Almost Purgatory

Although it is difficult to tell from 32,000 feet, I think I might have flown over Purgatory on my way home from the UK. The two days I was in Oxford were uncharacteristically sunny and warm. Although it was cloudy around London when we lifted off, the skies cleared by the time we hit the Irish Sea and once Ireland came into view I kept a close watch for what I hoped might be Lough Derg, the site of what was once deemed to be Purgatory. Our flight path took us over the right region, but the maps in the back of the in-flight magazine are never detailed enough for navigation, and the lake itself is not large enough to appear on any but the most detailed charts. Still, I think I might have seen it. If this was Purgatory and I was overhead, I guess I must’ve been in Heaven for a while.

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Symbolism began to kick in, despite the lack of sleep. Our view of the earth today corresponds in a rough way to that of the ancients. For sure, we are more sophisticated, as we suppose, but there remains a lake of fire beneath our feet and the heavens above our heads. The area in between, according to medieval thought, was Purgatory. It’s the place where we live. Believing in the intensely mythological development of a rich afterlife that borrowed elements from the Greeks, Zoroastrians, and Egyptians is hardly something anyone could undertake seriously in the modern world, but the trials we undergo here and now somehow make Purgatory believable as a symbol. When I think of the troubles over the past few weeks alone I can take some solace in a symbolism designed to help us avoid Hell.

As on my trip from New York, I watched hundreds of miles of ice floes, icebergs from the air. I’m not sure if this is unusual—I don’t fly overseas very often, and sometimes it is dark and I can’t see the water below. Of climate change, however, I am absolutely certain. We have undertaken to bring about Hell on earth because of industrial greed. I can’t help but compare how companies continued to promote smoking heavily even after they knew it was killing people. Lucre can make monsters out of ordinary humans. Was that Purgatory I saw back there, over the Emerald Isle? I may never know, but down here on the ground the warming trend continues. Perhaps the ancients knew more than we think they did.

Coming of the Green

For many years I actively attended to the calendar of saints while at Nashotah House. Although we celebrated Mardi Gras, we never seemed to celebrate St. Patrick, although he does hold a place on March 17. I suppose most people were too busy wearing black to attend to the green. I always, however, donned some verdant vestment for the day, and we usually had leprechaun gifts left behind for my daughter. After leaving Nashotah, I discovered that many universities scheduled spring break around St. Patrick’s Day. This wasn’t because of any love of the Irish or of liturgy, but because campus damage was so bad after the heavy drinking of that day, that many schools decided to let that be somebody else’s problem. St. Patrick isn’t particularly associated with alcohol, but even a quick walk by the bars of New York City demonstrates that the saint has found a home among the inebriated.

Little is known of the historical Patrick. He was associated with Lough Derg, an island of which was said to contain Purgatory. The lake also boasted a sea serpent, which may give some background to the legend associating Patrick with the banishing of snakes from Ireland. The shamrock story is likely apocryphal, but there’s no denying the brilliant green of the Emerald Isle, so the tradition developed of wearing his favorite color to commemorate the day. The traditions of Patrick grew by accretion. The Irish belief in wee folk gave legs to the leprechaun connection and, I’m told, heroic drinking might lead to the seeing of the same. One reason his day might have been downplayed liturgically is that it has become an unlikely cultural holiday. Those of us with some Irish ancestry run into some pretty high numbers.

The myth of St. Patrick is more powerful than his history. This may be a lesson for us even today. The stories we tell of our cultural heroes need not be grounded in fact in order to be meaningful. Over time the religious of many faiths have grown more and more literal to demonstrate their devotion. This is a risky proposition. We know little of the life of Patrick, or even of Jesus and other various religious founders’ lives. Their followers have been free to fill in the blanks for many centuries, building meaningful legends. I have no idea if Patrick of Ireland liked green. He may have found snakes charming. Upon an intemperate evening he may have seen leprechauns dancing about his parlor. It is less the tale that is important than it is what one might choose to learn from it.

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Almost Heaven?

HeavenCanWaitLike most kids raised Protestant, I had little idea about the Catholic worldview.  Despite family wishes, I had Catholic friends, and topics such a Purgatory inevitably came up.  (Well, they did if you were me, with my insatiable interest in religion and its trappings.)  Purgatory was a concept both just and unjust at the same time. It seemed only fair to give people who’d made mistakes a chance at Heaven, yet, at the same time, to make them suffer when they already realized that they’d made mistakes seemed like, to put it bluntly, bad parenting.  The key was in the name: Purgatory.  A place to purge the evil.  Melvillian try pots. Given this background, I couldn’t wait to read Diana Walsh Pasulka’s Heaven Can Wait: Purgatory in Catholic Devotional and Popular Culture. The afterlife is the ultimate 64-dollar question. It pays to be informed.

This fascinating study demonstrates that the idea of purgatory has long roots into Christian history. The Bible does mention Heaven and Hell, concepts borrowed from Zoroastrianism, but it doesn’t directly mention Purgatory. For this reason most Protestants reject it out of hand as Popish and superstitious.  Heaven Can Wait, however, explores how the idea grew into an almost inevitable aspect of Catholic theology. Most intriguing to me was the concept that, like Belinda Carlisle’s Heaven, Purgatory is a place on earth. Specifically, in many Medieval minds, in Ireland. There a cave of torments, guarded by monks, on an island in Lough Derg provided those brave enough to enter the chance to purge their sins before death.  In short, those who braved this cave could bypass Hell by suffering in advance.  Heaven on an installment plan, crudely put.  As Walsh Pasulka describes the accounts of Lough Derg, archetypes begin to fly thick and fast, like proverbial bats out of Hell. This single location, sometimes venerated by, sometimes destroyed by the church, was a vortex of torment.

Over time, as the rationalism of the Enlightenment settled in, the idea of a state of being having a physical locality led to changes in the concept of Purgatory.  The kids I knew took it for granted that it existed, and, with tween angst, accepted that that’s probably where they’d end up.  At least for a while.  Protestant that I was, my choices were a bit more stark. If I messed up, as I well knew I did, my torment would be neverending. Heaven Can Wait is a rewarding exploration of how an idea, logical in its original context, survived long after the worldview of the church had begun to change. Indeed, it survives to this very day.  And like most doctrines of the church, it has a way of scaring even the most inoffensive souls straight.