Thursday, August 31, 2017

"I knew my brother was suffering." ~ Ancient Roots of the Doctrine of Purgatory, Part I

Detail from The Deliverance of
Souls from Purgatory
by Rubens, 1635.
The idea of Purgatory as an intermediary state between Heaven and Hell is one of the most misunderstood and occasionally ridiculed aspects of Catholic doctrine. Though it is common for Protestants and even some Catholics to assume that Purgatory has no foundation in Sacred Scripture, that claim is actually false. The need for Purgatory developed from a close reading of Scripture by the Fathers of the Church, and the concept has a provenance stretching back to the earliest days of the Church. Furthermore, it has come to my attention recently that the Orthodox have a similar understanding of the need for purification before entering Heaven, even if their understanding of that purgation is not the same as that of the Catholic Church.

See Part II of this post here.

One of the earliest accounts of a Purgatory-like place comes from an unexpected source, indeed one of the Mothers of the Church, rather than one of the Fathers. Dating from about AD 203, the authentic account of the Passion of Saint Perpetua details a poignant vision which Perpetua experienced immediately prior to her martyrdom. The words of this early Christian martyr, as written in Latin in her prison diary, speak for themselves: 
After a few days, while we were all praying, on a sudden, in the middle of our prayer, there came to me a word, and I named Dinocrates. And I was amazed that that name had never come into my mind until then, and I was grieved as I remembered his misfortune. And I felt myself immediately to be worthy, and to be called on to ask on his behalf. And for him I began earnestly to make supplication, and to cry with groaning to the Lord. 
Without delay, on that very night, this was shown to me in a vision. I saw Dinocrates going out from a gloomy place, where also there were several others, and he was parched and very thirsty, with a filthy countenance and pallid color, and the wound on his face which he had when he died. This Dinocrates had been my brother after the flesh, seven years of age who died miserably with disease—his face being so eaten out with cancer, that his death caused repugnance to all men. For him I had made my prayer, and between him and me there was a large interval, so that neither of us could approach to the other. And moreover, in the same place where Dinocrates was, there was a pool full of water, having its brink higher than was the stature of the boy, and Dinocrates raised himself up as if to drink. And I was grieved that, although that pool held water, still, on account of the height to its brink, he could not drink. And I was aroused, and knew that my brother was in suffering. But I trusted that my prayers would bring help to his suffering; and I prayed for him every day until we passed over into the prison of the camp, for we were to fight in the camp-show. Then was the birthday of Geta C├Žsar, and I made my prayer for my brother day and night, groaning and weeping that he might be granted to me.
Then, on the day on which we remained in fetters, this was shown to me. I saw that that place which I had formerly observed to be in gloom was now bright, and Dinocrates, with a clean body well clad, was finding refreshment. And where there had been a wound, I saw a scar, and that pool which I had before seen, I saw now with its margin lowered even to the boy's navel. And one drew water from the pool incessantly, and upon its brink was a goblet filled with water. And Dinocrates drew near and began to drink from it, and the goblet did not fail. And when he was satisfied, he went away from the water to play joyously, after the manner of children, and I awoke. Then I understood that he was translated from the place of punishment.
While mysterious and certainly not covering all of the Catholic Church's criteria for Purgatory, Perpetua's vision seems to confirm the belief that the souls of the dead benefit from the prayers of the living, particularly those about to endure martyrdom for the sake of Christ.

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Update: September 4, 2018:

The Passion of Saints Perpetua and Felicitas is related in full in I Am a Christian: Authentic Accounts of Christian Martyrdom and Persecution from the Ancient Sources. This book is a collection of the best ancient sources on the persecution of early Christians and well worth having if you are interested in this topic.

Some additional sources on the origin of Purgatory, including a large excerpt from Pope Saint Gregory the Great who formalized much of what we believe about Purgatory today, will be included in a subsequent post. Stay tuned!

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