In Extremis


All these things, which I have securely in mind to the extent that in this life I have been able to understand them, are, compared with what I have said, extremely great.  Beside them, all the sights and sound and justice and truth of this world seem to me lies and nothingness.  I am left confused because I cannot find words extreme enough for these things (St. Catherine of Genoa, Treatise on Purgatory).

St. Catherine of Genoa (+1510) was a great mystic who was given insights into the plight of our poor brothers and sisters in Purgatory.  Like all mystics she was given an understanding of supernatural realities that she had a hard time putting into words.  The pain of the Poor Souls in their purification was beyond her ability to describe.  But so was the love and joy of these souls who were so drawn to God by the bands of His love and who were so eager to be delivered from the imperfections that hindered them from uniting themselves to Him completely and freely.

The world lies to us about happiness and about the relative value of the experiences of this life as compared with those that exist beyond the veil of death.  Every time we sin we make a false estimation of the consequences of our actions.  We take imprudent risks to our own detriment.  We sell our inheritance for a bowl of porridge.  All the while we settle on a transient relief from suffering and purification, like addicts getting their next fix only to crash harder than before.

Even on the night before Our Blessed Lord and Savior died, just after the apostles had received the first Eucharist they preferred sleep to His company. He underwent purification for them, suffering the pain of pure love, not because He had no other choice, as those of us who wind up in Purgatory, but because he willed to undergo pain and suffering so that we might be delivered from that necessity . . . and worse.

Cardinal John Henry Newman spoke of the mental sufferings of Christ, by which He assumed not only our guilt, but the very experience of our compromises, as He sweat blood in the garden, and how like a myriad of demons they all descended upon Him as though He was the depository of every iniquity:

Hopes blighted, vows broken, lights quenched, warnings scorned, opportunities lost; the innocent betrayed, the young hardened, the penitent relapsing, the just overcome, the aged failing; the sophistry of misbelief, the wilfulness of passion, the obduracy of pride, the tyranny of habit, the canker of remorse, the wasting fever of care, the anguish of shame, the pining of disappointment, the sickness of despair; such cruel, such pitiable spectacles, such heartrending, revolting, detestable, maddening scenes; nay, the haggard faces, the convulsed lips, the flushed cheek, the dark brow of the willing slaves of evil, they are all before Him now; they are upon Him and in Him. They are with Him instead of that ineffable peace which has inhabited His soul since the moment of His conception. They are upon Him, they are all but His own; He cries to His Father as if He were the criminal, not the victim; His agony takes the form of guilt and compunction. He is doing penance, He is making confession, He is exercising contrition, with a reality and a virtue infinitely greater than that of all saints and penitents together; for He is the One Victim for us all, the sole Satisfaction, the real Penitent, all but the real sinner.

And the apostles slept, as we sleep, content with the thought that there is still time for us to change and that our compromises are small.  How we deceive ourselves.

St. Catherine has no words for the extremity of our danger . . . and of the love that is the cure of our torpor. The souls in purgatory when they were alive thought too little about their danger and too little about love.  Now they think nothing of their pain and only about the love of God.  They will their purification.  They do not sleep and they have no desire for it.  Yet for all their love and joy in the midst of their pain, it is for them no merit, for their time has passed.

Remembrance of the holy souls is self-forgetfulness.  It is the cure . . . for them, and for us.  Unless, God forbid, we go to hell, someday we will forget ourselves and remember the ultimate realities:  God and our obligations toward one another.  We can do it now or we can do it later.  The souls in Purgatory would have us do it now.

They remember us.  Do we remember them?  This is no time to sleep.  Rest will come, but until now, we have not toiled for God nearly enough.

The good men we have canonized at their funerals will not thank us for the kind and laudatory eulogies.  We forget the sufferings of others so as to console our families, and ourselves and in this no one is served, not ourselves, not our families, and certainly not the souls of the departed.

Oh, sweet sleep.  How we crave rest, yet we will not find it unless we give it.  During this November we would do well to do more than a casual visit to a cemetery or a  write a check  and conveniently hand it to our pastor for yearly masses, though both of these we should do.  Indeed, nothing can be more efficacious than the Mass, except a Mass that is dedicated by the stipend of our own hearts.

The apostles slept through Our Lord’s agony and we sleep through the agony of the poor souls.  It is so easy to do.  Perhaps we could offer time with Our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament, or more frequent communions for the grace to understand better the extremity of the situation and how the deliverance of the poor souls from their suffering will help protect us against our own peril, and how our imitation of their selfless desire for purity may save us from their present distress.

Love is not loved.  But it need not be that way.  Now is not the time for us to rest.

Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them.  May they rest in peace.  Amen.

5 thoughts on “In Extremis

  1. The sheep are not hearing that there are consequences to sin. They are mostly told that God loves them just as they are. Which is true but does not God love us too much to leave us this way!

    We do not hear about the need of holiness in our lives. The sheep perish for want of courageous shepherds who will lay down their lives as did the Good Shepherd.

    Many have been to funerals where almost no one comes forward for Holy Communion–those that know that if they are not practicing Catholics, they should not do so. Maybe the deceased was still a practicing Catholic…or not. But all is treated as well. I think it is sad beyond words–this loss of faith, this loss of the knowledge of sin and its consequences.

    So what can we do? There are means for us to utilize within Holy Mother Church…we can seek plenary indulgences every day that can be applied to the souls in Purgatory. What keeps us from doing this charity?

  2. A fine post. It is so edifying to remember that St. Bernadette pre-emptively scolded her sisters with words something like: “I’m afraid when I die, no one will pray for me because they’ll think I’m a saint, and all the time I’ll be cooking in purgatory! Pray for me!”

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