Escape from Purgatory

Author: John M. Nichols '72

When I told Sister Frances in the second grade how good I felt after confession, now that the stain of sin had been removed from my soul, she looked at me sternly and said: “That’s pride, and pride is a sin.”

I was taught in Catholic school that God was everywhere and knew everything. I pictured him just as he was illustrated in the Catholic Reader: a bearded, floating head surrounded by halos of light, peering down from a cloud, watching to see if I ate meat on Friday. Even if we looked like we were behaving, he could see into our hearts and souls, taking note whenever we had a sinful thought or bad intention.

The nuns were famous for rapping knuckles with their wooden pointers, but the real disciplinarian in our classroom was the floating head of God. Sister told us God would know if we did anything, even while her back was turned. The most Sister could do was to give you a black checkmark on your report card. God could do anything. Sister may not see you throw a spitball in class, but if you later tripped on the playground, ruining your new corduroys and getting grounded by your mother for a week as a result, it was not a coincidence. It was the floating head of God.

As a young boy, I accumulated sins like lint on a black cashmere sweater. I told lies. Lots of them. According to what we were taught, any untruth was a lie. Tell a story to a friend and fail to get every detail exactly right—a lie. “He must have been 8 feet tall and weighed 400 pounds,” I might say, even though I knew the man could not possibly have been that big. My mother: “What happened at school today?” Me: “Oh, nothing.” Another lie. Even if I couldn’t remember exactly what had happened right then, God and I both knew that at least something had happened at school that day. “Nothing” was clearly a lie.

Keeping the Fourth Commandment was even more daunting: Honor thy father and thy mother. It required obedience to everything your parents asked you to do. Take out the garbage. Cut the lawn. Don’t slouch. For a time, I thought I had found a loophole. I decided that when my mother asked me to do something and I didn’t do it right away, it was debatable when the noncompliance turned into sin. In an hour? The next day? Or maybe not until I died. After all, I could theoretically take out the garbage any time before I died. Technically, wouldn’t that mean that it would not ripen into a sin until I was no longer alive to do it?

My Fourth Commandment loophole lasted until one day when, as I was sitting in my room reading a book, my mother passed by and said “Pick up your room.” I did not budge. She made a U-turn in the hall, stood in the doorway and added the words that haunted me the rest of my childhood: “When I say to do something, I mean NOW.” From that point on, every time she said to do something it meant NOW, and if I let even a nanosecond elapse without complying, another sin was added to the list that numbered into the hundreds between trips to the confessional.

I worried about these things. I really did. I went to confession at every opportunity. Confession was usually on Saturday, which meant that remembering all the sins I had accumulated during the week was difficult. Of course, to make a good confession it was necessary to report all your sins. The exception to the rule, I was told by the nuns, was if I genuinely forgot a sin. While that was a relief, there was a catch. If the reason I did not remember a sin was because I did not make a thorough examination of conscience, the exception did not apply. I would be guilty of a bad confession.

Making a bad confession was a sin in itself. It was a fairly serious sin as I understood it then, and one to be avoided. It was like owing money to the IRS. Not only would you still owe the underlying tax—you would still have to confess the sin you missed—but interest and penalties were added on top of the forgotten sin. You might spend the rest of your life, or maybe eternity, just trying to get back to even.

If you did go to confession, accurately confessed all of your sins and said all the Hail Marys and Our Fathers you got as a penance, that did not mean you would go straight to heaven if you happened to be hit by a truck on your way out of the church. Purgatory time was necessary to cleanse your soul completely. Confession got rid of the sin, but purgatory was still required to remove the oily residue from past sins.

Purgatory was a scary place. It was exactly like hell, except it wasn’t forever. Eventually, the purgatory fire would burn away the debt owed for past sins, although no one was saying exactly how long it would take.

One way to reduce your stay in purgatory was through indulgences. When I was growing up, every prayer book or prayer card had a little note following the prayer. It would say, always in italics, something like “Indulgence 120 days” or “Indulgence 1 year.” This was the amount of time you would get off your purgatory sentence if you said the prayer.

I made it my business to accumulate as many indulgences as I possibly could. My goal was to bank enough indulgences to stay out of purgatory altogether. I knew which prayers were most efficient. I could say five Glory Be prayers in the time it would take to say one Our Father. An Our Father was worth 200 days. A Glory Be 120 days. Saying the Glory Be instead of the Our Father was a matter of math.

