What might Jairus’s Daughter tell us about the pains of Purgatory? Fr H.J. Coleridge SJ, 1889

“The pain of sense could not, by any possibility, escape her notice.”

This is continuing our series of extracts from the great Fr H.J. Coleridge SJ.

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Fr Henry James Coleridge SJ – On Purgatory

One of the greatest pains of Purgatory and how to avoid it
What might Jairus’s Daughter tell us about the pains of Purgatory?
Our Lady, the Rosary and the Holy Souls
Our Lord will come and purge the Temples of our Souls
The price of delay in relieving the souls in Purgatory

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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 191-202

UK readers

Internet Archive

The Pain of Sense in Purgatory

And behold there came a man whose name was Jairus: and he was a ruler of the synagogue. And he fell down at the feet of Jesus, beseeching him that he would come into his house: for he had an only daughter, almost twelve years old, and she was dying.

[The intervening healing of the woman with the issue of blood]

As he was yet speaking, there cometh one to the ruler of the synagogue, saying to him: “Thy daughter is dead: trouble him not.” And Jesus hearing this word, answered the father of the maid: “Fear not. Believe only: and she shall be safe.”

And when he was come to the house, he suffered not any man to go in with him, but Peter and James and John, and the father and mother of the maiden.

And all wept and mourned for her. But he said: “Weep not.  The maid is not dead, but sleepeth.” And they laughed him to scorn, knowing that she was dead.

But he taking her by the hand, cried out, saying: “Maid, arise.” And her spirit returned: and she arose immediately. And he bid them give her to eat.

And her parents were astonished, whom he charged to tell no man what was done.

What might have been the effects of this glimpse of the next world?

The Evangelists tell us nothing of the character or disposition, or of the after-life, of this girl whom our Lord raised from the dead.

The mention of the office of her father as the ruler of the synagogue suggests that he was well known to our Lord, a friend of the centurion whose servant had lately been healed, and also of the nobleman whose son had been cured by our Lord’s word spoken at a distance.

Our Lord was now about to leave Capharnaum almost entirely, probably on account of the unbelief of most of its inhabitants and of the persecution which the emissaries of the priests at Jerusalem were raising against Him; but we find Him once more in the synagogue, where He delivered His great dogmatic discourse about the Holy Eucharist which is related in the sixth chapter of St. John’s Gospel, after the first miracle of the multiplication of the loaves.

We may conjecture that one reason for the marvellous miracle of which we are speaking in this chapter may have been the kindness of Jairus in admitting our Lord to teach so often in the synagogue.

If we turn to the girl herself, it is natural to think rather of the effect which this mercy granted to her may have had on the rest of her life, than of any special reason which may have led our Lord to select her as the subject of that mercy. She was, as has been said, just on the threshold of full womanly life, when all that is naturally enjoyable and delightful was opening to her, the pleasures of the senses, the intoxication of affection, the world, society, position, all that can fascinate the soul and entangle the heart of the thoughtless and the gay.

She entered on her new life with the gift of health and strength – for we must suppose that our Lord never worked His cures or His restorations, as we say, by halves – the idol of her parents, dearer than she had been ever before, and, like some of the children who are now and then favoured with visions of our Blessed Lady or made the instruments by means of which a new devotion or a new shrine is set up in the Church, the object of general interest and curiosity, and even of a kind of veneration.

We may well ask how this world appeared to her after she had come back to it with her short experience of the next, and what were the thoughts which she brought with her as to the dependence of the future on the present, and the relative importance of the goods and evils here and the goods and evils there.

Impression as to the pain of sense

All these things are hidden from us by the short narrative of the Evangelists, who concern themselves only with what more immediately relates to our Lord Himself.

But the history of the Church contains instances of persons who have in like manner come back, as it were, from the world beyond the grave, who have spoken of its terrors or consolations, and the remainder of whose years has been altogether coloured by the impression made upon them.

The daughter of Jairus may have been dead some little time when our Lord arrived at his house, for there must have been some notice required to bring the crowd of mourners and musicians there.

But a very few moments indeed after death are enough for the instantaneous judgment which then takes place, and for the assignment of the soul which has left the body still warm, to its place in Heaven, in Purgatory, or in the place of punishment. It may have been that in this case the judgment and the sentence may have been delayed by our Lord’s intention to raise the maiden to life, but she may nevertheless have been allowed to see the state of things into which she would naturally have been introduced: the peace of the saints in Limbus, the sufferings of the souls in Purgatory or in Hell.

Such has been the case with others.

