Voyages to the Hereafter – The Purgatory of St. Patrick


The Church has followed the Jewish tradition regarding Purgatory. In fact, since the 2nd Century BC the Jews believed that there was a period of purification after one died. For this reason, in the book of 2 Maccabees 12,43-45 it is written that Judas Maccabaeus sent to Jerusalem 2,000 silver drachmas in order to offer a sacrifice for those who had died in battle. Then, further references to Purgatory are also found in other biblical passages. In the Apocalypse, for example, it is written that nothing unclean will enter the Hereafter (Ap. 21,27), so everyone has to enter free from sins, therefore completely purified first. In the book of 1 Corinthians 3,15 St. Paul says that one can be saved, but only through a sort of fire. Moreover, Jesus clearly says that there are sins that can be forgiven after death (Mt. 12,32). Since the beginning, Christianity believed that there was a period of purification after death, although a more articulated idea of Purgatory formed between the 3rd and 12th Century. This was an evolution of the belief – such a belief was present in both liturgy and funerary epigraphy – that one may purify from some sins after death. The theoretical basis for the existence of Purgatory was provided by Augustine of Hippo and Gregory the Great, who described Hell’s pains. As for the idea of a Purgatory place and its representations, were fundamental the descriptions of visions or travels to the Hereafter, which already had a long tradition in pre-Christian literature (e.g., the descent to the Hades of Odysseus and Aeneas). Initially neglected for the will of the Church of defeating paganism, stories of travel experiences to the Hereafter flourished from the 7th Century, especially in the monastic framework, where popular elements could be filtered by Christianity. Finally, these stories spread all over in the 11th and 12th Centuries. It is worth to mention that the Catholic concept of Purgatory fully realized only later, thanks to Dante Alighieri who, in his literary work “The Divine Comedy” (written between 1302 and 1321), described the triple division in which he imagined the Afterlife was divided: Hell (place of eternal punishment), Purgatory (place of temporary punishment) and Paradise (place of eternal reward).

The Purgatory of St. Patrick.

The first mention of St. Patrick’s Purgatory was made in the Saint Life, written between 1180 and 1183 by Jocelyn of Furness.

According to his account, Jesus appeared to Saint Patrick, who was unable to convert Irish people. Christ showed him a round and dark cavity, maybe a pit or a cave, and assured him that those who, after having been purified from their sins, had spent a day and a night in it would have seen both the punishment awaiting the evil ones and the prize for the righteous ones.

Upon the Saint decision, the cavity was then enclosed by both a wall and a door, and a church was built nearby (by tradition the episode is dated to the year 445). The door key was given to the canons’ prior (he would have then become Saint Dabheog) that established there. It was provided that all penitents, who had faced the try, should have then written down a report on what they had seen.

Jocelyn of Furness located the place of the Purgatory of St. Patrick on a mountain of Connaught, in the western part of Ireland.

The knight Owen (left side) listens to the list of Purgatory torments from Prior (in the middle). From Le voyage du puys sainct Patrix auquel lieu on voit les peines de Purgatoire et aussi les joyes de Paradis by Claude Noury, Lyon 1506.However, the international success of St. Patrick’s Purgatory is due to the work of Henry (ancient codes do not say anything more about his name), a monk of the Cistercian abbey of Saltrey. In the Tractatus de Purgatorio Sancti Patricii (written between 1190 and 1210) Henry of Saltrey tells the story of the Cistercian Gilberto, who was sent to Ireland at the time of King Stephen of England (between 1135 and 1154).

As he did not know the language of that country, the monk chose the knight Owein to guide him. The knight told him that, after a bad life, he repented of his sins and wanted to go through the punishment for all the bad actions he had committed while he was still alive, instead of being punished for them after death. Therefore, he was brought to a mysterious place through a door, which was strictly guarded by monks and to which no one was admitted without the consent of both the bishop of the local diocese and the neighboring church prior. First, both bishop and prior tried to dissuade him to take the try, because if he had been seduced by demons’ temptations, he would have then been sent directly to Hell, with no return. Since his obstinacy, they gave their permission, imposing him a preparatory period of fasting and prayer in the nearby church and advising him to invoke the name of Jesus in case of need during the try.

