Tag Archives: Purgatory

Dante and Little Therese at the Eunoe


Illustration by Gustave Dore, Public Domain

Dante Alighieri is best known for writing the Divine Comedy, in which he tells a story of his soul’s journey through Hell, Purgatory and Heaven. It is one of the greatest works of literature, and here I will be so reckless as to suggest he left something out.

At the end of the second part of the poem, Purgatory, Dante drinks from two rivers, the Lethe and then the Eunoe. The Lethe is a river from Greek mythology, one of five that flowed through Hades, the underworld. Drinking it washed away all the memories of your mortal life.  Dante uses the Lethe in this work, but alters its powers. Instead, bathing in the Lethe cleanses the memory of mortal sin from your mind. For Dante, the memory of sin tainted the joy of Heaven.

Dante wrote one final river into the path of the soul before it entered Heaven: the Eunoe. The Eunoe was his own creation, and not derived from Greek mythology. It roughly translates as “good memory.” The Eunoe restored or strengthened memories of good deeds performed in life, but that had been forgotten to some degree. Drinking from it prepared one for Heaven:

If, Reader, I possessed a longer space

For writing it, I yet would sing in part

Of the sweet draught that ne’er would satiate me;

But inasmuch as full are all the leaves

Made ready for this second canticle,

The curb of art no father lets me go

From the most holy water I returned

Regenerate, in the manner of new trees

That are renewed with a new foliage

Pure and disposed to mount unto the stars

Purgatorio, Canto XXXIII, Lines 136-145, Longfellow translation.

I was thinking about the Eunoe recently, and it helped me to resolve, in my own mind, some of St. Therese of Lisieux’s commentary on Purgatory, which I had always had trouble understanding.

Therese, a Doctor of the Church, offered views in various correspondence and conversations on the afterlife somewhat at odds with the settled expectation of most. Her view was that we all too willingly assumed that most people would experience a long Purgatory before entering Heaven. She viewed this as a lack of trust in the Lord, and that we should hope to enter Heaven without going through Purgatory if we adopted a childlike trust in God’s mercy.

She separately offered that it was those people who had led very meritorious lives who might have a surprisingly difficult time avoiding Purgatory. Why? Their temptation to self-justification, or spiritual pride. The following is from a conversation she had with one of her fellow nuns:

I had an immense dread of the judgments of God, and no argument of Soeur Therese could remove it. One day I put to her the following objection: “It is often said to us that in God’s sight the angels themselves are not pure. How, therefore, can you expect me to be otherwise than filled with fear?”

She replied: “There is but one means of compelling God not to judge us, and it is – to appear before Him empty-handed.” “And how can that be done?” “It is quite simple: lay nothing by, spend your treasures as you gain them. Were I to live to be eighty, I should always be poor, because I cannot economize. All my earnings are immediately spent on the ransom of souls.

“Were I to await the hour of death to offer my trifling coins for valuation, Our Lord would not fail to discover in them some base metal, and they would certainly have to be refined in Purgatory. Is it not recorded of certain great Saints that, on appearing before the Tribunal of God, their hands laden with merit, they have yet been sent to that place of expiation, because in God’s Eyes all our justice is unclean?”

(emphasis added)

So,  I think Dante missed an opportunity by not adding a third river at the beginning of his Purgatory.  One that lets us forget our good deeds (if we have any), at least for a while. For if you did good, was it not God’s grace that allowed you to do it? Your work was merely to cooperate with it.   Drinking from this river at the beginning of the Purgatory, and the Eunoe at the end, would have been a nice symmetry.

Perhaps Dante could have called it the Aletheia, which is the opposite of Lethe. Its apparent literal meaning in Greek is “the state of not being hidden”, or “disclosure” or “truth” in shorter form.

Oh Lord, let the Aletheia run through my soul so that I may drink from it daily, and die with empty hands. Do not let me hide behind any merits that I think I may have earned. For if I do, I know that this illusion must be burned away by the fire of your mercy. Amen.




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Witness for the Prosecution


From Inherit the Wind


One of the more interesting things to observe on social media, often not in a good way, is the interaction between believers, atheists and agnostics. There is certainly tension present. Some atheists and agnostics show great frustration with Followers of the Way*, and they do have good cause to be disappointed.

