I was once told that each year during Easter our late Holy Father, Blessed Pope John Paul II would have the third book of Dante’s “Divine Comedy” read to him. I don’t remember who told me that or even if it is true, but regardless, what a wonderful spiritual tradition to practice.
Probably best known for the first of the three books, the “Inferno,” the Divine Comedy, written by Dante Alighieri in the early part of the fourteenth century, traces Dante’s decent into hell (Part 1, Inferno), his ascent through purgatory, (Part 2, Purgartorio) and finally his entrance into the heavenly realm of paradise, Part 3, Paradiso).
It is this great literary work in addition to so many other pieces of art, such as the scene of final judgment found in the Sistine Chapel, from which we have developed our own personal understanding of what the afterlife is like. However, these are merely artistic expressions and not dogmatic truths. For example, whether or not the devil has horns and a pitchfork in hell or if we will see chubby cherubs playing harps while walking on clouds in heaven are up for debate, the reality of there existence is another matter.
Unlike the first two books of the Divine Comedy which focus on the author’s assignment of certain historical figures to different levels of hell or purgatory, (a judgment the Church never makes, because we can never grasp the depths of God’s mercy), the final book is a more theologically accurate account.
Whereas the Church has never declared anyone to be in hell, even the most evil of sinners (Dante list Brutus, Cassius and Judas Iscariot as the three worst), the Church does infallibly declare that there are certain people in heaven; we call them, “saints.” In the Paradiso, Dante describes his encounter with the great saints that he meets in the heavenly kingdom.
So much of what we think of heaven has been shaped by literature, art and cinema. Some of this might be very advantageous in that it inspires us to think of what God has prepared for those who love him. Sometimes however, it can mislead us into thinking and believing something that is inaccurate. For example, have you ever heard a song or watched a movie that gives the impression that we become angels when we die? This would be incorrect; angels are different beings altogether.
But art, literature and music not only inspire us, but also evoke certain questions from us. What will heaven be like? Will we see our loved ones who have gone before us? What will it feel like? Again, like so many other existential questions, we cannot give a detailed description of the heavenly kingdom.
The Catechism addresses this point, “This mystery of blessed communion with God and all who are in Christ is beyond all understanding and description. Scripture speaks of it in images: life, light, peace, wedding feast, wine of the kingdom, the Father’s house, the heavenly Jerusalem, paradise: “no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him” (CCC 1027).
I once asked a very holy priest if he ever wondered what heaven was like. His response has always stuck with me. He began by first making it clear that he was more concerned about getting there than what it will be like. But he went on to say that in our current human condition, scarred by sinful tendencies, it is impossible to comprehend. In his explanation to me, he was not only talking about the reality of heaven, but also touching upon the concept of purgatory.
This weekend, we celebrate two very important feasts- All Saints day on Saturday and All Souls day on Sunday. These feasts focus our attention on those faithful who have already received their eternal reward the heaven, the saints, and those who are in Purgatory, still being cleansed of their sinfulness before their entrance into the heavenly kingdom.
It isn’t just this weekend that we are reminded of Heaven and Purgatory, however, but the entire month of November is dedicated to praying for the Holy Souls in Purgatory. We are reminded that the greatest thing that we can do for someone who has died is to pray for them, which is one of the Spiritual Works of Mercy.
Many anti-Catholic cynics criticize the concept of Purgatory because the term is never used in the bible, but the Catechism clearly and beautifully explains why it makes perfect sense and is really among the most merciful of the Church’s teachings. “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 1031).
The main point is this – would heaven really be entirely perfect if we were still plagued with sinful tendencies of selfishness, lust and pride? Heaven is standing before God with an undivided heart, without any other impure or imperfect desire or thought. Purgatory is where we are purified of these sinful tendencies so that we can enter the Kingdom of God perfectly.
Purgatory is not a state of everlasting punishment like hell, but one in which we are made clean of any stain of sin. The image of gold being purified in the furnace is perhaps most helpful. The fire is not one that damages or hurts the object, but removes all impurities from it. This is what happens to the souls in purgatory, they are in a state of final purification before entrance into the heavenly kingdom.
The main point is this: our citizenship is heaven! God created us to be with him forever. We are reminded of this at funeral Masses when we hear the words of our Lord:
“Do not let your hearts be troubled. You have faith in God; have faith also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If there were not, would I have told you that I am going to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back again and take you to myself, so that where I am you also may be. Where I am going you know the way. Thomas said to him, Master, we do not know where you are going; how can we know the way? Jesus said to him, I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, then you will also know my Father” (John 15:1-7).