With a Humble Hope

Author: Jean Guitton


Jean Guitton

Doctrine not fully developed

One of the mostsurprising phrases uttered by Monsieur de Saci, Pascal's interlocutor in the famous Dialogue, happened to my notice through Saint-Beuve, who, no doubt having his secret reasons for doing so, quotes it in his Port-Royal. Monsieur de Saci was about to die; he was a solitary, entirely detached and with perfect virtue in this little valley of truths. Monsieur de Saci breathed, out these words, which were marked, "Saint-Beuve says, "with a humble hope": "O blessed Purgatory!".

Such a sigh uttered by Monsieur de Saci could serve as the key to the work of Georges Izard, which reveals to us a mystic of the highest rank who has so far not been surrounded with the glory that she deserves because of the purity and the profundity of her thought. There are a number of Catherines in the Catholic heavens: Catherine of Alexandria, who was Joan of Arc's saint, Catherine of Siena, she who had the stigmata, Catherine de Ricci, Catherine Labouré. Catherine of Genoa is less well known than these. She above all wins spirits that are inclined to strip themselves of images and prefer pure Faith to devotions, have a predilection for axiomatic phrases, and conceive the mystical life as experimentation and a preamble to eternal life, under its three forms of blessedness (heaven), absolute pain (hell), purifying trials (purgatory).

I do not wish to repeat here what is explained by a master of words who takes pleasure in demonstrating the relation between Catherine's experiences and her mystical doctrine. I would simply like to report my very early encounter with Adorna (Georges lzard: Sainte Catherine de Gênes et l'au-del à. Ed. du Seuil, Paris).

Catherine was revealed to me by Baron von Hügel's book, about 1925. Baron von Hügel is one of the most notable personalities in modern religious thought; he dominated everything, the past and the future, science and exegesis. It can happen that minds with such scope feel the need in the middle of the way of their life to halt upon some Tabor, to put up some tents and to write down a synthesis of their thought. Such a book could not be an abstract thesis amongst the Anglo-Saxons, who are so fond of the concrete, and for the Baron, therefore, everything came to be arranged around a thorough study of one sole being, Catherine of Genoa. He was not content to bring her to life again, but also studied her as a mirror of past tradition, a herald of the future, and; even more, as a spirit who, like his own, but in a purer way, had lived eternity in time. One could live on a deserted island with just those two.

* * *

This so original and so true idea of a distinction between torment (arising from reversed self-love) and suffering, which, when purged of self-love and immersed in love of God, could be joy and peace, is at the centre of Adorna's thought, It was in the same spirit that Léon Bloy said, "We suffer from that which does not exist. That which is does not cause suffering".

Let us consider some maxims taken from Catherine's observations: "Pure love is none other than God"; "Peace is God"; "The centre proper to and in each one of us is God himself". Baron von Hügel summed this up as follows: "When the soul perceives how straight and pure are the ways of love and how disinterested this love is, then the soul in its turn desires to love with a pure love and for the sole motive of such a divine love". Doctrine of such height and depth reminds us of the first epistle of St. John.

Everything is condensed around a number of stellar and axiomatic points: "Hell is everywhere, and is more where there is revolt against the love of God; but eternal life is also everywhere, where there is more reason and abandonment to the love of God". "Death does not change our relation with God, for it is this relation that virtually makes heaven and hell".

And, in her historical life of daily suffering, Catherine was impregnated with pure love (this was the foundation of her experience, the driving force of her spirituality, the inception of her doctrine, and the originality of her mysticism). That already put her in a state of purgatory, because purgatory, according to her is analogous to those mystic states in which the burning love of God consumes and (through blessed pain) purifies. And who would not be pure!

Catholic doctrine on purgatory has not yet been fully developed. Yet, how pertinent it is to all of us! To us who tomorrow...

