The Gaze That Burns Twice

Why not use the time of Lent to help speed things along for those in purgatory who, while saved, are yet not fully ready to reach across the finish line where the final Epiphany awaits them?

Getting your Trinity Audio player ready...

Incidental to the Church’s teaching on Purgatory—a place not a few of us are likely to spend some time in—is the fact that if it did not exist it would surely have to be invented. Now how consoling is that? And do not take my word for it. It was our late pope Benedict XVI—who, for all we know, may still be there himself—who first said it back in 1985 when, as Cardinal Prefect for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, formerly the Holy Office, he sat down for a lengthy interview with an Italian journalist. Such a big splash it made, by the way, once Ignatius Press got hold of it, especially among young seminarians in Rome, who would not leave home without it. 

Years later, in an encyclical called Spe Salvi—issued in 2007 on the Feast of St. Andrew, the first of the apostles to open the door of Christian Hope—he reinforced the point, reminding us that in the absence of such a place, 

none of us would dare say of himself that he was able to stand directly before God. We need a final cleansing, a cleansing by fire, to be exact, in which the gaze of Christ, so to say, burns us free from everything, and only under this purifying gaze are we fit to be with God and able, then, to make our home with him.  

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

Sign up to get Crisis articles delivered to your inbox daily

Email subscribe inline (#4)

It was one of the most luminous takeaways from a papacy that ended, alas, far too soon. 

He continued: 

And yet we don’t want to be, to use an image from Scripture, “a pot that turned out wrong,” that has to be thrown away; we want to be able to be put right. Purgatory basically means that God can put the pieces back together again. That he can cleanse us in such a way that we are able to be with him and can stand there in the fullness of life.

So, is that the point we need to make about the place? That it is where God, in a final way, fits perfectly together all the scattered fragments preventing our seeing things whole, enabling us at last to stand upright and without shame before Him? It is. Provided, of course, that the soul has not obdurately refused the offer of mercy. “There can be people,” Benedict warns, “who have totally destroyed their desire for truth and readiness to love, people who have lived for hatred and have suppressed all love within themselves.” 

Such people, it goes without saying, would find insupportable even the least of the joys of Heaven. It would not be a mercy to drag them kicking and screaming into the Kingdom. Hell being a place where all the doors are locked on the inside, it must be a place from which none of the inmates care to come out.  

And what does any of this have to do with Lent, that season standing once more before us, summoning us to forty hard days of fasting and prayer? Especially if the prospect fills not a few of us with the knowledge that, yes, we need it, but why must it be so long? Why, when it’s scarcely begun, are we asking when will it all be done? Is there a connection between the two? Have they got anything to say to one another?   

Begin with the good news, which is that neither will go on forever. The two are blessedly finite events. Unlike baseball, for instance, whose innings, while only nine in number, remain indefinite—just keep the rally going and the game will never end!—both Lent and Purgatory are timebound events. 

Of course, the one takes place in ordinary time, what we call Chronos, which is time set by the clock. The other is a very different time, what we call Kairos, representing an experience we cannot place inside anything ordinary at all because it is defined by a time and a rhythm so special, so suffused with grace, as to reach right into eternity itself. And why does God do that? He does it in order to allow the soul, which remains under reconstruction, sufficient time to complete the healing necessary for it to see the Blessed and Adorable Face.     

How long will that last, I wonder? Are the renovations to be given an expiration date? I mean, if it is in any sense timebound at all, will it be measurable? The answer is no. There is no calendar on which so many days or months, or even years, spent in Purgatory can be counted, transcribed as it were on paper.  There is no calendar on which so many days or months, or even years, spent in Purgatory can be counted, transcribed as it were on paper. Tweet This

That is because in death we shall find ourselves beyond the time allotted to the living. And that, in point of fact, there is simply no scale on which the weight of Kairos may be measured. It is always the Now moment, the moment appointed by God, anointed by the Holy Ghost, to signify the time of our salvation. But which we must lay hold of, seize upon, turning it all to grace and to glory. “A condition of complete simplicity,” says T.S. Eliot, “Costing not less than everything.” 

In her treatise on Purgatory, St. Catherine of Genoa tells us that “if a soul were brought to see God when it had still a trifle of which to purge itself, a great injury would be done it.” On the other hand, “a great happiness is granted to the Holy Souls that grow as they draw nearer to God.

For every glimpse which can be had of God exceeds any pain or joy a man can feel. The Holy Souls clearly see God to be on fire with extreme love for them. Strongly and unceasingly this love draws the soul with that uniting look, as though it had nothing else to do than this.

Here, perhaps, we see where the two events may come together. What else is Lent but, as the poet Keats would say, “a vale of soul-making”? It is a time when we are given a second chance in order to get it right, to return to bedrock, to a time and place where the disciplined work of prayer and penance and almsgiving may begin afresh. 

One is being asked, as well, to aid in the effort of others—to wit, the entire Mystical Body of Christ, including those who have gone before us. These are the ones who have entered “the democracy of the dead,” to cite that lovely image from Chesterton, reminding us that we are never alone and that with God especially there is never a time or place where the self-centered self may pursue its own self.   

So, why not use the time of Lent to help speed things along for those who, while saved, are yet not fully ready to reach across the finish line where the final Epiphany awaits them? And so we offer up our own poor sufferings to aid in their release, to shorten the time before they, too, may look upon the unveiled face of God and live. “It cannot be doubted,” writes St. Augustine, “that the prayers of the Church relieve the Holy Souls, and move God to treat them with more clemency than their sins deserve.”  

Because God’s clemency is a right to which none of us mortals is entitled, to intercede in prayer for others can become not only a charity we perform for them alone but, in a most wonderful if roundabout fashion, a way of helping ourselves as well. Are we not, after all, in this thing together?


  • Regis Martin

    Regis Martin is Professor of Theology and Faculty Associate with the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at the Franciscan University of Steubenville. He earned a licentiate and a doctorate in sacred theology from the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome. Martin is the author of a number of books, including Still Point: Loss, Longing, and Our Search for God (2012) and The Beggar’s Banquet (Emmaus Road). His most recent book, published by Scepter, is called Looking for Lazarus: A Preview of the Resurrection.

Join the Conversation

in our Telegram Chat

Or find us on

Editor's picks

Item added to cart.
0 items - $0.00

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

Signup to receive new Crisis articles daily

Email subscribe stack
Share to...