An extraordinary laywoman and hospital worker of the 15th century, St. Catherine of Genoa*, wrote an important treatise on the nature of Purgatory. During November, the "month of the dead," Catholic Womanhood will feature some sections of this profound work, which illuminates the experience of the faithful departed after death-- not to satisfy curiosity, but to prepare those hoping, in St. Paul's words, to be "saved ... as through fire."
(*Not to be confused with the earlier saint, the Doctor of the Church Catherine of Siena)
This holy soul, while still in the flesh, was placed in the purgatory of the burning love of God, in whose flames she was purified from every stain, so that when she passed from this life she might be ready to enter the presence of God, her most sweet love.
By means of that flame of love she comprehended in her own soul the condition of the souls of the faithful in purgatory, where they are purified from the rust and stain of sins, from which they have not been cleansed in this world. And as in the purgatory of that divine flame she was united with the divine love and satisfied with all that was accomplished in her, she was enabled to comprehend the state of the souls in purgatory, and thus discovered concerning it:
As far as I can see, the souls in purgatory can have no choice but to be there; this God has most justly ordained by his divine decree. They cannot turn towards themselves and say: "I have committed such and such sins for which I deserve to remain here;" nor can they say: "Would that I had refrained from them, for then I should at this moment be in paradise;" nor again: "This soul will be released before me;" or "I shall be released before her."
They retain no memory of either good or evil respecting themselves or others which would increase their pain. They are so contented with the divine dispositions in their regard; and with doing all that is pleasing to God in that way which he chooses, that they cannot think of themselves, though they may strive to do so. They see nothing but the operation of the divine goodness which is so manifestly bringing them to God that they can reflect neither on their own profit nor on their hurt. Could they do so, they would not be in pure charity.
They see not that they suffer their pains in consequence of their sins, nor can they for a moment entertain that thought, for should they do so it would be an active imperfection, and that cannot exist in a state where there is no longer the possibility of sin.
At the moment of leaving this life they see why they are sent to purgatory, but never again, otherwise they would still retain something private, which has no place there. Being established in charity, they can never deviate therefrom by any defect, and have no will or desire, save the pure will of pure love, and can swerve from it in nothing. They can neither commit sin, nor merit by refraining from it.
There is no peace to be compared with that of the souls in purgatory, save that of the saints in paradise, and this peace is ever augmented by the inflowing of God into these souls, which increases in proportion as the impediments to it are removed. The rust of sin is the impediment, and this the fire continually consumes, so that the soul in this state is continually opening itself to admit the divine communication. As a covered surface can never reflect the sun, not through any defect in that orb, but simply from the resistance offered by the covering, so, if the covering be gradually removed, the surface will by little and little be opened to the sun and will more and more reflect his light.
So it is with the rust of sin, which is the covering of the soul. In purgatory the flames incessantly consume it, and as it disappears, the soul reflects more and more perfectly the true sun who is God. Its contentment increases as this rust wears away, and the soul is laid bare to the divine ray, and thus one increases and the other decreases until the time is accomplished. The pain never diminishes, although the time does, but as to the will, so united is it to God by pure charity, and so satisfied to be under his divine appointment, that these souls can never say their pains are pains.
On the other hand, it is true that they suffer torments which no tongue can describe nor any intelligence comprehend, unless it be revealed by such a special grace as that which God has vouchsafed to me, but which I am unable to explain. And this vision which God revealed to me has never departed from my memory. I will describe it as far as I am able, and they whose intellects our Lord will deign to open will understand me.
We should pray for the souls in Purgatory every day, especially those who have no one to pray for them. Imagine when you get to heaven, how many of them will be there to greet and thank you for their deliverance!