Friday, July 29, 2005

The Flame of Everlasting Love

There was a mortal, who is now above
In the mid glory: he, when near to die,
Was given communion with the Crucified,—
Such, that the Master's very wounds were stamp'd
Upon his flesh; and, from the agony
Which thrill'd through body and soul in that embrace,
Learn that the flame of the Everlasting Love
Doth burn ere it transform ...

From The Dream of Gerontius, by J. H. Newman. As you may know, Newman's poem was made into an oratorio by Elgar. The Libretto of the work is about half the size of Newman's poem, so a lot had to be cut out; but it still contains the above section.

The Dream of Gerontius is a poem about death and purgatory. Newman has an interesting chararization of purgatorial suffering:

When then—if such thy lot—thou seest thy Judge,
The sight of Him will kindle in thy heart
All tender, gracious, reverential thoughts.
Thou wilt be sick with love, and yearn for Him,
And feel as though thou couldst but pity Him,
That one so sweet should e'er have placed Himself
At disadvantage such, as to be used
So vilely by a being so vile as thee.
There is a pleading in His pensive eyes
Will pierce thee to the quick, and trouble thee.
And thou wilt hate and loathe thyself; for, though
Now sinless, thou wilt feel that thou hast sinn'd, {360}
As never thou didst feel; and wilt desire
To slink away, and hide thee from His sight:
And yet wilt have a longing aye to dwell
Within the beauty of His countenance.
And these two pains, so counter and so keen,—
The longing for Him, when thou seest Him not;
The shame of self at thought of seeing Him,—
Will be thy veriest, sharpest purgatory.

Note that Newman doesn't give sin as the direct reason for purgatorial suffering. Rather, it's an indirect cause. The Soul before God is pierced by the vision, and intensely feels (1) a longing for God as the Soul's chief good; and (2) a feeling of unworthiness because of prior sin, since, even though the prior sin was forgiven, it still occurred and was a vile action against Divine Love. Thus the point of purgatory, at least as expressed here, is not that the Soul may work through the guilt of sin, but that the Soul may work through the shame of having sinned; not that that the Soul may be made worthy to stand before God, but that it may have a less fragile sense of its own worth before God; not that the Soul may be forgiven, but that the Soul may bear the weight of having been forgiven; not that it may be loved by God, but that it may bear the intensity of the flame of God's love.

The issue of Purgatory was an important (albeit not primary) issue for Newman; he discussed it prior to his conversion in Tract 79, and Purgatory comes up again in Tract 90, which discusses the rejection of Purgatory in the Thirty-Nine Articles. He criticizes the conception of Purgatory as a painful prison both in Tract 79 and in the Parochial Sermon on the Intermediate State; in the latter he rejects it as contrary to Scripture. However, this is not an absolute rejection of a doctrine of Purgatory, but only of that particular view of it, since the same sermon is an argument that the Saints before the Resurrection are in " state of repose, rest, security; but again a state more like paradise than heaven—that is, a state which comes short of the glory which shall be revealed in us after the Resurrection, a state of waiting, meditation, hope, in which what has been sown on earth may be matured and completed." After his conversion he has an early sermon on Purgatory, the notes of which describe it as a state of "being hungry [i.e., for God], like the feeling of sinking—fainting to the body" -- this we saw above in the first pain.

In any case, I thought of all this because the Diet of Bookworms recently did a set of reviews on Martindale's book about C. S. Lewis's views of the afterlife (HT: Rebecca Writes, who should be listed but isn't yet), and C. S. Lewis has a very Newmanian view of Purgatory. David Wayne at "Jollyblogger" had brought this up as an issue in his review:

Another troublesome aspect of Lewis's view on the hereafter is his view of purgatory. Again, Martindale does a yeoman's job of showing how Lewis viewed Christ's work as sufficient to save us from our sins, so that purgatory is not an addendum to the sufferings of Christ. For Lewis purgatory is not so much a place of punishment as of preparation. Still, he is in error in this view because Christ's atoning sacrifice is all the preparation we need.

Which I think is a fair enough criticism of most doctrines of Purgatory; but which I am not sure actually works against Lewis. I think we have to ask, "preparation for what?" On Newman's view, for instance, the preparation is for the Soul's sake, and is due to the fact that purgatorial pain is automatic and psychological: the Soul longs to be with God, and even knows that it is forgiven, but nonetheless needs to work out the shame of having sinned against so glorious and so merciful a God. Longing to be with God, it nonetheless feels the need to hide from Him, and the pain of purgatory is the working-out of this psychological conflict as we stand before God. Christ's sacrifice is all the preparation needed to come before God as a saint, sinless and free; but psychologically, Newman thinks, many such souls, no longer in sin, will still need to work out the self-shame that comes with having sinned. Having begun union with God through Christ, many souls need a state of discipline to prepare for greater union with God. Lewis is more vague, but, unless I'm forgetting some salient passage, it seems to me that his view is in the same ballpark. So, at the very least, there's considerable potential complexity here. (I haven't read the Martindale book, so perhaps Martindale's critique takes such complexity into account; the above wasn't intended as much of a critique -- as I said, this is just what I thought of on reading the reviews and descriptions of the book.)


  1. Timotheos6:19 PM

    " [The saints are in a] state of repose, rest, security; but again a state more like paradise than heaven—that is, a state which comes short of the glory which shall be revealed in us after the Resurrection, a state of waiting, meditation, hope, in which what has been sown on earth may be matured and completed."

    It's a little known fact that John Wesley also believed in such an "Intermediate State". He explicitly says that he believes that the souls there will grow in holiness there while awaiting the final resurrection, and this helps explain why he felt compelled to pray for the dead (which he defended on the grounds of antiquity and the Book of Common Prayer).

    Of course, he also quickly denied believing in any "Romanish" doctrine, or any form of Purgatory at all, but judging by his polemics against it, what he attacked was PURGATORY!!! i.e. that doctrine whereby perfectly good Christians are given over to the devil to be tortured and tempted, sometimes even losing the faith, and can only get through this ordeal by their own good works or by one "whit of papal pen", so to speak.

    Quite honestly, I don't see any way Wesley's views on the "Intermediate State" differs ultimately from most modern Newman-Lewis style explainations of Purgatory, especially since he commits himself to a Sortieology that features both a distinction between venial and mortal sins and the view that all men have to be made fully holy and not merely declared righteous.

  2. branemrys7:20 PM

    This sort of mix seems to me to be fairly common among Anglicans of high church leanings. Most, although not all, Protestant discomfort with purgatory tends to be a discomfort with indulgences, not purgatory as such, so it's mostly a matter of whether they think they have positive reason to accept something like it.


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