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Purgatory - John Charmley - 15-08-2007

Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,

This really follows on from our discussion about prayers for those in Hell.

The Roman Catholic doctrine of Purgatory is not, of course held by the Orthodox - although I am sometimes unclear how different the idea of toll houses is from it. I have been trying to understand our teaching on this, and have reached a stage where I need at least a little (and possibly a lot of) help.

As I am reading it, the Orthodox teaching is that when we die we repose, awaiting final judgement, and there is no 'purification' process before then.

Hilary of Arles and St. Clement write that His mercy is so great that He can forgive every sin committed in thought, word and deed from the beginning to the end of the world. It is the trials of this life to which we think St. Peter is referring when he writes about being tested in the fire, an interpretation we take from, among others places, the Pastor of Hermas, Book I, Chapter III where we read:
Quote:For as gold is tested by fire, and thus becomes useful, so are you tested who dwell in it [the world] Those therefore who continue steadfast, and are put through the fire will be purified by means of it.

In his commentary on 1 Peter, the Ven. Bede writes:
Quote:Peter says that we must still suffer for a little while, because it is only through the sadness of the present age and its afflictions that it is possible to reach the joys of eternity. He stresses the fact that it is only ?for a little while,? because once we have entered our eternal reward, the years we spent suffering here below will seem like no time at all.

St. John Chrysostom tells us:
Quote:The righteous suffer so that they may be crowned with glory, but sinners suffer in order to bring judgement on their sins. But not all sinners pay the price of their sins in this life, but await the resurrection.

We would take into account here the view of St. Gregory the Great on 1 Corinthians 3:15, when he writes in Dialogue 4.41:
Quote:We should remember that in the world to come no one will be purged even of his slightest faults unless he has deserved such a cleansing through good works performed in this life.?

And we take that ?cleansing? to mean the Last Judgement, although it seems to me that we read it without taking into account the influence on him of Augustinian ideas of Grace.

Seeing the Church as a spiritual hospital, and Christ as the great healer of our hurts, we read 1 John 16 as telling us that our sins are already washed away by His love. As St. Isaac of Nineveh writes:
Quote:The sum of all is God, the Lord of all, who from love of His creatures has delivered His Son to death on the Cross. For God so loved the world that He gave is only-begotten Son for it. Not that He was unable to save us in any other way, but in this way it was possible to show us His abundant love abundantly, namely by bringing us near to Him by the death of His Son [Ascetical Homily 74)

So, for us, there is only one judgement after death ? the last one. Some, the unbelievers, will perish, because they are already condemned [ John 3: 18], for the rest of us, judgement will be pronounced, according to His great mercy and not according to our deserts, because He is the only Just Judge.

Is this a proper reading of the Orthodox position?

In Christ,


purgatory - kirk yacoub - 16-08-2007

Dear John,
I believe that ideas about purgatory are based on our inability to understand that, in this life, we are subject to time, whereas God is not subject to time. In the Syriac tradition the souls of the departed are either taken by their guardian angel to Paradise (which is not Heaven, by the way!) or are taken away by the demons to await the Resurrection. However, people then make the understandable mistake of counting time.
Whereas a person may have died 1500 years ago according to earthly reckoning, outside the framework of time this is an irrelevance. The transition from death to Paradise or the custody of demons may seem to those undergoing it to be a mere "twinkling of the eye", as the saying goes.
Anyway, a concept of us having to purge our sins in Purgatory is erroneous simply because God forgives us when we confess. Acts of penance are not so much ways of paying off a debt as teaching us to keep to God's commandments.

Kirk Yacoub

Purgatory - John Charmley - 16-08-2007

Dear Kirk,

Many thanks. I can see where the idea came from, and could do so more if I had read Aquinas recently (as opposed to twenty years ago), but still find it at odds with the early Fathers and their scriptural commentaries.

The point about time is a fascinating and highly pertinent one.

In Christ,


Purgatory - John Charmley - 16-12-2007

I wonder if I could refresh this old thread.

One of my Catholic friends has kindly offered me this from the Catholic Encyclopedia, and I would be grateful for any comments:
Quote:This doctrine that many who have died are still in a place of purification and that prayers avail to help the dead is part of the very earliest Christian tradition. Tertullian"De corona militis" mentions prayers for the dead as an Apostolic ordinance, and in "De Monogamia" (cap. x, P. L., II, col. 912) he advises a widow "to pray for the soul of her husband, begging repose for him and participation in the first resurrection"; he commands her also "to make oblations for him on the anniversary of his demise," and charges her with infidelity if she neglect to succour his soul. This settled custom of the Church is clear from St. Cyprian, who (P. L. IV, col. 399) forbade the customary prayers for one who had violated the ecclesiastical law. "Our predecessors prudently advised that no brother, departing this life, should nominate any churchman as his executor; and should he do it, that no oblation should be made for him, nor sacrifice offered for his repose." Long before Cyprian, Clement of Alexandria had puzzled over the question of the state or condition of the man who, reconciled to God on his death-bed, had no time for the fulfilment of penance due his transgression. His answer is: "the believer through discipline divests himself of his passions and passes to the mansion which is better than the former one, passes to the greatest torment, taking with him the characteristic of repentance for the faults he may have committed after baptism. He is tortured then still more, not yet attaining what he sees others have acquired. The greatest torments are assigned to the believer, for God's righteousness is good, and His goodness righteous, and though these punishments cease in the course of the expiation and purification of each one, "yet" etc. (P. G. IX, col. 332).

