Limbo or Purgatory? Advice for the Impatient

While having dinner with a couple of friends this weekend, I said I was fed up of my limbo situation and that it’s high time things moved on. Other than reassurances that  things are bound to change soon and that nothing but death is permanent, this statement also gave me a germ of an idea for further research. People who have not had any religious education whatsoever (like me) tend to glibly assume that limbo and purgatory are much the same thing, and that they refer to ‘transition states’. However, the truth is of course much more complex. Needless to say, it’s the Catholics who have raised the subject to an art form so I will refer mainly to their interpretation. (I always associate Catholic doctrine with the Baroque – they do like to overcomplicate things but can lead to stunningly beautiful results – but that’s a topic for a different post.)

Limbo is not part of the official doctrine, but has been accepted by many Catholic scholars as the temporary state of those worthy people (who perhaps committed some minor sins but no more than that) who could not enter Heaven until redeemed by Jesus Christ. So, essentially those who were born before the birth of Christ and therefore could not have heard of him or been saved by him are in a waiting room.

In the Divine Comedy, Dante depicts Limbo as the first circle of Hell, but above it, a castle stuffed to the gills with virtuous pagans of classical history and mythology, such as Julius Caesar, Virgil, Electra and Orpheus, as well as non-Christians.

Purgatory is for those souls who have sinned, and are not sufficiently free of their sins (i.e. have not prayed enough or led a life of penance) to go to heaven. The outcome (heaven) is not in doubt, but they have to pass through a sort of spiritual car-wash to get there. Except, this being all biblical and fearsome, the cleansing is done through painful punishment, most often by fire.

Dante likens it to climbing a steep mountain, with seven levels of suffering (one for each of the seven deadly sins), which are also opportunities for spiritual growth. Earthly paradise – the Garden of Eden – awaits at the top and let’s hope that it is serpent-free or else you might have to start the long ascent all over again.

So, which one of these states am I in?

At first glance, it must be purgatory, although the final outcome of heaven may seem in some doubt. Certainly all of my deadly sins are taking a pummeling: Pride is being shattered through daily rejections, which provokes Wrath and Gluttony (a lot of nervous comfort eating). I become envious of others who seem to lead normal lives and have become really stingy with my money for fear of losing it all (avarice). Finally, there are days when sloth gets the better of me and I am so struck by the futility of all of my efforts, that the best policy is to just stay under the duvet.

But there are even worse days when I think limbo is the operative word after all. Waiting with no end in sight. For someone as impatient and active as myself, this seems very much like the entrance-way to hell.

So what advice can I offer myself (and anyone else who is impatient but stuck in a transition stage)? Don’t worry, I’m not going all ‘wise coaching guru’ on you. I’m just reminding myself, because I haven’t cracked it yet, by any means. [Warning: Mixed metaphors may follow.]

  1. Find small things to enjoy in the present but also things to look forward to in the near future. A combination of mindfulness and anticipation.

I still try to keep on filling that biscuit tin with little scraps of paper on which I scribble things that have made me happy. Most recent example: surviving a 7 mile walk through forests, up and down hills, despite the rain and mud.

But I also try to have at least one thing to look forward to every week. This week, it will be quite a major thing: a whole day in London, taking in London Book Fair, meeting up with several friends, and a poetry reading in the evening. Other weeks, it’s been something much smaller: a film, dinner with friends, a book I’ve been meaning to read for ages.

2. Stop being afraid of not being in control at all times.

Yes, lack of control is horrible for most of us, but there are times when external circumstances really do push us in ways we cannot do much about, no matter how many self-help books we read or how many times we are told that we become what we think.

Two things help me gain perspective. First, I ask myself: is it worth losing my health, sleep and sanity over this problem? Secondly: When they write my obituary, how many lines are they going to give to this part of my life? Am I going to let it define me?

3. Allow yourself time to get those feelings off your chest.

Rant, rave, throw stuff around, cry, do weird ritual dances and recite incantations and curses. Just do in the privacy of your home or somewhere in a forest where no one can see you, and in front of no one else. And, although friends say they want to be there for you, by the time you tell them the same story for the tenth time, they will almost certainly find something better to do.

Better write it all down, to someday make a masterpiece of it, when the distance is there.

4. It’s OK to take a day off, to not be constantly in the driving seat. Postpone without guilt. An hour in bed with a good book can make all the difference. Don’t even bother to review it – so freeing, isn’t it?

5. Yet the longer we wallow in the mud, the harder it becomes to get out of it. As Epictetus said, we can only control our internal mind, not the external world, which we can (at best) only hope to influence. Do you really want to go down in history as the ‘eternal victim’?

6. The key is not to get what we want, but to want what we get…

Yeah, I know, me neither, I don’t have any idea how to go about that. Especially since many of my problems seem to come from far too low expectations of others, and unreasonably high expectations of myself. Besides, what if you get nothing and more nothing and another week of nothing… for months?

There we go again, I can feel that Wrath building up again. So perhaps it is best if my advice list ends right here.

Every Single One of Us Has the Devil Inside

When the devil came out of the bathroom
they sunk a little deeper in
and thought to state truth
but lied and lied.

Jerky transitions in a city of shades
lullabies where you can find them
being forgotten like snot-filled tissue
what do I hate about
being found? They grow and change
live and love like us
yet not like us – puzzles never solved
jewels in our crowns bent heavy with regret.

Tedious telephone voices
harp at you like the common cold
and the world loves nothing more
than beating you up in a cloud of smoke.
What refuge can you find bubbling
up enough random junk to float to the surface
for our stories to want more?
Too late
You can’t, you won’t, you want
to keep a good woman
down, boy!

All palpable, the fingers groan
as they caress the fat downy tummy of a cat
with a puff of thistles in its fur.
We see the pastoral in a sleight of hand
how mind thinks its way into and out of this boxed world
but I’m not there to cry forgiveness.

Only the things I didn’t do
crackle after the blazing dies.

Drawing by Jodi Harvey-Brown: Inner Demons. From
Drawing by Jodi Harvey-Brown: Inner Demons. From

For dVerse Poets, Mary is encouraging us to use a line from Naomi Shihab Nye’s poem Burning the Old Year as an homage to the poet. I couldn’t resist using the lines in italics, since it was Naomi who inspired me to start writing poetry once more (and start this blog in the process). For all your wonderful poems and kind words, here’s a very special thank you, Naomi!