One kid in my class, Brian Gallagher, told Sister Amada in the third grade that he had said 4,000 Glory Be’s the night before. I remember how jealous I was. The irony was not lost on me, even as a third-grader. There he was, getting something like a thousand years off his purgatory sentence, and I was envying him, thereby committing another sin and getting myself further into hock.

I was in the fourth grade before I learned about plenary indulgences. I am not sure if fourth grade happened to be when I first heard of them, or if this was something the nuns simply did not trust us to know until we were in the fourth grade. I believe it was the latter.

A plenary indulgence is an indulgence that would wipe out your whole purgatory sentence. They were very difficult to earn. I am suspicious to this day that the nuns did not tell us all the ways to qualify for a plenary indulgence on purpose. I think they were afraid that if we learned how to get this kind of super-indulgence, we would all start sinning willy-nilly. We could commit a sin, run off to confession, get a plenary indulgence and escape purgatory completely.

The plenary indulgences I heard about from the nuns involved things like being a martyr for the church. I think the nuns decided it was safe to tell us about these kinds of plenary indulgences. Aside from the fact that you would have to die to qualify for a plenary indulgence, beheading Catholics was not terribly common when I was a kid.

There were avenues other than beheading to get a plenary indulgence, such as a combination of certain prayers or saying the stations of the cross, usually coupled with going to confession or Holy Communion within a certain time before or after the prayers. I had to learn about these through my own research, though. The good sisters did not talk much about what would be the lazy Catholic’s way to plenary indulgences. For me, it wasn’t so much that I wanted an easy way to heaven. It was more that I wanted to be absolutely certain I would go straight there.

The problem with regular indulgences was that you could never be sure how many indulgences were enough. The rumor was that purgatory time was not like earth time. The indulgences were expressed in earth time, we were told. It was possible that an indulgence listed at 120 days would buy you, say, only one day less in purgatory. The nuns disclaimed any inside knowledge about the rate of exchange, so we were left with nothing more than speculation. A plenary indulgence, though, would do it all. It would cancel the debt completely.

The trouble with plenary indulgences was that the rules were much too complicated for a 9-year-old to follow. I remember the Saint Joseph’s Missal, one of my most prized possessions when I was young, had a collection of plenary indulgence options explained in the back of the book. One I recall in particular was the “Prayer to Saint Joseph in Time of Need.” It was normally an indulgence of three years, but the three years was increased to seven years in the month of October if you said the prayer after you said the rosary. It was also seven years if you said the prayer on any Wednesday (which made saying the prayer on any other day of the week a poor investment). A plenary indulgence —which is what interested me—was available if the prayer was said every day for a month.

I decided I could keep up the prayer for at least a month and earn the plenary indulgence I desired, but as hard as I tried, I never made it through the whole month. It isn’t easy for a fourth- grader to remember to do anything for a month straight. If I forgot a day, it was clear to me I would have to start all over again. There was nothing in the Saint Joseph’s Missal about saying the prayer twice the next day if you missed a day.

Unfortunately, as I got past the fourth grade, it started to look like the plenary indulgence might not be all it was advertised to be. I remember it piqued my curiosity when Sister Wilhelmina told us that it was possible to get more than one plenary indulgence. I wondered why anyone would want two or three. If a plenary indulgence offset the entire amount of your purgatory time, there would be little point in getting more than one. Sister Wilhelmina explained that “plenary” did not mean that all your purgatory sentence was commuted. “Plenary” meant only “lots and lots.” It was still more than you could accrue by getting 120 days here and 200 there, but it didn’t mean you could avoid purgatory completely simply because you had a plenary indulgence in your back pocket.

I challenged Sister Wilhelmina on that point, which was not a smart move. Sister Wilhelmina gave checkmarks for talking back, which was evidently what I was doing by questioning her interpretation of doctrine. I read her the passage from the Saint Joseph’s Missal that described a plenary indulgence as relieving all of a sinner’s punishment. She listened impatiently, folding her arms underneath her habit as she often did, a pose that gave her the barrel-chested look of a professional wrestler. When I was finished, she slammed me to the mat in front of all my classmates, asking for a show of hands from all those who thought she was right. I lost 36 to nothing. (I was afraid to vote for myself.) Besides, she told the class, even if we said the right prayer for the right amount of time, God only gave credit for truly devout prayers. Could anyone, she asked the class, say a prayer and be totally devout from beginning to end? That pretty much left dying for the church as the only way to a plenary indulgence. You could tell when you were truly dead. There was no way to tell when you were truly devout.

