By Michael H. Brown
When we die, we will learn that there are many levels to the afterlife. In fact, the levels are probably infinite. Through the ages we have heard from many mystics and seers, as well as those who had had near-death experiences, and they describe the in-between place of purgation or cleansing called purgatory (even those who are not Catholic).
From what we can tell, the lowest level is identical to hellfire, the same level of pain, but there is the knowledge that one will eventually reach heaven. As long as we are not in hell, we are saved. That’s because once we die there is no more free will as there is on earth and thus no opportunity to sin. Upon death all souls are given a glimpse of God and after that would never consider offending Him. The soul only longs to see Him again. The greatest torture in purgatory, it is said, is a craving for heaven.
That’s the chief suffering in purgatory — the longing to be back in God’s presence — but there are others. And at the lowest levels they can be extremely severe. Through the ages revelations have informed us that there is loneliness, anguish, and pain in parts of purgatory that are worse than anything on earth, that a minute at the lowest levels is tougher to take than an entire lifetime of pain. In a word, it is a chamber of grief. Some say there are punishments comparable to extremes of heat or cold. Others are tortured by memories. They relive how they made others feel. They experience the hatred they once directed at others. If they enjoyed filthy things, they find themselves now in a place that is beyond filthy. If they enjoyed pornography, they may now find themselves with searing pain in their eyes. According to the revelations of a 19th-century nun, a soul here is as desperate for help — for a Mass, for a single prayer — as a thirsting man is for water on a desert. It is claimed that as part of their suffering some are not allowed to pray for themselves, and some cannot even benefit from the prayers of others until they are at a higher level.
As I have said, this is probably a place for the worst sinners but sinners who at the last moment, at the final mercy, accepted Christ and narrowly avoided hell. There are other, higher levels, and we will discuss them in a subsequent article. The vast majority of those who have near-death encounters do not see this far into the beyond and as a result often paint a rosier picture of the afterlife, making it seem like everyone goes to heaven. While death is in many ways a delight and heaven is beyond words, first one has to get there, and souls who are still tainted by sin, who have the residue of evil, willingly go to the cleansing of purgatory because having now seen heaven they may long for nothing else but wouldn’t want to go there immediately any more than a person with muddy boots and ripped jeans would go to a wedding.
When we have taint, when we are dirty, we want to purify, and for reasons we will not understand until we’re on the “other side,” suffering, whether on earth or in purgatory, facilitates that purification. When we suffer well on earth, offering it up, we shorten our purgatory. Indulgences well said in a life well lived can also help, and Confession is crucial; once we have confessed our sins and asked for forgiveness, we are absolved; we are “saved.” But we may still have to purify. There may still be expiation. We may have to remove the soil of the evil that we brushed against.
Purgatory is suffering. There’s no getting around that, and I won’t soften it. I am here to report the truth as best I can discern it. And that truth doesn’t scare me, nor does it depress me. It excites me to action. It excites me knowing that while we are still on earth we have a chance at avoiding these sufferings. We have a chance at avoiding the worst of purgatory as long as we pray and as long as we love. We have a chance as long as we purify here and now.
(For further reading see After Life)