The Gospel gives no hints, and Jesus appears to say that he forgives sinners (without demanding satisfaction) in an instant, a single moment of total repentance. The Reformation took this impression as the basis for its denial of the Catholic Purgatory. But when we become aware of the divine purity, of our fundamental impurity, of sin's effects upon our nature, and of that law of justice which requires that what has been damaged ought to be repaired (especially when we compare our nature with the holiness and perpetuity of beatitude), we are led by our sense of what is proper (I might almost say: through our sense of honesty) to desire a preparatory and purifying stage, in order that eternal happiness may be raised to the highest level possible. Imagine being invited to dine with a king or other ruler, or even to some refined or official banquet, and arriving in torn and muddied clothes. We ourselves should be the first to ask for soap, brushes, a shower, even fresh clothes. Hence the idea of that time of trial, which could not consist in anything else but sufferings.

But what kind of sufferings? Are they purely moral pains, which in the end would be nothing but the pain of being kept waiting, and, as certain Greek Fathers said, "delay of beatitude"? Or are they total pains, irremediable and comparable to those of hell? Is Purgatory perhaps the place of fire, but of a provisional or temporary fire, as seems to be the common teaching of the Latin Church? And as regards duration, would this have to be represented as a purifying passage consisting of an instant of extreme suffering, at the moment of the "particular judgment"? Would the soul be set unexpectedly before the infinite purity, be transfixed by a radical remorse, by a repentance of love, and in such a way receive a kind of mystical stigmatization? Or has Purgatory perhaps a duration comparable to duration as we know it? Is it tied to it, and can it be measured in our planetary way, by years, months and days, to the extent that the moment in which the soul "gets out of Purgatory" can be measured in our earthly terms, can be given a date in our history? These are questions that a Christian philosopher may ask himself. The Church's teaching is essentially limited to saying that there are purifying pains in Purgatory and that these are shortened by the sacrifice of the Mass and by the Communion of Saints. But the Church also teaches that anyone who makes an act of love, who has really plenary contrition for his sins, that is to say, contrition that is perfect inasmuch as its motive is absolutely disinterested (he regrets his faults not because of the sanctions that will follow them, but because he has offended infinite Love), that person will unfailingly, ipso facto,have the vision of God.

Relationship of pain and pure love

I have put down these well-known facts only in order to demonstrate the character of St. Catherine's teaching on Purgatory.

She spreads light over Purgatory from her insight about disinterested love, about pure love, and also from that experience of the tribulations of her life which Georges Izard describes for us. That life was a failure as regards its worldly events, particularly as regards her marriage, her health, her solitude, her sorrows, scruples, anguish and struggles. But Catherine was joyful in the midst of her daily and changing trial, simply because she had understood the relationship of pain, of purity and of pure love.

For Catherine, purification is an imperative need of the soul. When the soul "enters purgatory", that place, or rather state, it is like a soul called to the mystical life under a form of penitential contemplation.

Imagine a girl who enters Carmel or La Trappe in order to expiate the sins of her own people or of herself, in union with the crucified Christ. Or imagine a conscience unexpectedly seized by an ecstasy that throws it before the living God and enables it to measure its own unworthiness. The soul after death is this mystic soul, placed by its very situation in the midst of purity, on the threshold of eternity; and if we want to understand its spiritual state, its radiant suffering (the mixture of joy and suffering already present in the earthly existence, but now raised to the point of paroxysm) then we have to think of the experiences of the great Catholic mystics and also of all those others who, like Moses, like Abraham and like Adam, were suddenly pitched into the midst of the living God, hurled into the fire of infinite Love.

We can understand how the soul in purgatory is in peace and absolute joy, in spite of its pains, and that no joy of this temporal world is to be compared with that joy, whatever the burden it may have to bear there, whatever its uncleanness may be which is removed in an instant, as I shall explain. The most perfect joys of this world have a flaw; they are not only blemished by their own furtiveness, which in unbelievers arises from their sense of the void and in believers from their uncertainty about the Judgment, the impossibility of knowing what we are essentially in God's view, for he is so pure and so holy.

But now it is all over: the battle has been won! We are on the good, the winning side! For ever. We are with God, in God!

The really delightful thing at the moment of death is that my self-love, this love of my ego which destroys me and even dissipates the good which I do, this love which is impure by definition, is abolished. Now I am finally in the repose of the seventh day; I am in pure eternal love. So what does the rest matter? What does it matter if finite time is nothing in regard to infinite eternity but a drop in an ocean? And as for what remains, that is, the suffering that will purify me, I desire it, through an innate sense of equity.

