections.
Image from Wikipedia.