One of the greatest pains of Purgatory and how to avoid it – Fr H.J. Coleridge SJ, 1889

“This terrible sorrow is one of their most severe punishments.”

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The Prisoners of the King
Thoughts on the Catholic Doctrine of Purgatory
Fr Henry James Coleridge SJ

Burns and Oates, London
pp 206-213
UK readers
Internet Archive

“Woe to thee, Corozain, woe to thee, Bethsaida; for if in Tyre and Sidon had been wrought the miracles that have been wrought in you, they would long ago have done penance in sackcloth and ashes. But I say to you, it shall be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon in the Day of Judgment, than for you.

“And thou, Capharnaum, shalt thou be exalted up to Heaven? Thou shalt go down even unto Hell. For if in Sodom had been wrought the miracles which have been wrought in thee, perhaps it would have remained unto this day. But I say unto you, it shall be more tolerable for the land of Sodom in the Day of Judgment, than for thee.”

The consequence of neglected grace

These words, and the departure of our Lord from His usual haunts at Capharnaum, suggest to us the thought of the immense loss which is incurred by the neglect of the opportunities of grace with which our life is filled by the good providence of God. Loss of this kind is not incurred by those alone from whom grace is altogether withdrawn, and who have in consequence to suffer eternally in Hell. Such loss is also incurred in various measures and degrees by all who do not faithfully co-operate with grace, and who thus forfeit higher graces which they might have received, and fall into faults or defects which they might have escaped.

We have already mentioned the sorrow which the Holy Souls in Purgatory must have felt when the amount of their own negligences as to grace was made clear to them in the light of their Particular Judgment. We shall make the fuller consideration of this loss the subject of the remainder of this chapter.

It is certain that a great number of Christians go out of this world in a state of grace, indeed, and so with the blessed destiny of eternal glory awaiting them, but still, after having lost a great part of the opportunities which were offered them in God s providence of “laying up treasure in Heaven” by good works, and multiplying the graces vouchsafed to them.

The consequence of this is that they have forfeited for ever an immense number of degrees of glory, each of which degree, as being eternal, is of infinite value, both from the honour which might have accrued from it to God, and also from the blessings which it would have brought to the soul which has forfeited it.

St. Paul tells us that “star differeth from star in glory,” and, as there are very great distances indeed between the glory of one saint and the glory of another, so also may there be immense differences between the height in Heaven and the nearness to God to which men do attain, and the height and the nearness to which they might have attained. Now the loss which the Holy Souls have thus incurred, and which has been made known to them, we can not doubt, at their judgment, is a loss which is in itself irreparable. Purgatory can do away with the stains that remain on the soul, cancel the debt of satisfaction which they owe to the Divine justice, but it does not restore to them the time or the graces or the opportunities which have been squandered and have become unfruitful for eternity.

This, in truth, amounts to a change, if we may so speak, in the counsels of God towards the souls which are to be eternally glorified in His Presence. According to His first counsel, as we may say, He had intended to give them a certain, it may be a very high, place in His Kingdom, to which they were to rise by their correspondence to the great chain of graces which He was prepared to bestow upon them. But their own unfaithfulness has made the fulfilment of this counsel impossible according to the law of His justice. In consequence of this unfaithfulness, God has adopted another counsel in their regard: that is, He has determined that they shall gain another, but a far lower, grade of glory, and of all that is involved in that glory. He has withdrawn Himself from them to a certain extent, they have forfeited to a certain extent the fulfilment of the designs of His love, and as to that which they have forfeited, He has turned away from them as our Lord turned away from the cities in which His mighty works were done, and in which, after a time, He would work no more.

This loss, as has been said, is eternal.

It is made known to the Holy Souls, and a terrible sorrow is inflicted on them in consequence which is one of their most severe punishments.

“I think,” says Suarez, “that their sorrow, considered as a punishment laid upon them for their purgation, is rather on account of the grades of blessedness which they have lost for ever, or which they have not gained through sloth and venial sins, than on account of the simple deferring of that blessedness which they are, after a time, to gain. In this way, therefore, the souls that are more imperfect, and which have the greater amount of guilt, have to suffer greater sorrow.”

The nature and degree of this punishment

It seems certainly a hard thing to say, that the sorrow of the Holy Souls for the glory which they have eternally lost, is greater than that which they feel because they are shut out for a time from that which they are destined to enjoy. For this last-named sorrow must be extremely intense, as we may come to see when we consider it separately.

Still, what the great theologian above cited has said seems nothing more than what is strictly reasonable and natural. All their love of God, all their knowledge of His beauty, all that they know about the bliss of Heaven, the splendour of grace, the value of time, the power of the sacraments, the all but omnipotence of prayer, the treasures to be accumulated by good works, or penances, or alms-deeds, or satisfaction everything of this kind must add to the self-reproach which they must entertain, when they consider how ungrateful, how unfaithful, how foolish they have been in their use of the opportunities and aids which God has given to them.

