By Rebecca Curtin
Darkness comes earlier now and it helps me slide into memories long-forgotten. I stare out windows, the street light illuminating moments that had disappeared into the land of never-thought-of-again. Yet, here they are, real again, and precious.
In this memory I am twenty years old and visiting my grandparents on a break from school. it has been a while since I have last seen them. My grandmother’s Parkinson’s has made her slower, the care she has taken in preparing dinner all the more apparent, asparagus lovingly snapped and a table meticulously, if simply, set.
We sit at that small kitchen table, my aunt, my grandparents, and me. We clasp our hands and bow our heads in prayer:
Bless us, O Lord, and these Thy gifts
which we are about to receive from Thy bounty
through Christ our Lord.
“Amen.” I say, lifting my eyes and reaching for my fork. The others, however, go on:
May the souls of the faithful departed,
through the mercy of God,
rest in peace.
My hands sneak back together and I am embarrassed for not knowing this part. I don’t remember them saying it before, on previous visits, but this visit is somehow more intimate. Or, maybe, I was never listening.
My aunt senses my confusion. She explains, “We say that last part for the souls in Purgatory.” I nod. I know Purgatory. I have just finished Dante’s Purgatorio in school:
What I sing will be that second kingdom,
in which the human soul is cleansed of sin,
becoming worthy of ascent to heaven.
And yet, at twenty I have never really thought about Purgatory, about what it is like to believe in it. To believe in all of it, the cleansing and the trials, and thus to feel the need to humbly pray for souls’ liberation from it.
And, from this moment I think more about it. From Dante’s description of the music in Purgatory, to ancient writings on purifying fire, to medieval ideas of its physical location. I answer questions from some Protestants who believe there is no Biblical basis for such a doctrine and deal with my own feelings of indignation that any one I loved would need, somehow, to be purified.
Seven months ago I lost both my grandparents about seven weeks apart from one another, my grandmother on the Eastern Church’s Good Friday, while I sat in an Antiochian Church watching congregants pass under a raised casket decorated with flowers, symbolizing Christ’s victory over death.
And, we all will one day, like my grandparents, join those souls for which we once prayed. And, it’s scary. And, perhaps it’s also liberating for death, too, is a journey. And, the idea of Purgatory is about purification and it is also about remembrance. We remember those we lost as they journey on. They are not so separate from us as they rise ever higher toward the Saints.
I sit here, staring into the dark. My grandfather squeezes my hand and my grandmother crunches her asparagus and smiles.
Rebecca Curtin graduated from Harvard Divinity School in 2008 with a Master of Theological Studies. She currently works at Harvard University and lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
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