That which would strike her most in what she saw would be that part of the sufferings of Purgatory which the senses can most easily grasp. The pain of loss might be made intelligible in many ways, to a visitant who was allowed to stand on the brink of Purgatory, but the pain of sense is that part of the punishment of the Holy Souls which could not by any possibility escape her notice.

There are many beautiful things in the writings of the Saints about the pain of loss ; but the relations of those who have seen what Purgatory is in some preternatural manner have dwelt mainly on the pain of sense. This, therefore, we may suppose to have been one great indelible impression made on the mind of the girl of whom we speak, which may have saved her in many a temptation, and urged her on to great efforts in the service of God, even to heroic self-sacrifice, to a life of immense mortification, and also of great and laborious charity for the relief of the Holy Souls. We may use her case, therefore, as the foundation of our considerations on this point.

Its horrible intensity

The manner in which the pain of sense affects souls which are separated from their bodies, and how, in particular, the fire of which our Lord speaks when He alludes to Hell acts upon such souls, belong to the class of subjects as to which schoolmen and theologians are full of difficulties and conjectures.

All discussion of such questions would be out of place in a volume like the present, and therefore we need only say that it is clear from the language of Scripture, from reason, and from the sense of the Church, which is in full harmony with the general tone of the revelations contained in the lives of the Saints, that the pain of sense in Purgatory is something so severe and intense that we can form of it no adequate conception in this life.

The revelations in question are not in themselves authoritative. If they are considered simply as expressing the thoughts familiar to the holy persons to whom they are said to have been made, which is the very lowest rank to which they can be reduced, then at least we have in them, and especially in their uniform tenour, an indication of the mind of the faithful children of the Church as to this matter.

If they are considered as generally, or in many cases, representing preternatural communications which have been vouchsafed by God, then their authority rises higher than in the other case.

But even then they do not stand by themselves. Reason itself seems to point to the conclusion that the sufferings of souls separated from the body must be very intense indeed, especially when these are inflicted by the special and particular justice of God as the exaction of the satisfaction due for a great number of sins, both venial and mortal. Purgatory has been created to be the place of punishment for those who are not to suffer for ever in Hell.

It is not to be thought that God would create a place of this kind but for some strong necessity, or that when it is created it would not fulfil its purpose in the strictest sense. Whatever may be its characteristics, it is certain that they must witness to the wisdom, the mercy, the power, and the justice of God, to His ineffable holiness, and to the manner in which He looks upon sin. “Whatever a man soweth, that also he shall reap,” the Apostle tells us.

But it is certain that the number of sins which are committed in and through the body is almost infinite, that their guilt is very great, and that very little of sufficient penance is done for them here.

If we were to follow the opinion, which can hardly approve itself to a Catholic mind, that the fire of which Holy Scripture speaks is metaphorical, even then we should be obliged to admit that Holy Scripture had used, as an image to represent the sufferings of Purgatory, that one figure of all others which suggests the most excruciating and intolerable of all the pains which can be suffered, and a pain which no one is able to endure for a few moments together, while it is certain that the punishments of Purgatory are continuous, and that, in many cases, their duration is extremely long.

Continues below.


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Testimony of the Saints

It must be remembered that this teaching about the extreme severity of the pain of sense in Purgatory, is found in the writers who have dwelt the most on the happiness which the souls there enjoy, as well as in those who have set before us the more fearful pictures of their condition.

St. Catharine of Genoa, who is the Saint to whom the doctrine of the happiness of the Holy Souls may be said to have been intrusted, says,

“The soul, understanding that Purgatory has been instituted for the expiation and wiping off of imperfections, willingly enters there in submission to the arrangement of God, and considers itself to be very mercifully dealt with; and yet the bitterness of Purgatory surpasses all human understanding.

“But the soul, burning with love, thinks its imperfections of more importance than the pain of Purgatory, although that pain is so extremely terrible, that all that in this life we can know, or describe, or experience, or believe, appears to me a falsehood when compared to it.

“So that although I am obliged to say this, yet I am confounded at the greatness of the matter, which I have explained so much less adequately than I wished.”

This is very much the same kind of language as that of the Blessed Veronica, of whom the author of her Life writes, after relating some of her visions :

“After she returned from that vision to the use of her body and her senses, she gave signs of vehement sadness, terrified sorrow, and great feelings of horror, striking her hands together, shaking her head, and speaking in a woeful voice, and saying,

“’Alas, alas! what pains and what kinds of torments have I seen today, inflicted by those same tormentors who are in Hell, and by the same fire which is there!’

“And saying this, she fell on the ground, and a violent fever seized her, and her whole body was marked with marks as it were shining with fire, of the size of the palm of a hand.”

Very much the same is the testimony of the famous St. Christina, who was called back to this world after having seen the sufferings of the next, and who spent the rest of her life in the most severe penances for the relief of the Holy Souls.

