Leo Madigan reviews Catherine of
Genoa's Treatise on Purgatory

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Catherine of Genoa's Treatise on Purgatory

Hinduism, Islam, Buddhism, Zoroastrianism all teach a form of purgation in the afterlife. It is the Christians who are divided. Luther denied it as having no basis in scripture. So does Article XXII of the Thirty Nine Articles of Religion of the Church of England. (The Romish Doctrine concerning Purgatory ... is a fond thing vainly invented, and grounded upon no warranty of Scripture, but rather repugnant to the words of God.) The orthodox have no teaching on it.

The Catholic Church has always taught that there is a Purgatory but has been able to tell us precious little about it. Apart from Dante's imagination it is only in the writings of the visionaries that we are afforded even a precarious spy-hole into the celestial smelting works, and we can give or withold our credence for their reports as we choose. The Church, wisely, makes no pronouncement on the internal authenticity of a visionary's experience even though she may enrol that visionary in the canon of the saints.

Of these spy-holes, the one treated with the most reverence by theologians and spiritual writers is the Treatise on Purgatory by Catherine of Genoa.

It is a work of seventeen chapters in as many pages, yet it is written with such rare intensity and simplicity that one feels a whole shelf of volumes couldn't focus on the subject with the same precision. Each sentence is a meditation in itself. Catherine writes as a mystic, not as an apologist. She quotes nobody. Her interpretation of Purgatory is the fruit of her own experience. This soul found herself, while still in the flesh, placed by the fiery love of God in purgatory, which burnt her, cleansing whatever in her needed cleansing.

And what needs cleansing is sin's rust. The sin is forgiven, she tells us, but sin's rust covers the soul and a thing that is covered cannot respond to the sun's rays, not because of any defect in the sun, which is shining all the time, but because the cover is an obstacle...more and more as the cover is consumed does it respond to the rays of the sun.

Though there is in Purgatory as much pain as in Hell she also tells us that no happiness can be found worthy to be compared with that of a soul in Purgatory except that of the saints in Paradise. And while the pain of Purgatory does not diminish on a par with the 'rust' burned away, the happiness grows day by day as God flows into these souls.

The souls in Purgatory, moreover, would not choose to be anywhere else, or to suffer less than they are suffering. They experience no guilt of sin, nor do they have any memory of themselves or of others; nor of good, nor of evil. Should a person on earth pray for them they cannot feel affection or gratitude towards that person because if they could such a movement would involve self, thereby losing sight of God's Will, which would be Hell for them.

They cannot see that the cause of their pain is their sins; that sight they cannot hold in their minds because in doing so there would be an active imperfection, which cannot be where no acual sin can be. Only once, as they pass from this life, do they see the cause of the Purgatory they endure. Never again do they see it, for in another sight of it there would be self.

This negation of self, of ego, in the face of Divine Love is the keystone of the Treatise. It makes even the pain of Purgatory, which no tongue can tell nor explain, no mind understand, seem desirable. Look at gold, she says, employing the image that John of the Cross would make much of two centuries later, the more you melt it the better it becomes.

You couldn't melt it completely until you had destroyed in it every imperfection. The soul cannot be destroyed in so far as it is in God, but in so far as it is in itself it can be destroyed. God holds the soul in the fire until it is brought to perfection, as it were, to the purity of twenty four carats, each soul according to its own degree. When the soul has been purified it stays wholly in God, having nothing of self in it. It can suffer no more for nothing is left in it to be burned away. Were it held in the fire when it has thus been cleansed, it would feel no pain.

One of the effects of reading in the mystics of the horrors of sin and pain, and of the Majesty of God, is a sense of helplessness. One feels overwhelmed and protests like the John Doe of the Depression years, "I'm only a little guy trying to make a buck!" - supposing that in this context the buck be a species of spiritual currency.

Catherine doesn't try to minimise, excuse or explain the Majesty, or the horror. She has no interest in either intimidating or consoling the little guy, but she has the facility, as does Julian of Norwich - who passed through this world a generation before Catherine - of presenting her teaching with a delicacy which preempts fear; who, so to speak, takes a firm but gentle grasp of your hand and leads you from the cold classroom into the magic of her own garden for the lesson.

So many imperfections are in the soul, she tells us, that, did the soul see them it would live in despair. But in Purgatory they are all burned away. It is only after they have gone does God allow a glimpse of what they were.

Catherine Fiesca (1447-1510) was an exact contemporary of her fellow Genoese, Christopher Columbus, and the Florentine painter Botticelli. Her potted biography can be found in any Who's Who of saints. There is little in it to excite the sensation seeker. She was married at the age of sixteen and was Mrs Guiliano Adorno for the next 47 years.

For much of this time her husband was a profligate with a particularly vile temper. Catherine, who seems to have been naturally pious and retiring, suffered the humiliations of the marriage for some years and then, to find relief, began to move in Genoese society. However innocent this socialising was, she suffered from what she later referred to as the contagion of the world's slow stain.

One day, in the confessional, a ray of Divine light pierced her soul and in that moment revealed her own wretchedness and the awesome love of God with equal clarity. The revelation was so overwhelming that she lost consciousness, but from that time till her death she combined an intense interior life with a marked competence for handling temporal affairs.

After some years Guiliano, moved by her example, changed his ways and together they cared for the sick of Genoa. After his death in 1497 she became matron and treasurer of the vast Pammatone Hospital in that city. She died at the age of 63 worn out by her labours and, it is said, even physically consumed by the Divine fires within her. This form of purgation, which I see in the souls in Purgatory, I feel in my own mind. In the last two years I have felt it most; every day I feel and see it more clearly. I see my soul within this body as within a Purgatory, formed as in the true Purgatory and like it, but so measured that the body can bear with it and not die; yet little by little it grows until the body die.

St. Catherine's complete works, the Treatise and the Dialogue together just manage to fill a slim volume and even then the Dialogue seems to have been written by a niece after Catherine's death. But who wrote what is immaterial. Catherine herself would be the first to agree with another near contemporary, Thomas A´Kempis - enquire not who spoke this or that, but mark what is spoken. The work carries its own authority and it would take the life time of the Church Militant to absorb the depths of its teaching. Oh misery beyond all other misery, Catherine exclaims in a moment of uncharacteristic exasperation, the greater that human blindness takes it not into account!

It cannot be denied that a reader comes from the Treatise feeling shaken, awed, agog even, and yet curiously assured - not white-knuckled like a criminal approaching the stocks, but more like a smelly baby being introduced to the bath tub.

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