Georges Bernanos captured this dynamic very well in his essay, The Sermon of an Agnostic on the Feast of St. Therese.  In this essay, written in 1938, Bernanos conveys the point of view of an imaginary agnostic who has been given the opportunity to deliver a sermon to a parish of self-satisfied and mediocre Catholics. Bernanos was a Catholic novelist and essayist, and it was considered a sign of his great integrity that he was far harder on the Church and his fellow Catholics than on anyone else.

From the outset, his narrator pulls no punches:

“Ladies and Gentlemen”, he would begin, “I don’t share your beliefs, but I probably know more about the history of the Church than you do, because I happen to have read it, and not many parishioners can say that.”

“… Who among you is capable of writing twenty lines about his or her patron saint?”

Lesson one, don’t BS or condescend to an atheist or agnostic. They have probably come by their position the hard way, either through formal education or long life experience.  Their common sense may exceed yours, and they may very well know philosophy, theology, the history of the Church or the Bible better than you.

Despite this, some will make time for us, even when we ignore them:

For though you’re not interested in unbelievers, unbelievers are extremely interested in you. There are a few of us who at some point in our lives have not made a tentative approach in your direction, were it only to insult you. After all, put yourselves in our place. Were there  … the faintest chance of your being right, death would come as a devastating surprise to us. So we’re bound to watch closely and try and fathom you.

Lesson two, you will have some opportunity to demonstrate or discuss your faith with them, whether you intend to or not. Be ready.

But we are often not:

“Yes, we were drawn to you. But now we’ve decided that you’re not very interesting after all, and it’s rather disappointing. And we hate to think what fools we were, ever to have hoped in you, and to have doubted ourselves, our own unbelief.”

Lesson three, we may be accountable to some degree for their lack of faith. Jesus says woe unto those who are a stumbling block to children. But is he just speaking of physiological age? What if its spiritual age as well? We will have to account for the atheists and agnostics we disappointed by our bad example.

For example, do we take the Sacraments seriously? Bernanos’ agnostic suggests we often don’t:

When you come out of the confessional, you’re in a ‘state of grace.’ A state of grace … are you sure? Can you blame us if we don’t believe it? We’re wondering what you do with the Grace of God. Should it not be shining out of you? Where the devil do you hide your joy?

Lesson four, as Teresa of Avila said, “Lord, save us from gloomy saints.” Behave like your faith matters more than the world

Instead, we seem to put too much faith in politics or money, not God:

But what surpasses the understanding is that you habitually reason about the affairs of the world in exactly the same way as we do. I mean, who’s forcing you? … But when your fathers profess the pitiless economics of Mr. Adam Smith, or when you give solemn honor to Machiavelli, allow me to say that you cause us no surprise – you simply strike us as odd, incomprehensible fellows.

Lesson five: If you make an idol out of your politics, possessions, or career, why should atheists take you seriously about the Good News?

Despite any frustration we have with atheists or agnostics, we must never judge them for their profession of faith. A scientist once calculated that about 150 billion humans beings have been born on planet Earth since homo sapiens came into existence (I have no issue with the concept of the evolution of human beings over many thousands of years, in a manner consistent with the will of the Father. Nor does the RC Church). Billions lived and died before the Incarnation, never knowing the Good News. Billions have lived and died since without being baptized or even being preached to.

For whatever reason, one of the mysteries of Salvation history is that only a vanishingly small number of human beings encountered Jesus in person, and a minority, even through today, have ever been formally inducted into the faith through baptism. Most of the people who have been born went to their deaths knowing nothing of the Sermon on the Mount, the Crucifixion or the Resurrection. Most people did not believe Jesus during his day, so perhaps it is appropriate that most of humanity not believe his followers.

Peter Kreeft has suggested that one of the purposes of the Communion of Saints is for those of us who are wealthy in life to share with those who were not in the next. When you lay up treasures in heaven, it may be for those who were never graced with any spiritual treasure in this life.

Does Bernanos’ narrator offer any advice for today’s Christians? His narrator prophesies our present,  and says we must become children again:

Fear those who are to come, who shall judge you. Fear the innocence of children, for they are also enfants terribles. Your only way out is to become children yourselves, to rediscover the heart of childhood. For the hour shall strike when questions hurled at you from all points of the earth shall be so direct, that you will not be able to answer except by yes or no.

