One of the teachings of the Catholic faith, which we Maronites share, and which has always seemed to me to be absolutely true is the doctrine of Purgatory. I have always felt this to be true, in a way both visceral and mystical together, as if spirit and flesh jointly bore witness within me.
I can sense that there are events in my past which have left a trace within me, and that with those traces on my soul I am not worthy to enter the doors of paradise. On occasions I can rise above these tracks of the past, but I cannot erase them from my personal history. Yet, I have a certainty that in order to enjoy the vision of God, they must be removed altogether. This eradication of the very roots of sin is, I venture to think, a necessary part of the process one receives in Purgatory.
The idea of being admitted into Purgatory does not all strike me as fearful. I am apprehensive, because pain is never sweet, but I feel within me a very deep gratitude at the prospect of being cleansed, soul, memory and will all together, and being purified. This must be part of what is included in Psalm 51: “Cleanse me and I shall be whiter than snow”.
This, in fact, opens up the mystery of hope. Hope is more than wishing, powerful though wish can be. Bennett says somewhere that hope is related to understanding that God’s plan for the creation is both good and effective: the plan works. I feel with a great sense of inner certainty, that Purgatory is a critical part of the plan.
I will not waste many words on those who dismiss the idea on the grounds that the atonement of Christ made Purgatory needless, and that it is unbiblical. The first argument would also render the existence of Hell needless, yet Our Lord warned us of it many times. That line of thought would make us heedless of sin. If we all go to heaven because of the infinite value of the atonement, why avoid sin? The second argument rests on the false assumption that all Christian teaching must be in the Bible. Besides, there are clear indications of Purgatory in the Bible, as many writings on apologetics show.
More importantly, I wish to consider one aspect of what Gurdjieff says about Purgatory in All and Everything. On pages 746-747, he speaks of how delightful life there is: “This holy planet is not only the centre of the concentrations of the results of the functioning of all that exists, but it is also now the best, richest and most beautiful of all the planets of our Universe.” He goes on to extol its skies, its atmospheres, how one senses everything with the whole of one’s presence “blissfully-delightfully”, the springs of water, the songbirds, the flora, fauna and foscalia, the caves and the Egolionopties or “thought platforms”.
What can all this mean? First of all, it is strange to reflect that years ago when I first read this, I could not find the word “foscalia”, but it thought it probably related to precious stones: fos perhaps from phos the Greek word for light, and kalia from the Greek word kalos, kale, kalon meaning beautiful, good and so on. The French translation has phos and the German has kalia. So is it beautiful light? Or things which radiate a beautiful light? It is odd that Gurdjieff goes to no trouble at all to make his meaning clear. Of course it is intentional: but it is odd, nonetheless.
But more importantly, I think that Gurdjieff is saying something about this world: that only to the extent that we are consciously receive the impressions of the beauty of this world, can we bear suffering. I am not suggesting that this world is Purgatory, but it has what I might call purgatorial elements about it (to be brief, I would say that Purgatory must be a different world because of the impossibility of isolating what must be healed, and curing it, while we live here).
Gurdjieff said once that to the extent that we are conscious there is no more suffering. I think that that is a different side of the same truth I have mentioned above. I have always found the strength of the negative emotions and the pain which plagues me is the inverse of my relatively conscious receipt of impressions, including impressions of myself: hence Gurdjieff speaks of “how one senses everything (on Purgatory) with the whole of one’s presence”.
But I think that there is something more positive even than that: we are made to be able to receive beauty because it nourishes us and makes it possible for us to go through the world fearlessly. Those who imagine themselves devotees of the beautiful but unable to stand the sight of the ugly have it quite the wrong way around, as I see it: someone who can receive beauty with eyes wide open can really see the pain, and for them, the seeing is cleansing. There is nothing squeamish in a person who can really perceive beauty.
So it seems to me that to consciously receive impressions of beauty, we must at the same time have impressions of our own being-reality, and then, and perhaps only then, can we really bear suffering. This suffering includes seeing our own errors, mistakes and sin. And that, I am sure, is necessary to be able to repair the past. This makes it possible for us to have an anticipation of Purgatory here on earth.
Purgatory, I think, is where we must repair the past in order to be present to reality. That must mean cleansing ourselves. And what else could make us ready for paradise?
I have often thought that this mystery of the need to balance impressions of the external and internal worlds may be why Vincent Van Gogh was so troubled: he had extraordinarily powerful impressions of not just beauty, but of the suchness of the world. Yet, Van Gogh can not have had the corresponding impression of himself necessary to hold the impressions in peace. I do not wish to suggest a false dichotomy between the two: every impression of suchness includes something not just beautiful but even sublime. One must be relatively awake to have an impression of suchness. On the other hand, beauty can be seen even while one is asleep. But the more awake we are, the more poignant and powerful the impression. Open the gates of perception too quickly or too widely, and it unbalances us. Had Van Gogh been more completely awake when he received these impressions, perhaps he could have borne them.
I have mentioned several times now, the idea of having an impression of my own being-reality. What it means, practically, I think, is to have a feeling of myself. The first feeling of myself I can have is, perhaps, the very subtle sense of my own presence, and with that comes, in my experience, such as it is, a feeling of love of being, love even of the presence of God.
Mr Adie wrote the following epitaph for his mother, based on lines by Yeats. What he writes about life and death must include Purgatory:
Receive of life, of death, the grace;
Poignant, impartial and serene.
A moment pause the gifts to hold,
Then linger not my friend in life, in death,
Ever in life, in death, free man, move on!
Joseph Azize, 8 September 2016