Why we need Purgatory, with C.S. Lewis

Thomas G. Casey, SJ examines key lessons from a genius of modern Christianity

On September 17, 1963, C.S. Lewis wrote to his friend Sr Penelope Lawson, of the Anglican Community of St Mary the Virgin: “If you die first, and if ‘prison visiting’ is allowed, come down and look me up in Purgatory.” As it turned out, Sr Penelope lived to the ripe old age of 87, and passed into eternity in 1977. But Lewis himself died much sooner, barely 10 weeks after writing this letter, exactly a week before what would have been his 65th birthday. Because his death coincided with President John F. Kennedy’s assassination – November 22, 1963 – Lewis disappeared without anyone really noticing his absence. Perhaps for that reason, people did not pray for Lewis at the time as much as they could have. So even though 50 years have passed since the day of his death, please don’t forget to say a prayer for Lewis before reading on. 

Raised eyebrows

Lewis believed in Purgatory, and was well-aware that this would cause more than raised eyebrows among traditional Protestants. But he was an honest thinker who didn’t play to the gallery, and he was willing to speak the truth even at the price of courting unpopularity. He knew that our prayers for the dead don’t change their destination, which they learn immediately after death – whether that is Heaven or Hell. But he was convinced that our prayers can be of great help to those whose purification is not yet complete.

Sell-by date

We Catholics can learn about Purgatory from this Anglican, because sadly Purgatory is something we neglect to speak about today. It seems to have gone out of fashion, as though we imagine it has passed its sell-by date and should be discarded. But Purgatory was never fashionable; however, it was always true, and that is a crucial difference.

If we die without reaching the holiness of Mother Teresa of Calcutta, we’re not ready to enter into the presence of the thrice-holy God. If we make an act of perfect contrition for our sins before death, this will purify us. An act of perfect contrition is something truly deep, and for that reason not so easy to make. It must come from our heart, not just from our lips; it must be motivated by sorrow for having offended God who is infinitely good (and not simply to avoid punishment); it must entail detesting sin (and not merely disliking it); and it must include the firm resolve to renounce all sins (and not just some) and to amend our way of life, so that we would prefer death itself to sinning again.

If we have neither reached the holiness of the saints nor made an act of perfect contrition, then we need to go to Purgatory. Reflecting upon the death of his wife in A Grief Observed, C.S. Lewis wrote that she “was a splendid thing, a soul straight, bright, and tempered like a sword. But not a perfected saint. A sinful woman married to a sinful man; two of God’s patients not yet cured. I know there are not only tears to be dried but stains to be scoured.”


As against this splendid honesty of Lewis, I concelebrate at many funeral Masses which leave me confused. During the sermons we are often (reliably?) told that the deceased is already in Heaven, which amounts to instant canonisation. But in the next breath we are often informed that he or she was no saint, which is another way of saying the person needs to go to Purgatory.

If we dismiss Purgatory, inadequate and false substitutes will enter to fill the spiritual vacuum it leaves behind. For instance, the belief in reincarnation, which causes more problems than it promises to solve. Try to picture being reincarnated as a rat. Do you really believe for a moment that your spirit or soul or personality would be in the rat? That if you died today in Dublin you would somehow be reincarnated as a rat on a rubbish heap in Manila next week and be living inside that rat? With your thoughts and your feelings? The truth is there would be no more ‘you’ anymore, only a rat going about its life as a rodent. But since there would be no you, talk of reincarnation is nonsense. Even the idea of you being reincarnated as another person is a fiction, because there would be no you, just the other person with his or her personality, experiences, pains and joys, but not with yours. Ultimately, then, why would you even care about reincarnation, since you would not be reincarnated, because there would be no you left?


Although reincarnation does not make sense, Purgatory makes a lot of sense. God wants to transform us completely, and if we have not become totally transformed during the course of our life on earth, Purgatory offers us the chance to complete this process in the next life. As Lewis writes in his book on prayer:

“Our souls demand Purgatory, don’t they? Would it not break the heart if God said to us, ‘It is true, my son, that your breath smells and your rags drip with mud and slime, but we are charitable here and no one will upbraid you with these things, nor draw away from you. Enter into the joy’? Should we not reply, ‘With submission, sir, and if there is no objection, I’d rather be cleaned first.’ ‘It may hurt, you know’ – ‘Even so, sir.’” (Prayer: Letters to Malcolm).


Notice from this imagined dialogue that it is the soul itself which wants to go to Purgatory. After death, we see things more clearly than ever before. We are no longer distracted by iPods, TV, food, power, money or whatever. We now see how holy God truly is. The prospect of being in God’s presence with the tiniest stain upon it is complete anathema to us. Lewis writes: “I’d rather be cleaned first.” We cannot do anything of ourselves, or earn anything by our own merits to get us out of Purgatory. We ourselves cannot do the cleaning; only God can cleanse us.

And for those of us human beings still living on earth, it is a really generous gesture on God’s part to offer us the opportunity to hasten the liberation of souls from purgatory through our prayers. God bestows us the opportunity to bring them relief, and to give Him the joy of welcoming them home even sooner. That’s an amazing gift.

Because we don’t see the souls in Purgatory, we forget them all too easily. Because we cannot hear their cries for help, we don’t respond. Yet if we love them, there is no better way of expressing that love than by praying and sacrificing for them. Let’s leave the last word to Lewis:

“Of course I pray for the dead…At our age the majority of those we love best are dead. What sort of intercourse with God could I have if what I love best were unmentionable to Him?” (Prayer: Letters to Malcolm)

Fr Thomas Casey SJ lectures in philosophy at St Patrick’s College, Maynooth