Birth of Purgatory

The challenge is to ignite it. Before him, no one really represented Purgatory, this intermediate reign between Hell and Paradise that the Catholics of the twelfthe and XIIIe centuries have just been forged by relying on the Scriptures and the developments of the Fathers of the Church. Saint Paul pointed it out to the Corinthians: (…) everyone’s work will be brought to light. Indeed, the day of judgment will manifest it, because this revelation will be done by fire, and it is the fire which will make it possible to appreciate the quality of the work of each one. If someone has built a work that resists, he will receive a salary; if the work is completely burnt, it will suffer the damage. He himself will be saved, but as through fire. “ (1 Cor 3, 12-15).

More than a place – that of patient suffering, of confident expectation – Purgatory is a state, as Dante of Saint Augustine learned. He is a purifying fire, by which souls atone for their sins before they can enter Paradise. This new notion is familiar to the Florentine. It has just been defined by dogma at the Second Council of Lyon, in 1274, the same year when, aged 9, the future poet met his Beatrice. He, who observes the profound changes in society very closely, saw this representation emerge, heard the conversations rustle, fear and wonder at the faithful. He intends to boldly integrate it into his poem.

But he will say more. He wants to tell about Purgatory as an ascension. Going up with Virgil, he exchanges with him substantial views on temptations, virtues, and mercy. The journey through this reign tears the heart: the two companions see contrite souls expressing regret for their faults, and hear them begging for the prayers of their loved ones for their salvation. This is the most striking and unheard of feature for medieval man: the living can help their dead gain access to Heaven. It is not all over to death itself. This thought is an upheaval in eschatology and soteriology as the people, from the most learned to the most modest, approach them. The world is one, intimately united, terrestrial and celestial at the same time. This is perhaps the central message of the Divine Comedy.

In a sermon, Bernard of Clairvaux encourages this hope by recalling the horizon of heavenly Jerusalem: “We admit not only to sympathize and pray for the dead but also to congratulate them in hope; for if one is to grieve for their sufferings in purgatory places, one must still more rejoice at the approach of the time when God will wipe away all tears from their eyes. “

To which she too invites Thérèse of the Child Jesus, who writes about Purgatory: “Hear how far your confidence has to go! It must make you believe that Purgatory is not made for you, but only for souls who have disregarded merciful Love, or who have doubted its purifying power. (…) It is your confidence and your surrender that he will reward; his justice, which knows your fragility, is divinely arranged to achieve it. “

“I will sing this kingdom two where the soul purges itself of its weaknesses and becomes worthy to ascend to heaven”, declaims Dante coming out of Hell, finding the light of the sun (Purg I, 4-6). A luminous mountain then unfolds before his eyes, not a dark underground. This is his invention, his vision, his experience. No one has ever shown Purgatory like this, like a mountain to be climbed in stages, to rise, take after take, towards God. A spatial representation of Christian Hope.


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