Lesson six, social media places our Faith under the microscope like never before. And we will be questioned by the orphaned children of our age, who will not defer to us or accept the things we take for granted. They find much of the world rather absurd, and laugh at it. And Bernanos advises that we will never respond adequately to their laughter except through the childlike heroism of a Joan of Arc before her accusers.

Christians who listen to me – that is your peril! It is difficult to follow up a society that has foundered in laughter, because even the fragments will be useless. You will have to build it all up again. You will have to build it up under the eyes of children. Become as children yourselves. They have found the chink in your armor, and you will never disarm their irony save by simplicity, honesty and audacity.

You will never disarm them save by heroism.

Lesson 7, argument is of limited value. Apologetics has its place with those who are eager to believe, and need guidance or encouragement. Our Lord had little success with argument with those disinclined to believe him. Do we expect to do any better than Him? While we have a duty to be honest when the question is put to us, we will best persuade through our heroic example, which may include prayer and fasting, and all the ordinary or anonymous sacrifices we are called to make every day.

When I die, I want Jesus to call some of these formerly hard nosed atheists from the far reaches of eternity (Heaven) or temporality (Purgatory). They can be His prosecuting attorney against me in my final confession. Did I ever impress or convert a one by my example, or my prayers? Up to this point in my life, I cannot say with any confidence that I have. I would have to plead guilty to every charge they might make, a witness for the prosecution.


P.S. If you wish to read more Bernanos, many of his writings have been translated into English. Unfortunately, much of it is out of print and hard to come by at a reasonable price. The essay I have quoted from is available in The Heroic Face of Innocence: Three Stories by George Bernanos at a reasonable price in e-book form.

* As Christians were apparently known in their early years. The French writer Fabrice Hadjadj has suggested, half-seriously, that Christians go back to using that description, as it sounds far more mysterious and intriguing.

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Communion for Saints


“Greg, do you really need to go to Mass twice a week? Surely once is enough.” She had been hoping they would go to lunch together, but Greg had a conflict.

“It’s not just for me,” he said and stopped on the way out the door. He looked at his watch, and nodded in the direction of his office. They went back in, and Greg took off his hat and gloves as they both sat down.

“Did you ever wonder if God’s plan of salvation was fair?” Greg asked. “Here I am. I can freely practice my faith in this country. I have the time to attend mass as often as I like. I have no health problems or other impediments that prevent me from doing so.”

“And others don’t, I get that. But how does going to mass more often change that?” Lisa asked.

“We have been taught that a Communion of Saints exists. The Church Triumphant in Heaven, the Church Penitent in Purgatory and the Church Militant here on earth. We are all part of the Body of Christ, and we can, in a mysterious way help each other through prayer and sacrifice. We are all responsible for all.”

Greg continued as she listened. “What about the Christian imprisoned in a hostile land who cannot receive the sacraments?  What about the disabled or frail person who cannot get out of their house very often? Through misfortune, they appear to be  deprived of some opportunity to receive grace. And I know you don’t believe in Purgatory, but I do wonder about people still undergoing purification, and what I can do to help beyond prayer. Especially those souls whose parents did not honor their baptismal promise to raise them in the faith.”

“When I go to Mass a second time in a week, I’ve started to ask  Jesus if I can offer my communion back to him for those who cannot receive it, whether here on Earth or in purgatory. The grace goes into his Heavenly treasury to be dispensed to those most in need of it.”

He looked at his watch again, and stood up. “We can go to lunch tomorrow. I don’t know who I will be sharing my food with today, but I wouldn’t miss it for the world.”







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Cosmetic Furniture, Ultd.


Leslie wandered through the City, letting the wind blow her where it would. Spring was here, and the new sundress and sandals were out for their first walk.  Not that she was a showoff. It was just the first warm day of the year, and through an unconscious mass agreement, everyone wore their Yuletide gifts for all to see.

Leslie turned down a side street to explore a new neighborhood, and took in the unfamiliar shops and cafes. She almost missed the store, as its narrow front was wedged in between a larger laundromat and second hand clothing store. It was probably the name that did it, “Cosmetic Furniture,” one she was sure she misread at first glance.

She entered to the ringing of a bell, which summoned a distinguished gentleman out from behind his desk.

“Welcome miss. You are the day’s first customer,” he said.

“Well, I am sorry to disappoint you. I just had to see …”

“Was it the sign?” he smiled.

“Yes,” Leslie admitted.

