The Maccabee – Locating Purgatory
‘Is not my word like fire,” declares the LORD, ‘and like a hammer that breaks a rock in pieces?’
– Jeremiah 23:29
The Location of Purgatory
Use of the word “Purgatory” (in Latin purgatorium) as a noun appeared perhaps only between 1160 and 1180, giving rise to the idea of Purgatory as a place (what Jacques Le Goff called the “birth” of Purgatory),
– Purgatory, Wikipedia
Most scholars believe that, at the beginning of Christianity, Purgatory was imagined as a completely spiritual realm with no physical location. The early Church Fathers saw Purgatory as a process of purification which most souls underwent before going on to Heaven. The exact doctrine, as promulgated by the earliest Christian theologians, saw Purgatory as a ‘condition or process of purification or temporary punishment’ rather than a physical location, which is meant for the souls of deceased to be purified in preparation for their eventual salvation and entrance into Heaven.
In 1999 Pope John Paul II declared that the term Purgatory does not indicate a place, but “a condition of existence”.
– Purgatory, Wikipedia
However, the theory of Purgatory as being a process, rather than a place, simply reflects the complex intellectual theology of Christian experts rather than the beliefs of common folk as they have actually been throughout the centuries. It seems far more likely that Purgatory has its deeper roots in the Jewish world of the dead, called the Sheol, and the Greco-Roman world of the dead, known as Hades, places sanctified by Jesus Christ when ‘He descended into Hell.’ In both places, it was believed to be specifically located underground in what was generically called the Underworld, a dark world of ghosts (souls), a place most everyone went to after death, before moving on to Paradise, called the “Heart of Abraham’ by the Jews, alternatively designated as ‘Elysium’ by the Greeks and the Romans. In other words, the road to Heaven was considered to be down and through rather than above and upwards. One source notes aptly:
The envisioning of Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory as places in the physical universe was never a Church doctrine. Nonetheless, in antiquity and medieval times, Heaven and Hell were widely regarded as places existing within the physical universe: Heaven “above”, in the sky; Hell “below”, in or beneath the earth. Similarly, Purgatory has at times been thought of as a physical location.
– Purgatory, Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Thus, it should seem more than obvious that Purgatory has always been thought of as having a general location, namely below the earth and buried ‘six feet under’, to put it bluntly. Saint Frances de Sales hit it on the nail when he claimed Purgatory to be below the earth. Nonetheless, there has been numerous different speculations as to where the world of Purgatory is actually located. Some of them can be described as follows:
Precise Location of Purgatory
I. Under the earth
II. In the air
III. By the graves of the dead
IV. Near Church altars
V. Amid past places and occurrences of sin
The general consensus of today is that Purgatory was considered by the early Church Fathers as a condition or process that had no exact material location. Even so, by the Middle Ages, discussion of the precise location of Purgatory once again became a topic of interest. One scholar in particular claims the following:
Medievalist Jacques Le Goff defines the “birth of purgatory”, i.e. the conception of purgatory as a physical place, rather than merely as a state, as occurring between 1170 and 1200.
– History of Purgatory, Wikipedia
According to the French historian Jacques Le Goff, the conception of purgatory as a physical place dates to the 12th century, the heyday of medieval otherworld-journey narratives and of pilgrims’ tales.
– Purgatory, Encyclopedia Britannica
Indeed, throughout the Middles Ages, ‘The idea of purgatory as a physical place became widespread on a popular level.’ The contention that Purgatory truly did have a location ‘was defended also by some theologians.’ However, most scholars today tend to assume that ‘the conception of purgatory as a geographically situated place is largely the achievement of medieval Christian piety and imagination.’ Located below are just a few examples of Purgatory as a place rather than just a process, condition, or metaphysical state of being.
In Search of Purgatory
– ‘The legend of St Patrick’s Purgatory’ (Tractatus de Purgatorio Sancti Patricii) which was originally written by Hugh of Saltry, also known as Henry of Sawtry, claimed that the entrance to Purgatory was located on a remote island in Ireland.
– Another Purgatory legend contended that the ‘entrance to Purgatory’ was located in ‘a cave on the volcanic Mount Etna in Sicily
– In his work called ‘Purgatorio’, Dante described Purgatory as ‘a seven-story mountain situated’ on the exact opposite end of the world from the actual city of Jerusalem,
– In 1220, Caesarius of Heisterbach, a Cistercian monk and preacher, theorized ‘that purgatory could be in several places at once.’
– Some prominent scholars claim that Peter the Lombard, who died in 1160, ‘to have contributed significantly to the birth of purgatory in the sense of a physical place.’
– Francis de Sales, a Christian Saint, insisted that Purgatory was located beneath the Earth
– In the Divine Comedy, Dante had his Purgatory as a mountain with seven levels, with each level corresponding to one of the Seven Deadly Sins.
– In 2011, Pope Benedict XVI discussed Saint Catherine of Genoa (1447-1510), stating ‘that in her time the purification of souls (Purgatory) was pictured as a location in space. Nonetheless, she ‘saw Purgatory as a purifying inner fire, such as she experienced in her profound sorrow.’
– After His crucifixion, Jesus Christ is assumed to have ‘descended into Hell,’ and then, with His angels, is presumed to have attacked the stronghold of the Greco-Roman god Hades, along with the Devil. According to some, His presence in Hell sanctified the area, thus creating Purgatory.
Given everything, it must be concluded that, if there truly are spiritual realms of existence, then Purgatory is one of them, a definite ‘place’ in the metaphysical world, a land of the dead filled with the ghosts of those who have passed away, who are patiently awaiting entrance into Heaven.
May the LORD God bless you in the name of St. Judas Maccabaeus.