In Origen the doctrine of purgatory is very clear. If a man departs this life with lighter faults, he is condemned to fire which burns away the lighter materials, and prepares the soul for the kingdom of God, where nothing defiled may enter. "For if on the foundation of Christ you have built not only gold and silver and precious stones (1 Corinthians 3); but also wood and hay and stubble, what do you expect when the soul shall be separated from the body? Would you enter into heaven with your wood and hay and stubble and thus defile the kingdom of God; or on account of these hindrances would you remain without and receive no reward for your gold and silver and precious stones? Neither is this just. It remains then that you be committed to the fire which will burn the light materials; for our God to those who can comprehend heavenly things is called a cleansing fire. But this fire consumes not the creature, but what the creature has himself built, wood and hay and stubble. It is manifest that the fire destroys the wood of our transgressions and then returns to us the reward of our great works." (P. G., XIII, col. 445, 448).
The Apostolic practice of praying for the dead which passed into the liturgy of the Church, is as clear in the fourth century as it is in the twentieth. St. Cyril of Jerusalem (Catechet. Mystog., V, 9, P.G., XXXIII, col. 1116) describing the liturgy, writes: "Then we pray for the Holy Fathers and Bishops that are dead; and in short for all those who have departed this life in our communion; believing that the souls of those for whom prayers are offered receive very great relief, while this holy and tremendous victim lies upon the altar." St. Gregory of Nyssa (P. G., XLVI, col. 524, 525) states that man's weaknesses are purged in this life by prayer and wisdom, or are expiated in the next by a cleansing fire. "When he has quitted his body and the difference between virtue and vice is known he cannot approach God till the purging fire shall have cleansed the stains with which his soul was infested. That same fire in others will cancel the corruption of matter, and the propensity to evil."

About the same time the Apostolic Constitution gives us the formularies used in succouring the dead. "Let us pray for our brethren who sleep in Christ, that God who in his love for men has received the soul of the departed one, may forgive him every fault, and in mercy and clemency receive him into the bosom of Abraham, with those who in this life have pleased God" (P. G. I, col. 1144). Nor can we pass over the use of the diptychs where the names of the dead were inscribed; and this remembrance by name in the Sacred Mysteries--(a practice that was from the Apostles) was considered by Chrysostom as the best way of relieving the dead (In I Ad Cor., Hom. xli, n. 4, G., LXI, col. 361, 362).

This seems pretty well sourced - as one would expect - but is it a partial reading?

In Christ,


purgatory - kirk yacoub - 17-12-2007

Dear John,
The simple answer is that the readings are partial and misunderstood. The
concept of Purgatory is typically Western and rational, whereas the writings of the Fathers from the East are poetic, trying to depict something
in an imaginative way. 'Fire', 'burning', 'cleansing' can only be conceived of as process in time by the human mind but, as I have stated before, the very idea of time is strictly limited to earthly life. The basic flaw in the Roman Catholic concept of purgatory is that it ignores the essential understanding of God as being Merciful. Repentance leads to forgiveness, not in the human understanding of 'paying your debt to society', but as an immediate gift.

Kirk Yacoub

Thank you - John Charmley - 17-12-2007

Dear Kirk,

As always you get to the heart of the matter in the most incisive way. I am much struck by the way in which the western Churches have tried to apprehend God through the intellect, forgetting, at times, that there are other means available to us.

In Christ,


- admin - 18-12-2007

I've been thinking about the right place of the intellect in theology and spirituality. And I don't have answers, but I do have questions. :-)

How do we preserve our theology from being a sterile intellectualism? There must be some element of contemplation which has not been a conspicuous feature of the Western practice of theologising as I was introduced to it.

In some phone conversations with a Coptic friend thinking and talking about the fact that 'One of the Holy Trinity was crucified' it seems to me that I just about made a beginning in making this thought the basis of contemplation rather than an intellectual proposition.

Does anyone have any pointers for reading on a more spiritual way of doing theology? Both in the Fathers and from modern writers.


More questions - John Charmley - 18-12-2007

Dear Peter,

I suspect there are more questions than answers here; but one way I find useful is to read St. Isaac of Nineveh, whose writings do make one turn back to prayer, and whose comments always make me mindful of the love of God.

On the Purgatory theme, there is a real distinction here which comes in part from western intellectualism. The Catholics seem unable to accept that His Grace is what will save us; they want the sins 'worked off' in the afterlife. They see our view as 'justification by Grace' - but if we are not justified by His Grace and His redeeming blood, it is hard to see how else we are saved?

They seem to be positing an either/or which is absent from our tradition. I have been asked how we would view someone who dies not 'in a state of grace', and was unsure of the question, since we are all sinners and all redeemed through Him. That can look awfully like apocatastasis, but isn't.

In Him,


- marc hanna - 09-04-2009

This is an interesting topic and the perspective which has been shed upon it. The fathers speak of the purifying by fire, but what is this fire, when does it occur and what is it that is burned up. We are taught that when the crop is ready for harvest that the chaff will be thrown into the furnace, but what is this chaff? Is it individual souls? Or can it also be that component of the righteous - that which is in each individual - that fails to gain entry to the kingdom? Where the Catholics believe that we must have a place and time for purification, is not possible that God can do the remaining purification that we could not achieve in our Earthly life? For in our Christian lives we are called by God to participate in our salvation, we do our part and God does the rest: we partake of the sacraments, we follow the commandments, etc. but can we ever earn our salvation? No. God's grace does the rest. Should we then expect this to change when we repose? God is a faithful father, I don't think He's going to renege when our time is complete in this world.