She stated that immediately on her soul leaving her body, she was taken by the angels to a dark and horrible place, full of the souls of men; the torments which she there witnessed were so terrible that no tongue could express them, she saw there the souls of many whom she had known in this life, and was moved to intense compassion for them.

She asked what the place was, thinking it must be Hell, but she was told that it was Purgatory, and that the souls whose sufferings moved her compassion so much had been sinners who had repented of their sins, but not done sufficient penance for them.

But, in truth, there is but one tone about all these revelations – they uniformly represent the torments of Purgatory as severe in the very utmost degree.

Objections to horrible representations of Purgatory

Many persons are in the habit of adopting a tone of complaint, and even of indignation, at the manner of speaking of the pains of Purgatory which is, in the main, founded on such revelations as those to which we have been referring.

They object, further, to the representations of those pains which are sometimes to be found abroad, pictures of the souls, or rather bodies, representing the souls of Purgatory in burning flames, under excruciating tortures, which are sometimes administered by demons as the executioners of the justice of God.

Such pictures are frequently used in missions to the people, or are to be found in popular books of devotion about Purgatory. The objection to such representations is not confined to those which depict the pains of Purgatory alone, but extends itself to those in which the sufferings of Hell are the subject which it is sought to bring home to the mind.

It may be worthwhile to say a few words on the subject in general.

In the first place, then, we need hardly ask whether any Catholic doubts that the truth which it is thus desired to represent be a truth indeed, or whether it is a truth which it is highly expedient and charitable to enforce in all lawful ways.

It is no doubt a great shock to modern notions of the dignity of man and his independence of God, to speak or write as if there were any future torments at all, or as if these torments were very severe.

In the same way, there are societies in which it is very improper to mention or even allude to death, or to anything else which interferes with the unruffled tenour of sensual enjoyments in which so large a part of what is called civilized society would so gladly spend, not only its short span of life here, but an eternity if it could command it. It is certain, then, that no Catholic can see anything to complain of in the constant teaching about the punishments of sin which has so much authority in the words of our Lord Himself.

These things are undoubtedly true, and the only question can be as to the manner of representing them to the people.

In the second place, it may be said that a vision is of necessity addressed to the eye of the mind, and the language which it uses must of necessity be that of sensible objects. If the pain of sense is to be put before the soul at all, except by word of mouth, it must be by images which represent the several senses as suffering torments which are intelligible to the mind through the eye.

What is true of a vision is true of a picture. There is no difference in this respect between representations of the saints or angels, of our Blessed Lord or His sacred Mother, and the representations of Hell or Purgatory. In each case the thing to be set before the mind must be set before it by means of a picture, rude, it may be, and altogether inadequate to be the full image of celestial beauty or of intense suffering, but still cognate in kind to the thing or person which it has to represent.

This is the simple account of so many descriptions of what people have seen of Purgatory, or have endeavoured to depict of Hell. Those who find these things of use, as so many do, had better use them. Those who can represent to themselves the sufferings of our Lord without a crucifix need not use one, and those who can imagine the pains of Purgatory for themselves, may leave the representations of which we speak to others.

But it is unreasonable to blame those who use them, or propose them for the use of others, on the ground of the horrible character of any particular picture or sculpture, unless we are prepared to say that the doctrine as to Purgatory or Hell which is there embodied, in the only way in which it can be embodied so as to strike the senses, is exaggerated or untrue.

The great importance of looking these truths in the face

It is here, perhaps, that the real difficulty lies. People are only too glad to persuade themselves that they may forget the severe truths of our faith as to the retributions for sin, whether temporal or eternal, and they turn with anger on whatever reminds them of these truths, rudely and palpably.

If these truths themselves are once mastered by the soul, it is not likely that objections will be made to the manner in which the memory of them is refreshed.

It will be better hereafter to have quailed in terror before some picture of Purgatory in which the most fearful torments have been depicted in the grossest way, in which the souls are represented as writhing on spits in the midst of flames, torn to pieces by devils, screaming in agony and afflicted by some special visible weapon of torture in every limb and every sense, than to have persuaded ourselves that these sufferings of which the Saints of God think so much are light and short, and that it can be no such very terrible a thing to fall into the hands of the living God in the day of His judgment.

And if we are to return for a moment to the consideration of the case of the Holy Souls themselves, and their claims on our charity, it can be no kind thing to them, any more than to ourselves, to listen to the teaching or the instincts of self-love and sensuality, as to the supposed exaggerations which the most pious children of the Church may have believed to be truths, with regard to the intensity of sufferings such as theirs.

Further Reading

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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