When it comes to books that concern heaven, hell or, as is the topic of this book, purgatory, I must admit I approach their information with a bit of caution. Not that I doubt the truthfulness of the person who tells of their private revelation, but rather I wonder how they can possibly convey in human terms that which is beyond this world. Wouldn’t our current human senses and language limit our expression of these destinations. St. Teresa of Avila describes hell as a place of watery mud and that is permeated by foul odors. A place covered with “loathsome vermin.” Sister Lucia of Fatima tells of the damned souls being held in the air by flames that torture their blackened transparent bodies. I am sure what they experienced was something horrifying and impossible to put into human terms, but are their words accurate descriptions of the actual place. The great deceptor would want to keep this vivid imagery, detailing his domain, out of earshot. It is enough to, well, scare the hell out of you!
Saint Catherine of Genoa does not attempt to describe the place or physical appearance of the souls in purgatory, but rather she speaks about the state of mind or consciousness of those souls who temporarily dwell there. Fire of Love! is a short book of 17 sections and 92 pages. Even those numbers are a bit deceptive as the font is generous and the chapters are separated with a title page that is blank on the obverse. Despite the brevity of the book, the recount of her revelation enables the reader to come to a deeper understanding of purgatory that, while limited by human senses, sounds logical, hopeful and desirable.
Caterinetta Fieschi, Saint Catherine, was born in 1447 in Genoa, Italy. Even though her family was part of the upper class members of this area, her life was often challenging and unhappy. A marriage arranged by her brother, was frustrating and unfulfilling. However, in 1473, her life changed as she had a conversion experience that impacted the rest of her life. She and her now bankrupted husband begin to live a celibate life together, caring for the patients of a local hospital. It would be in the years that follow that she continues to grow in her faith and receives private revelation concerning purgatory.
Catherine says that there is no happiness to compare with that of those in purgatory, except for those who have already attained paradise. At the same time, these souls “endure a pain so extreme that no tongue can be found to tell it.” It is that exact approach that I appreciate. Why attempt to use your mere human words to describe something if it will fall very, very short. Catherine is wise to leave the pain up to our imagination. The great angelic doctor, St. Thomas Aquinas, after his own profound mystical experience, ceases to write anything further in his voluminous work, Summa Theologiae. After a glimpse of the Divine, he states, “I can write no more. All that I have written seems like straw.”
Catherine explains that after death free will ceases to exist. In that instantaneous crossing from this life to the next, our will, and therefore our judgment, is permanently fixed. Your destination at that instant is either hell, purgatory or heaven. When we die our will is oriented in one of three ways: a will to sin, a dissatisfaction for sin or repentance for sin, and this disposition determines our residency.
While the focus of her revelation is on the state of purgation, Catherine does give a few frightening details on those who reside in hell. She holds that those souls which, by their own choice are damned, bear the guilt of their sin throughout all eternity. Though these souls merit infinite pain for an infinite time, it is through God’s mercy that their pain is limited in quantity. Hell has always seemed harsh to me, this insight does little to change that view. Many ponder how a loving and merciful God could ever send a soul to this place of torment. Catherine reminds us that God is not the “sender” but rather the soul itself, guided by the nature of its sin and of its own choosing, goes to the place ordained for it. Luckily for the damned, they remain under God’s sovereignty which gives the soul less pain than they deserve! So, a note to self, avoid hell!
But, enough about H-E double hockey sticks, and back to purgatory. Saint Catherine confirms the Church’s teaching of purgatory as being a cleansing and perfecting of the soul that leads to ultimate union with God. You cannot screw up in purgatory, there is only one direction and that is up. It is here that God’s “fire of love” draws the soul closer to God and leads the soul from its current state to pure cleanliness. This cleansing process happens, according to Catherine, through purification and destruction. Purification is likened to the purification of gold by which it becomes twenty-four carats, pure gold. In this way, “God holds the soul in fire until its every imperfection is burnt away.” The destruction is of self, so that the “soul remains wholly in God, having nothing of the self in it: its being is in God.” The decrease of self is a theme that is prominent throughout the book. This revelation seems to resonate with the prayer in Chapter 17 of John’s gospel that Jesus offers to the Father for his disciples and for us He prays may they “all be one, as you, Father, are in me and I in you, that they also may be in us…”.
As with all private revelation, the message is directed to the individual to whom the revelation was given. Others, who find merit and guidance in the private revelation, are free to discern and accept that revelation, but not bound to do so. All that is essential for our salvation is found in abundance in the public revelation of Scripture, Tradition and in Jesus Christ.
If you are interested in finding out more about Purgatory and further incentive to avoid hell, Saint Catherine’s, Fire of Love! is an easy and quick read. I found the insights both expanded my own perception and understanding of purgatory and left me new ideas to reflect upon. Did she succeed in describing these actual places or states? If not, we’ll certainly know the truth when we arrive. If so, there will be no surprises awaiting us!
Title: Fire of Love!
Publisher: Sophia Institute Press
Release Date: 1996
- Fire of Love!, p. 24↩