In his poem, The Dream of Gerontius, Newman tried to give expression to a suffering joy of this kind.

St. Catherine's conception oftime

I like to say that one aspect of Catherine's teaching about purgatory was a surprise for me. She taught her disciples that once the soul reaches purgatory it does not think for more than an instant about its past life and sins, but, having seen and lamented them, having considered them with sorrow in view of the pure divine essence, forgets them for ever. I now recall these words more than ever before, and I believe I can hear Adorna's clear and decisive voice in them. Before I read Catherine it seemed to me that since the suffering of purgatory is linked to the sins of life, memory of those sins must accompany that state of suffering, and that the memory itself must be one of the components of the pain. But she did not think so. Why? Because of her absolute logic, also because of her conception of the discontinuity of the moments of time. Let me explain.

Catherine's logic is a logic of the Whole. The Mystical Element of Religion is a work consisting of thick and rich volumes. It will be found to be indispensable for a modern intelligence, formed in criticism, to live a human life under the divine impulse, to get itself ready for the vision, in brief to overcome death.

What the Baron enables us to see is that Catherine of Genoa had a very personal doctrine, in theology and in philosophy. With her woman's privilege, she went straight to the essential, without worrying too much about what had been said before her or what was being said around her. And this feature recalls Joan of Arc or Theresa of the Child Jesus even more than it does Catherine of Siena. But a universal thought usually has a particular point, where that thought is refigured and where, like a prism, it concentrates the light.

Catherine's originality amongst mystics lies in the fact that she introduces us to the mystery of "purgatory", in order to make it more human and more divine, to make it a blessed place in spite of the pain. In other words, and to make use of a current expression, to "demythicize" it.

She does this with that eminent sense that she has of the absolute holiness of the divine Being. It is true that we are inclined to give too much importance to metaphysical transcendence, ascesis, to God's infinite and creative Power, to his unknowable and unnameable character; and not enough importance to his holiness, his absolute purity, the transcendence of his perfection. Yet it is with the divine holiness that most of our relationship is. That is what invites us. "Be ye perfect", Jesus said, "as your heavenly Father is perfect".

Created to love

We have been created to love the Inaccessible, the Sublime, the thrice Holy. We are made for radical, plenary, everlasting and absolute love: the pure love, Catherine said long before Fénelon, and in a more distinct and more limpid way. The divine love is in the crucible of everything we love; it is what is substantial in our human loves, including the love that we give to ourselves. And if we reflected well, we should perceive that our anxieties, fears, our wounds and torments come from deformation of our love of ourselves, become strictly egocentric love, a subtle and constant adversary, self-love. Suffering without self-love is not suffering: it is a painful form of beatitude.

Catherine had a fairly modern concept of time. For her duration was not a driveforward, a continual flow, but was composed of what might be called points, quantums of duration, essentially discontinuous duration, as if the present moment were a history in a state of condensation, an eternity divided up, without relation with the preceding moment, which has been abolished for ever, or with the future moment, which is still unreal and uncreated. Many men of action and mystics have had this gift of being so much absorbed in the present action that they could act without repentance or fear.

Mystery of the present moment

Among the mystics who went most thoroughly into the mystery of the present moment I like to mention the wonderful Fr. de Caussade. He taught that the divine eternity that binds us round, subsequently becomes our present moment, and that all those moments are equivalent, being, in spite of a thousand differing appearances, an identical participation in the holy will of God which fulfils everything.

Catherine did not have entirely the same point of view: she lived intensely without turning back on herself, and thought that heroically destroying the false love in herself and living the present moment without marches and counter-marches is one and the same thing. This aspect of her spirituality and philosophy greatly impressed Baron Von Hügel and also William James. The latter wrote: "For this last saint, the divine moment was the present moment. And when such a present moment was considered as a whole and in its details, when the duty included in it had been done, there was nothing more to do, according to her, than to let it go as if it had never been, so that it could make room for the reality and the duties of the following moment".

The soul that had arrived in purgatory forgot everything. She was nothing but present moment: and that present was pure love.  

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
1 May 1969, page 10

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