Yes, those in purgatory have avoided hell and are assured of heaven, but it’s still a place of great suffering for those who are there
“That Prison of Suffering”—St. Maria Faustyna Kowalska
St. Maria Faustyna Kowalska, most commonly known as St. Faustina, was a Polish nun who claimed to have had a series of visions that included Jesus, the Eucharist, angels and various saints. It is from her visions, recorded in her diary, that the Church received the now popular devotion the Divine Mercy Chaplet. In one entry, she tells of a vision of purgatory:
“I saw my guardian angel, who ordered me to follow him. In a moment I was in a misty place full of fire in which there was a great crowd of suffering souls. They were praying fervently, but to no avail, for themselves; only we can come to their aid. The flames, which were burning them, did not touch me at all. My guardian angel did not leave me for an instant. I asked these souls what their greatest suffering was. They answered me in one voice that their greatest torment was longing for God.
“I saw Our Lady visiting the souls in purgatory. The souls call her ‘The Star of the Sea.’ She brings them refreshment. I wanted to talk with them some more, but my guardian angel beckoned me to leave. We went out of that prison of suffering. [I heard an interior voice, which said] ‘My mercy does not want this, but justice demands it. Since that time I am in closer communion with the suffering souls.’” (Diary of St. Faustina 20)
“As Much Pain as in Hell”—St. Catherine of Genoa
St. Catherine of Genoa was a 15th century nun who spent much of her time caring for the sick, particularly those with the bubonic plague. She’s also famous for her mystical experiences of purgatory.
“No tongue can tell nor explain, no mind understand, the grievousness of purgatory. But I, though I see that there is in purgatory as much pain as in hell, yet see the soul which has the least stain of imperfection accepting purgatory, as I have said, as though it were a mercy, and holding its pains of no account as compared with the least stain which hinders a soul in its love.
“I seem to see that the pain which souls in purgatory endure because of whatever in them displeases God, that is what they have willfully done against his so great goodness, is greater than any other pain they feel in purgatory. And this is because, being in grace, they see the truth and the grievousness of the hindrance which stays them from drawing near to God.” (Treatise on Purgatory)
“A Spirit All on Fire, Resembling Incandescent Metal”—St. Lidwina of Schiedam
St. Lidwina of Schiedam was a 15th century Dutch saint and mystic. As a teenager she had an ice skating accident that left her debilitated the rest of her life. A sinful man was converted by her prayers and exhortation and was able to make a good confession, but he died soon after, unable to do much penance. After some time, she asked her guardian angel if he was still in purgatory, and she had this vision:
“‘He is there,’ said her angel, ‘and he suffers much. Would you be willing to endure some pain in order to diminish his?’ ‘Certainly,’ she replied, ‘I am ready to suffer anything to assist him.’ Instantly her angel conducted her into a place of frightful torture. ‘Is this, then, hell, my brother?’ asked the holy maiden, seized with horror. ‘No, sister,’ answered the angel, ‘but this part of purgatory is bordering upon hell.’
“Looking around on all sides, she saw what resembled an immense prison surrounded with walls of a prodigious height, the blackness of which, together with the monstrous stones, inspired her with horror. Approaching this dismal enclosure, she heard a confused noise of lamenting voices, cries of fury, chains, instruments of torture, violent blows which the executioners discharged upon their victims. This noise was such that all the tumult of the world, in tempest or battle, could bear no comparison to it. ‘What, then, is that horrible place?’ asked St. Lidwina of her good angel. ‘Do you wish me to show it to you?’ ‘No, I beseech you,’ said she, recoiling with terror, ‘the noise I hear is so frightful that I can no longer bear it ; how, then, could I endure the sight of those horrors?’
“Continuing her mysterious route, she saw an angel seated sadly on the curb of a well. ‘Who is that angel?’ she asked of her guide. ‘It is,’ he replied, ‘the angel-guardian of the sinner in whose lot you are interested. His soul is in this well, where it has a special purgatory.’ At these words Lidwina cast an inquiring glance at her angel; she desired to see that soul which was dear to her, and endeavor to release it from that frightful pit. Her angel, who understood her, having taken off the cover of the well, a cloud of flames, together with the most plaintive cries, came forth.” Do you recognize that voice?’ said the angel to her. ‘Alas! yes,’ answered the servant of God. ‘Do you desire to see that soul?’ he continued. On her replying in the affirmative, he called him by his name; and immediately our virgin saw appear at the mouth of the pit a spirit all on fire, resembling incandescent metal, which said to her in a voice scarcely audible, ‘O Lidwina, servant of God, who will give me to contemplate the face of the Most High?’
“The sight of this soul, a prey to the most terrible torment of fire, gave our saint such a shock that the cincture which she wore around her body was rent in twain; and, no longer able to endure the sight, she awoke suddenly from her ecstasy. The persons present, perceiving her fear, asked her its cause. ‘Alas!” she replied, ‘how frightful are the prisons of Purgatory! It was to assist the souls that I consented to descend thither. Without this motive, if the whole world were given to me, I would not undergo the terror which that horrible spectacle inspired.’
“Some days later, the same angel whom she had seen so dejected appeared to her with a joyful countenance; he told her that the soul of his protégé had left the pit and passed into the ordinary purgatory. This partial alleviation did not suffice the charity of Lidwina; she continued to pray for the poor patient, and to apply to him the merits of her sufferings, until she saw the gates of heaven opened to him.” (Purgatory, by Fr. F. X. Schouppe, SJ, 16–19)
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