This is the latest in a series of essays titled “Man Has Premonition of Own Death:
My father was an upbeat kid. Second-generation Italian, son of immigrants, grew up during World War II listening dreamily to radio shows that transported him from his tiny tenement apartment in Yonkers to places around the world, dreamed big romantic dreams and believed they could come true. Wanted to be an architect!
By the time he was in his late thirties he was grossly overweight and knew his dreams were not coming true, and he somehow reached his fifties before his years of eating lots and lots of what’s bad for your health led to a massive heart attack and a 10-year gradual decline that ended when my father was found unconscious on the floor of his hospital room bathroom, slipped into an irreversible coma, then breathed his last breath just minutes after my family decided to take the doctor’s advice and end life support.
Did I mention that my father, somewhere along the line, decided – or figured out – that Earth was actually Purgatory?
I don’t know if this is what my young father envisioned, but here’s Gustave Dore’s illustration for Dante’s “Purgatorio,” titled “The Sinners Passing Through the Fire.”
The Roman Catholic Church defines purgatory as a sort of holding cell – a place where sinners go to be purged of sin and are eventually allowed to enter heaven. It may not be an actual place – it may be more like a state of existence. And the real punishment and pain, at least this is the way I understood it when I was a kid, was in the knowledge that heaven was oh-so-close but yet so far, the overwhelming sorrow and frustration of not yet being able to gaze upon the face of God..
Here’s an interesting aside. We all think of Hell as a place where we burn for eternity, right? Why’s the Devil red? Because he’s got the worst sunburn ever, right? Wrong. St. Thomas Aquinas – pardon me, but I still haven’t completely freed myself from the chains of 14 years of Catholic School education – said flames are used only in Purgatory, as a cleansing device.
Go to Hell, and the torture is more varied, more creative: worms, horrible heat, ungodly thirst, horrid screams, eternal dismemberment, and…you get the idea.
But wait! It gets more confusing. I read somewhere that St. Augustine suspected that God, in all his glorious Economy, used the very same fires in Hell and Purgatory, but for different purposes.
Augustine and Aquinas both suggested, then, that Hell and Purgatory might be adjacent to each other. Sort of like driving through a bad neighborhood into one that’s even worse.
You know that one of Martin Luther’s biggest gripes was the sale and purchase of “indulgences,” which were – and are – specific amounts of “time off” granted to sinners sent to Purgatory. There are still prayer cards that specify how many days off their punishment may be granted to soul in Purgatory if the prayer prays this prayer for the unfortunate departed. The Catholic Church’s All Souls Day, two days after Halloween, is a day devoted entirely to prayers aimed at easing the pain of Purgatory.
Ever hear or read about the hell hole discovered by scientists – and kept secret until was revealed in an expose published in Weekly World News? Scientist drilling to study the earth’s deep core thought they heard noise coming up through the hole. When they lowered microphones into the hole, the scientists realized that the sounds were actually the awful anguished cries of souls burning in Hell! The scientists quickly filled in the hole, but not before a fiery figure rose from the hole and – well, basically, the fiery figure scared the crap out of the scientists and ordered them to cap the well.
My poor father just might have believed this to be true. If Earth is Purgatory then why can’t Hell be at the fiery core?
I browsed around the Internet and through some books and found capsule descriptions of what some Christian sects think about Heaven, Purgatory and Hell.
Some group called the Christadelphians – no, I hadn’t heard of them, either – believe that people who die “without hearing the Gospel” will simply remain dead, without consciousness for eternity.
Jehovah’s Witnesses – yes, I’d heard of them – believe there is no Hell. They believe that most people, except of course Jevovah’s witnesses, will just cease to exist when they die while the blessed, those who survive the final battle of Armageddon, will live on eternally in a paradise on Earth.
The Mormons believe there are different levels of Heaven. One is for couples married in the Mormon faith. Get this: Eventually such couples become a god and a goddess, and get to rule their own universe. (Either you’re frightened by the notion of, say, Mitt Romney or Donny Osmond as a god, or this belief almost makes you want to be a Mormon). The second level is for Christians who lived holy lives. After this it becomes a bit more confusing – an urban myth says the clues can found by going online and finding used copies of the Best of the Osmonds record album; playing the album backwards reveals hidden messages. But basically it comes down to this: Except for married Mormons and God-fearing but non-Mormon Christians, everyone else goes to some lesser level, with Hell at the very bottom rung – and place for adulterers and murderers and, well, you know, the usual group of heathens. The good news is that in the end, all is forgiven, or all are forgiven, and everyone will be resurrected; the only difference will be that the aforementioned folks at levels one and two will get to stay in the presidential suites at the Waldorf while the rest of get to stay forever at Motel 6.
You want gloomy? How about the Seventh-Day Adventists who don’t believe sinners spent eternity in Hell. They believe sinners stay in Hell until there’s nothing left of them to burn. Their premise is that God would not stoop so low as to indulge in torture. He’ll destroy sinners for eternity but he’ll get it over with quickly.
And then there’s some sect called the Unity School of Christianity, which takes Jesus at his word when he declares that “The Kingdom of heaven is at hand.” These folks believe Heaven resides inside us all, and that all we need to do is bring our bodies and minds and souls together in harmony with the divine. Likewise, they don’t believe Hell is an actual place, and forget about Purgatory, but they do think it’s not even necessary to die to go to Hell – it’s a state of mind, it’s mental and emotional anguish, it’s sorrow, it’s sadness, and maybe this was what my father meant all along but simply couldn’t express it in such terms.
Instead, he came to view life as a Purgatory to be endured until the blessed relief of Death.
My poor father…