“She who comes to be saved, comes to be saved through a fire.” –Origen
“St. Ambrose of Milan speaks of a kind of ‘baptism of fire’ which is located at the entrance to Heaven, and through which all must pass, at the end of the world. (wiki on purgatory)
“You’re getting purgatory over early.” –My Mom
November 2nd (yesterday) is, in the Roman Catholic Calendar, the Feast of All Souls. This feast is a Catholicizing Christianizing one, predicated on the earlier aboriginal traditions of ancestor veneration, both in European (“pagan’) religions as well as in The Americas, e.g. Day of the Dead (Dia de los Muertos) in Mexico.
November 1st in the Roman Catholic Calendar is All Saints Day, a day to remember those whose souls entered into paradise directly upon death. All Saints is the root of the word Halloween–which is Eve of All Hallows (hallowed = saintly).
All Souls, on the other hand, (Nov 2nd) remembers those who died with, as it were, “work still to do.” That is to say, the remembrance of those who experienced grace but the more comprehensive purifying effects of grace had not yet taken place.
During the Middle Ages, the practice of remembering one’s ancestors became connected to the rising doctrine of purgatory. All Souls Day became in particular a day to pray for the release of souls from purgation.
In the later middle ages, a series of abusive and manipulative practices around purgatory became big business. It was these practices–for example the selling of indulgences–that became the rallying cry for the Protestant Reformation.
Consequently, the doctrine of purgatory later came to be denounced in total with the Reformation. While I agree with the criticism of the abusive practices surrounding purgatory, I think the loss of purgatory has been a major loss for Western consciousness.
What I mean is that though the term purgation evokes a lot of resistance in people, I think it’s a wonderful term and a beauteous grace–one we need to recapture. It’s important to keep in mind that the doctrine of purgatory is for those who have already been saved and the healing and purifying effects of salvation still have to do their work.
In The Divine Comedy, when Dante arises from Hell and sees Mt. Purgatory he immediately weeps, for he knows he is already (as it were) in paradise. He is already assured a place in paradise. The long climb up on Mt. Purgatory towards Paradise (Heaven) is a path of graceful unburdening so that he might rise up. (I’m going to come back to this point in a bit).
I was raised very traditionally Roman Catholic. Praying for those in purgatory was a common part of my upbringing.
When things would be rough or unnecessarily harsh, my mom would say (as quoted above) that I was “getting purgatory over early.” What she meant of course was that one could go through purgatory while alive here on earth. Basically one could work off one’s purgation here on earth so as to have less of it on the other side of the veil of death.
Now as weird (or potentially masochistic) as that worldview might appear, I actually think there’s something to it, though not in the way I believe my mom tended to (mis)understand it. It isn’t about just random suffering happening to you, causing you to pay off some kind of penalty and either you go through it now or later. That makes God a sadist.
The truth of purgation is that to be saved one must pass through a baptism of fire as Origen and St. Ambrose said. That fire of grace is purging, purifying. It is alchemy–turning the lead of our being into gold. (This view accords with shamanic traditions the world over btw). And that fire can be experienced on this side of the grave (otherwise it will be experienced on the other side).
“He who comes to be saved, comes to be saved through a fire.”
Saved here means experiencing the entrance into paradise, i.e. the soul (the lowercase ‘s’ is important here) ascends to the realms of paradise.
In traditional shamanic cosmology there are classically three worlds: the lower world, the middle world (our world), and the upper world. The upper world is what most people would call heaven (though more technically should be called paradise). The middle world is our world. In Roman Catholic theology, the lower world is divided into two sections: hell and purgatory. I see hell and purgatory more along a continuum than a strict division as in Roman Catholic thought.*
The point is this: the imagery purgatory consists of fire.
When the fire is embraced it turns out not to be the source of suffering but rather the source of healing and purifying grace.
The deepest hell, as Dante so brilliantly understood, is coldness. Hell is pure isolation, incoherence, dissociation, alienation, and traumatic freeze. Hell is not hot. Hell is ice cold. Having worked with hellish energies and realities in people, I can tell you that Dante’s depiction of the bottom of hell as total frozen is not a metaphor but a literal description.
Purgatory is fire. Paradise is the ecstasy that occurs when one acclimates to the temperature of God’s fire. The fire no longer burns but becomes pure bliss.
So if November 1st (All Saints) is the day to remember all those in paradise. If November 2nd is to remember those in purgatory. Then I would propose that November 3rd is a great day to pray for our own purgation here on earth. November 1st is All Saints, November 2nd is All Souls, November 3rd could be Day of Our Own Purgation.
When people work with plant medicines, they purge, literally, bodily. In energy work, deadened energies are burned off us. In trauma work, when places of freeze re-awake, they release the flight or fight mechanism (“the fire”) held underneath the frozen exterior.