I stopped looking for ways to get a plenary indulgence shortly thereafter. It also seemed that the other indulgences I had worked so hard to stockpile were not worth as much as I had thought. I don’t want to say that I lost all interest in indulgences at that point, but the keen interest I had before faded.

What I gathered through my Catholic school upbringing was that sinning was easy and redemption difficult. I could sin almost by accident, it seemed. God would know and record what I did and what I thought. I would never be able to live a life without sin, and I would never be able to fully make up for past sins.

I learned as well that one sin often led to others. If I did not clean up my room, it was possible that a new sin was added every passing minute. If my mother told me to clean up my room at 10:52, I was in a state of sin if I did not jump to it immediately because, as previously mentioned, she meant NOW. If I still hadn’t moved by 10:53, did that mean there were now two sins, one for failing to pick up my room at 10:52 and one for failing to pick up my room at 10:53? And, arguably, why would additional sins only accrue at the rate of one per minute? Why not one per second? Why not faster than that? I did not know how God marked time.

Catholic guilt is resilient, indestructible really, because we can never completely undo the things we have done. We constantly add to the inventory of remorse, like piling wrecked cars on top of one another in an auto junkyard. Catholic school taught me that there was no way to fully erase a sin. Confession, penance and indulgences may help, but they cannot return us to the state we were in before the sin.

Guilt is more than just a present regret for sins in the past tense. Guilt rules the future, causing us to do things we do not want to do and keeping us from doing things we would like to do. Anticipatory guilt can be a good thing. It can influence our behavior in a healthy way. It can also give us a life of anxiety and dread, a life of perpetually slumped shoulders as we reluctantly drag the weight of future sins from one guilt-motivated responsibility to another.

We do not have to be told to visit Uncle Ed at the Home of the Good Shepherd at least once a month. The guilt alarm buzzes around the 10th of the month. We hit the snooze a couple of times, but inevitably we go, even though Uncle Ed just as inevitably says “How come you never visit anymore? And who are you, anyway?” I used to enjoy going to the race track once in a while, until the floating head of God reminded me that it would be better if I dropped my surplus bills in the collection plate instead of on a horse named Toonerville.

I have a better-educated and balanced view of these things now, of course. I believe in a loving and forgiving God; a God who accepts apologies and who will wipe the slate clean every day if necessary; a God who forgives not only seven times 70, but 700 times 70. I was able to purge the worst of the superstitions and half dogmas—but only from my mind. Guilt is subterranean. It resides somewhere below the cerebral cortex, immune to rationale thought. It is my legacy. I live with it because I know of no other way to live.

My imbedded guilt is, at the same time, a source of some satisfaction. We Catholics are not like others. We shoulder the burden of guilt like Sisyphus pushing the rock up the hill. Like Sisyphus, we know there is something noble about pushing that rock even though we know it will fall back again and again. I have had discussions with non-Catholic friends about which of us carries the greater weight of guilt. Most freely admit that they are no match for Catholics in that department. I get some resistance from my Jewish friends, who insist that Jewish guilt is every bit as smothering as Catholic guilt, but Jews do acknowledge that Jewish guilt is different. A friend of mine, a Jewish woman who is married to a Catholic and therefore knows of what she speaks, explained it this way:

“Catholics are afraid of God. Jews are afraid of their mothers. I feel guilty because my mother says: ‘Do you know what you’re doing to me here? You’re killing me, that’s what.’ You think God is omniscient. I think my mother is. She doesn’t have to be anywhere in sight for me to hear her voice just as clearly as if she were standing next to me. ‘Go ahead. Eat that chocolate bar. Put another 10 pounds on your hips. Stab me right in the heart. Oy!’”

Catholics could take pride in the fact that our guilt comes from a higher source than our mothers. We could also take pride in the fact that we cannot live a guilt-free life through such seemingly simple expedients as being born again or full immersion. We could take pride in our uniquely Catholic guilt, that is, if pride were not a sin.


John Nichols is an attorney in Minneapolis. He and his wife, Barbara (’72SMC), are the parents of Kim ’99, Emily ’01 and Kate ’05. This essay is an excerpt from his recently completed manuscript, Bless Me Father.