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Does purgatory exist? (Of course).

Is it really painful? (For some).

Is there actually fire?

There is -- according to a new, powerful, and fascinating book that takes us across the spectrum of that "middle territory" known as "Gehinnom," with a special section on precisely that: the indications that in the afterlife is a place of purgation where something is felt akin to earthly blaze, leaving even burnt marks as testimony.

Put that in the category of "phenomena":

According to the book, Hungry Souls: Supernatural Visits, Messages, and Warnings from Purgatory, by Gerard J. M. Van Den Aardweg, there are numerous cases in which the deceased have appeared in flames that wrap around them and have left scorched objects -- as evidenced at the famed Marian shrine of Czestochowa in Poland and at a mysterious small museum in Rome dedicated to purgatory.

There is skepticism until one reads detailed cases with a consistency that has spanned several centuries.

For example, there was the fiery imprint of a forefinger on the pillow of a nun, Sister Margherita of the Sacred Heart, at the monastery of St. