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Nov 12, 2019

The Fires of Purgatory

Dr. Edward Sri

Purgatory often gets treated like a time out—the place you go because you did something bad—but it’s much more than that. Dr. Sri uses biblical images of fire and an analogy from St. John of the Cross to illuminate the Catholic teaching of purgatory.

This episode will leave you with an essential truth about the all-consuming love of God, motivation to continue your own spiritual growth, and several spiritual practices to help you remember the dead. 

Who Goes to Purgatory?

Sometimes Catholics think of purgatory as a place where bad Christians go for a supernatural “time out” before they can get into heaven. But, that’s not at all what the Church teaches. At its simplest level, we can understand the three states of the afterlife as this: 

  • Heaven is for those who die loving God with “all their heart, all their soul, and all their strength” (Deuteronomy 6:4-5). 
  • Hell is for those who die without loving God at all. 
  • Purgatory is for those who die with divided hearts—they love God, but their hearts are also held captive by love of sin or attachments to this world. 

What Are the Fires of Purgatory Really All About? 

In 1 Corinthians 3:15,  St. Paul says that some will be saved, but only through fire. Oftentimes, we view fire as dangerous and frightening, but the Bible uses fire as an image of God’s closeness. This is the type of fire that is associated with purgatory; it’s not fire of God’s wrath—it’s fire of God’s love. 

Scripture provides us with several images where fire indicates the closeness and power of God’s presence:

  • Hebrews 12:28-29 – “Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe; for our God is a consuming fire.”
  • Exodus 3:1-3 – “Now Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law, Jethro, the priest of Mid’ian; and he led his flock to the west side of the wilderness, and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. And the angel of the LORD appeared to him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush; and he looked, and lo, the bush was burning, yet it was not consumed. And Moses said, “I will turn aside and see this great sight, why the bush is not burnt.”
  • Exodus 13:21-22 – “The LORD preceded them, in the daytime by means of a column of cloud to show them the way, and at night by means of a column of fire* to give them light. Thus they could travel both day and night. Neither the column of cloud by day nor the column of fire by night ever left its place in front of the people.”
  • Acts 2:3-5 “And there appeared to them tongues as of fire, distributed and resting on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance.”

St. John of the Cross on the Fires of Purgatory

St. John of the Cross provides us with a beautiful analogy of a heart in love with God as a log in the midst of a burning flame. The flame consumes the log, and the log begins to burn from within. St. John of the Cross explains that this is what happens when a soul is consumed by God’s love—flames of love leap up through the soul itself  

But what happens when God draws close to souls who have many imperfections and weaknesses? Those souls experience the flame of God’s love in a way that is painful or afflictive.  It’s similar to a damp log placed into a fire—it resists the fire, causing it to take longer for it to catch and burn. 

So what difference does the doctrine of purgatory make in our lives today?

  1. The doctrine of purgatory reminds us that in order for us to enter into heaven, our hearts must be fully in love with God and detached from all sin. So, let’s not wait for purgatory to begin this purification of our hearts and souls.  Let’s root out sin in our hearts and try to love God with all our hearts here on earth.

  2. This doctrine calls us to remember the dead. We must not assume that our relatives and loved ones are in heaven, and thus neglect to pray for their souls. In her final words to  her son, St. Augustine, St. Monics begs him to pray for her after she dies. If such a holy woman asked for continued graces through prayer after her death, we shouldn’t assume anyone is in heaven unless they are canonized by the Church.

How do we pray for the dead? 

  1. Write a list of names and pray daily for each soul
  2. Offer up a rosary, a decade, or even just a Hail Mary for those souls. 
  3. Pray for those holy souls in purgatory who don’t have anyone to pray for them by name. 
  4. Offer communion for all holy souls in purgatory  
  5. Visit a local cemetery and pray for the dead

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  • Terrific podcast, Dr. Sri! What a great, down-to-earth explanation of the meaning of Purgatory. I also used to be terrified at the thought of Purgatory because I viewed it as a “punishment”. Now I thank God for his incredible loving mercy for giving even those of us who are imperfect, who still love some things in this world more than Him, a means of being purified so that we can enter Heaven, where “nothing unclean will ever enter” (Rev 21:27).

  • I have heard well regarded exorcists say that that Hell and Purgatory are on the same heating system, which would mean that the fire in both are the same. How this fire is experienced by the soul I imagine wold depend on the spiritual state of the particular soul. If in Purgatory, as God’s healing love. if in Hell, well, not so much. It’s still Gods love, but not experienced as such. Evidently the fire in Heaven would be infinitely worse for the damned than in Hell. If one does not want to be with God, then they gotta go somewhere.

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