After having entered the cave, Owein went through various places of punishment. Everywhere he saw souls punished according to a well-established Christian imagery. He also received his punishment: he was assaulted, tempted, threatened and mocked by the demons who were providing those punishments and were leading him during the “visit”, but he was always saved in extremis by the invocation of the Divine name.

Finally, he arrived at an extremely narrow bridge, going over an infernal river of fire, which kept on widening as he was proceeding along the path. Once passed, he reached an amazing countryside, in front of a high wall that surrounded a beautiful city, which was nothing but the Earthly Paradise. Once through the door, a procession of Saints met with Owein and joyfully welcomed him in the divine city, then showing him the wonders of that place of bliss.

After this adventure and having been cleaned from all his sins, the knight returned outside. After 15 days of prayer in the nearby church, he returned to the world, but the experience had impressed him so much that Owein decided to become a crusader and then went to the Holy Land.

Lough Derg, ancient map. Island of St. Patrick’s Purgatory.Henry of Saltrey does not indicate the place where St. Patrick’s Purgatory was. However, in a margin note of a manuscript, dated to the second half of the 13th Century, of the Topographia Hibernica by Gerardo Cambria it is indicated that there is a lake in Ulster, with an island divided into two parts: the first, that is pleasant, with nice gardens and a church; the second, that is horrible and desolate, with many demons. It is highly probable that this lake is Lough Dergh (Lacus Derg), in which there are two islands: the largest of which, Saints’ Island, is home to a church, today dedicated to Saint Patrick; the second, Station Island, is the place of the “Purgatory” door.

The fame of the Purgatory of St. Patrick rapidly spread in Christendom thanks to Matteo Paris who, in the 12th Century, popularized the story of Henry of Saltrey, and also thanks to the poetess Mary of France, who translated the text into French in the Espurgatoire Saint Patriz. The story spread through remakes and versions in the vernacular throughout the whole West. Then, the Purgatory of St. Patrick often appeared in preachers’ sermons, and this contributed to its extraordinary fame.

Further voyages’ stories to the Purgatory.

Lough Derg, today.Further to the story of the knight Owein, it is worth mentioning at least other three reports: those of the knight Ludovico of Sur, the knight William Lisle and Antonio of Giovanni Martini.

The story of the knight Ludwig of Sur, who visited Purgatory on September 17, 1358, reports that, after a preparatory period of prayer and fasting, Ludwig was led by twelve monks to a rather small cave. After having spent there about half an hour, he saw a man dressed in white, who invited him to start the journey. After having descended some stairs, the knight found himself in a large room, where three monks scolded him for his temerity and anticipated him the temptations and pains he would have faced soon. In order to succeed, it would have been enough to make a cross sign and say a Gospel passage. The story continues with the description of Hell’s torments, with the difference, in comparison to Owein story, that temptations were not the work of demons but of graceful young women.

As for the account of the experience of the English knight William Lisle, who had been in Ireland in 1394, it is reported that William had been locked with a companion in the cave of Island Station for a whole night. During the descent, he had been surrounded by hot steam and had fallen asleep in a sleep full of strange dreams. This led him to believe that the “visions” of the place had been nothing but illusions, caused by gases, which would have caused an altered state of consciousness.

In a letter, sent by the Florentine Antonio of Giovanni Martini to a fellow citizen, is described the experience of Antonio’s descent to the Purgatory, which took place in November 1411. The preparation process for the try is accurately described: a three-day fasting (just bread and water), wearing a long white robe (like a shroud), monks’ recitation of the prayers for the dead over the pilgrim laying down on his back, a procession around the chapel next to the entrance of the cave, the “burial” into a narrow cave (similar to a tomb rather than a cave). It would appear that this complex ritual was part of a well-established technique to alter the state of pilgrim’s conscience, which, in fact, refers that he felt very weak and saw things that he could not write or say, except in confession. Antonio of Giovanni Martini was extracted from the cave while he was unconscious, after only five hours.

E.A. – V.G.

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