It’s like going outside on a cold day and your fingers become numb. You come back indoors and your fingers start to thaw out. As they do, your fingers ache, even hurt because feeling is coming back to them. The ache however is a wonderful sign because you know that once your fingers warm back up to room temperature, the pain will go away. You know the numbness is wearing off.
It’s the same with purgatory–whether you face it in this life or on the other side.
Our souls are deeply numb. Only heat is going to wake them back up and bring back feeling. In the intermediate period between the numbness beginning to wear off and the fingers being fully back to normal temperature, that is the period of purgation.
The fire brings back feeling. Our world is predicated on dissociation, on numbing out, on frozen traumatic conditioning. Our souls are ill. Pieces of our souls lie forsaken and strewn about.
What is needed then is a cleansing fire. A fire of Love, to reignite our frozen souls. With that fire comes pain but not suffering.
And this is a key point. Anyone who has ever gone through a truly purgative and cleansing process knows that that what occurred is they felt into and through the pain and as they did the suffering (amazingly) decreased.
Suffering is largely what happens when we do not stay directly with pain–or rather with the series of sensations we typically unhelpfully label as pain. So with the fire comes the purging, no doubt. But it is not a pain built around moral punishment. Here in the popular traditions of medieval Christianity really are problematic. The pain is not to pay off some penalty. Purgatory is not jail time with God the Vengeful Judge.
The process is not built out of a negative sense of Judgment but rather proper Judgment, which is to say Merciful, Loving Justice.
I can’t stress this point enough. In my experience working with people what prevents them from facing purgation is the sense that they are being punished. In other words, they resist the process because they believe the process communicates a message of negative shame.
“You’re a bad person.”
“This is karmic retribution for your sins.”
“You deserve this [as punishment].”
These false beliefs need to be burned.
“They who comes to be saved, come to be saved through a fire.”
Being purged has nothing to do with being judged as a failure or fundamentally bad. It is precisely the opposite.
Purgation is a process that reminds us that in our essence we are fundamentally good. In our essential nature we are whole, redeemed, beloved.
We have however strayed from our essential nature. As such we have picked up the residue, the accretions of living in ways out of alignment to our essential nature.
Purgation is a message from God saying we are Loved and offering us a way to be released of the violence, trauma, dissociation that burdens and haunts our souls.
An ancient image in the Christian tradition is that the soul is a mirror. The mirror has unfortunately becomes obstructed by layers of mud that have clung to the surface of the mirror. The mirror is still a mirror but in practice is is not functioning as one–i.e. the essential light of a person (their soul) is still present but no able to be experienced. Purgation is to remove the mud that has caked onto the soul. It is one of the best feelings in the world just after having been purged. To feel the release of some weight one has been carrying for years, decades, lifetime, or maybe even lifetimes. That is a direct experience of Grace.
Once the mud is gone, the mirror naturally reflects the light of God. That is what is meant by Paradise.
In my practice, I’m blessed to be able to witness the purgation of souls in real-time. In my own path, I have experienced numerous times the grace of having my soul purged by God.
The reason St. Ambrose said there was a baptism of fire one must go through before entering the gates of paradise is precisely that. We want to be as cleansed as possible, as much as grace will allow in our case, to reflect the Light of Loving Truth.
The way is to trust that purification is happening with a space of Grace (a fundamental space of Resource and Safety). When we learn to co-operate and work intelligently with purgation, we can make it go relatively more smoothly.
But go through purgation we will.
The word salvation comes from a root meaning “healing”–like the world salve. Purgation is the pain that occurs as the Great Doctor lances boils, excises growths, and extracts the poisons held in our souls.
That is why purgation is grace. It’s not a moralistic process. It’s not a criminal process. It’s medicine for the soul. Shamans, recall, are called doctors of the soul.
On All Saints Day (Nov 1) we pray for the saints and ask them to pray for us. On All Souls (Nov 2) we pray for the souls of our ancestors and ask them to pray for us. On what I’m calling Purgation Day (Nov 3) I recommend we pray for the graceful purgation of our souls. We pray for our souls and ask our souls to pray for us.
I can testify to how truth of Origen’s words that all who be healed (saved) must do so through a fire. I can testify to the truth of St. Ambrose’s words that all would enter into paradise (bliss) must first go through the graceful baptism of fire. And I can testify to the truth of my mom’s words that it is possible to go through purgatory while here alive in this reality.
* Personally I tend to the view, strong in the Eastern Christian tradition (e.g. Origen) of the apocatastasis, i.e. that there will be a universal salvation. Or at least the option of it. Contrary to Roman Catholic theology, I don’t believe in eternal punishment in hell. I do believe in the possibility of everlasting damnation–though I’m unsure if that actually applies to any soul. What I mean is that I believe all souls are given infinite chances to be redeemed. Whether they will accept that offer I cannot say.