It seems, indeed, wonderful that this pain can ever pass away. But it must be remembered that it is inflicted as a punishment only, and therefore only for what has been wilful in the way of neglect. As a punishment, it must come to an end, and then the soul is left with nothing to impede its love of God from rushing forward to its full fruition. The saints who have been most faithful to the graces which God has given them have no regret for other higher graces which have not been offered them, though those other and higher graces would have secured them a higher glory, and so a closer knowledge and a more intense love of God. And so, when the punishment has been exhausted which He has inflicted on the imperfect souls who have been so far less faithful than the saints, they remain absolutely contented with their lot, because they have paid to His justice for the forfeiture of the glory which they might have reached.

It is one of the marvels of the wisdom and love of God that a pain like this can be felt in Purgatory, that the cause of it can remain for ever in its effects, and yet that the pain itself can be entirely assuaged.

Who is most in danger of this loss?

This consideration is of immense value to us, though it relates to a part of the pains of Purgatory which are connected with an eternal and irreparable loss. It may be said generally that the class of souls on which these pains will fall most heavily, must be the great number of those called to a certain closeness and intimate service of God who do not aim at the perfection to which God calls them.

If we once admit, as the practical though unavowed rule of our life, that it is enough for us to aim at avoiding mortal sin, and so escaping Hell, then we may be quite certain that, if we do by the mercy of God die in His grace, we shall have a very large share in the forfeiture of glory which is the cause of the pains of which we have been speaking. It seems impossible but that such souls should miss daily a thousand opportunities of advancing in grace and so gaining higher glory.

On the other hand, if we are earnestly and sincerely bent on making the best of our time and of our grace, on abounding in good works in whatever way is open to us, in making the service of God the one great aim of our life, and on using the means of grace in the most perfect manner, then we may have reason to hope that we shall so live and so die as not to have incurred a very severe punishment for very many graces of eternal happiness which we have lost.

An analogy with the beauty of Creation

We know by our faith that the creation and sanctification of a single human soul is a greater and nobler work of God, than the creation and conservation of the whole physical universe. It is a simple truth, that intellectual and spiritual gifts are more beautiful than all the beauties of earth and sea, sky and mountain, trees and flowers and animals, and the whole starry firmament. In both these orders of His magnificence, intellectual and spiritual on the one hand, and the physical and visible on the other hand, God may create kingdom upon kingdom, grander and more splendid than any that He has as yet created.

But what if by our own act we had been able to stay His hand, and strike out all that is most glorious and majestic, all that reflects in the highest actual degree His wisdom and beauty and power, and forced Him, as it were, to content Himself with a poorer world, a narrower display of His marvels, something far less honourable and glorious to Him than what we see around us?

What if we had been able to stint the profuse multitude of the stars which fill the heavens, to forbid Him to endow the sun with more than a mere millionth part of that light and heat which it now possesses, to limit Him to the peopling of dreary and unfruitful regions with a few puny forms of life, such as perhaps the tricks of Egyptian magicians aided by evil angels may have been able to seem to make to live and move?

Yet this is but a faint picture of the losses of glory to God which have been caused by the unfaithfulness of His children.

The life of each soul is dearer to Him than a thousand worlds, and He has agreed to adorn every moment of it with magnificent gifts, which He wooes His creatures to accept, in order that they may issue, by the working of His grace, in marvellous fruits of glory which are to last for ever. What a thing it is for Him to suffer at the hands of His friends, this sterility of His grace, this niggardly return from the soil which He has watered with His Blood?

We may look upon the life of each Christian as intended by God to raise to His honour a stately temple, spacious, lofty, rich in all that can enhance the costliness of its fabric and its adornments with all the beauty that the highest art can bring out of the resources of nature and mind. It has to be finished and made complete in every part within a short space of time, and every day of every year has something to contribute of its own if the pile is to be accomplished.

He places in our hands an abundance of materials, He labours Himself with us, He takes care that all that happens to us may work for us, and that all His friends in Heaven and on earth shall stand by to aid us and cheer us on.

And the glorious temple which we are to raise for Him to dwell in is our own soul, which is to enjoy the fruit of its labour through all eternity. Alas! in how many cases is the fabric not begun at all! in how many more does it halt at its very outset, so that the time of judgment comes when hardly the foundations have been laid!

Such are the thoughts which rise in the mind when we consider what we have done for God, and compare it with what our work for Him might and ought to have been.

From Fr Henry James Coleridge SJ, The Prisoners of the King – Thoughts on the Catholic Doctrine of Purgatory. Also available for UK readers and at the Internet Archive


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