“It’s ok. We are a specialty merchandiser,” he said, laying emphasis on the word “specialty.”

He studied her for a moment. “I am not busy right now. Please take a look at our showrooms and tell me what you think of our stock.” And he gestured to rooms to his left and right.

Leslie stepped over to the opening on the left, and looked in. The vast room beyond was full of vanities in all shapes, sizes and colors. She even saw one that looked a lot like hers.  She turned and walked over to the entrance to the other showroom. Looking in, she could see it was far smaller, with only a single piece.

“What is that?” Leslie asked

“Let’s take a closer look,” he said.

Leslie walked up to the piece, which, superficially, looked a lot like her vanity.

“Why is there only one piece in this room, but so many in the other?”

“This is just a floor model, and we only deal at wholesale with this product. The form is less important than the substance. The vanity room is our retail department. For those buyers, form is almost everything.”

She stared at it. “Oh, this was one of those confessional things, right?”

“Yes. I like to say that with the other product line, we put our makeup on. At this one, we take it off,” the man chuckled.

“So, it’s just for women?” she laughed.

“No, men powder up too, and some lay it on thicker than women. They are so skilled  that you just don’t see it.”

“Let me try this out,” and she arranged herself on the kneeler.

The man sat in a chair behind the screen. “What do you think of it?”

Leslie folded her hands in front. “Do you do this?”

“You may, but it is not required,” His voice softer now.

“I don’t really believe in this sort of thing.”

“Are you in college, by chance?”


“Do you know what a dissertation defense is?

“I do. I am working towards a doctorate by the way.”

“Very good. Then perhaps this analogy may help.  Every human life is a dissertation, and eventually everyone has to justify theirs.  The catch is … you cannot.  The sooner one realizes this, the easier it is to acknowledge this to the examiner.”

“God, you mean?” Leslie asked.

“Actually, we all judge ourselves in the end, with our conscience, though someone else will be there to hold up a perfect mirror to our vanity.”

“So, we are doomed to fail?”

“You aren’t failed. The same someone else will mend and help you finish your dissertation. If you let him.”

“So why bother with confessing now, what difference does it make?”

“Practice makes perfect is the saying. But here practice helps you understand you will never be perfect. These dialogues are preparation for the last confession every human being has to make, whether they want to or not. It may be unpleasant if you are not prepared.”

“The flames of hell, or purgatory? I read Dante one semester.”

“Many writers have described the soul as passing through flames in the afterlife, flames that purify. Some, like Dante, depicted this very poetically, if in a frightening way.  But what if there are no sheets of flame, and this is a metaphor for something entirely different.”

And he recited: “Is not my word like fire? And like a hammer which shatters a rock? “

 And then: “I will give them one heart, and put a new spirit within them.  And I will take the heart of stone out of their flesh and give them a heart of flesh.”

“The Word is fire, and through a fiery discourse, it may perform a life saving operation on us.  Isn’t it better to soften up that rock first, and not wait till the end?  If you don’t get a head start, you may be unwilling to take part in the discourse, finding it too painful. Some choose never to open up, of which it is said ‘I never knew them.'”

“So its better to start the conversation now, to sort of get acquainted?”

“It is. Don’t you hate getting cold calls? Did you ever have to make one? You see my point. And remember, the lowest circle in Dante’s hell was ice, not fire.”

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The Foundling

Listen up. I’ve made a deal with my angel … Well, maybe.  It was a one sided conversation. And yet I hope.

This is my wooden horse:  I will be a child again when I die, a babe. They’re good at disguises from what the book says.  But you can’t go  in half-way on this kind of deal. I have to give it all up, my knowledge, intellect, experience, memories, worldly desires, everything. Any accrued benefits are also forfeit. I will float up just like a balloon after this.

But why go to this trouble?   I don’t want to wait, and I think the young sister was right. No lower deeps for me if I can avoid them.

My guardian will guide my little soul body up to the doorstep, and leave me there. I will be quiet, feigning asleep. Ah ha, I hear footsteps approach. Its two sets, one heavier, thunder and lightning at rest. The other as gentle as moonlight.

Shhh …. They are here. Someone bends down and picks me up. Ah, they are taking me inside. My little ruse has succeeded.

Well, that’s how its supposed to work. Becoming so small, inoffensive and helpless. They won’t turn me away, or make me wait a long time in the other place? Right? I hope.

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