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There has always been that mystery of the thief who Jesus promised to take directly to paradise -- the very day of the Crucifixion.

How could a criminal be so worthy? Can you imagine the objections to something like this in our own day?

But we know from Scripture that it's true, and worthy of Lenten consideration. It has also been the subject of reputed mysticism.

"Let us remember the thief on the cross," states an obscure but powerful and certainly fascinating little booklet called The Secrets of Purgatory: Reminisces of a Soul in Purgatory (an anonymous revelation given in 1931 and bearing an imprimatur). "Jesus had many excuses for him: a poor education, few talents, and many other things which moved Him to mercy -- especially because the thief was himself not satisfied with his state and wanted to become better. When he saw the Savior on the Cross he realized how he could become better and wholly reconciled himself to the Merciful Love. Oh, how good and just is God to poor souls! Oh, God is so good, lovable, kind -- how can we help but love Him in return when we think of His goodness!" Pointedly, it was added: "Those souls are the quickest to enter Heaven who quickly sense their sins, who are not obstinately taken up with their own conceit. God judges us, not according to our failings, but according to our good will."

That's rather astonishing.

It can't be over-emphasized: the importance of uniting suffering and practicing humility. Every purgatory book emphasizes the crucial sin of pride; humility seeks out hidden arrogance. The importance of charity and humility is emphasized time and again, as are warnings against harsh assessment, slander, and hardness of heart.

A thief? In Heaven? We have to be very cautious and discerning with such insights. But they bear consideration.

Another little book, The Amazing Secrets of the Souls in Purgatory, by a French religious, contains interviews with an alleged mystic from Austria, Maria Simma, who died several years ago but who while living claimed to receive visits from purgatorial souls as well as glimpses into the hereafter. According to Simma, the best thing to do while we are still on this earth is to unite our sufferings with those of Jesus by placing them in the hands of Mary. When we think of it, the thief's sufferings were united with those of Christ in a way that could never been replicated.

As the author of the interview book noted (for our discernment): "[The mystic] had been asked to find out if a woman and a man were in purgatory. To the great astonishment of those who had asked, the woman was already in Heaven and the man was in purgatory. In fact, the woman had died while undergoing an abortion, whereas the man often went to church and apparently led a worthy, devout life. So Maria searched for more information, thinking she'd been mistaken -- but no, it was true. They had died at practically the same moment, but the woman had experienced deep repentance, and was very humble, whereas the man criticized everyone; he was always complaining and saying bad things about others. This is why his purgatory lasted so long. And she concluded: 'We mustn't judge on appearances.'"

[resources: The Secrets of Purgatory: Reminisces of a Soul in Purgatory; The Amazing Secrets of the Souls in Purgatory; and Unpublished Manuscript on Purgatory]

[Note also: Michael Brown retreat: Virginia]

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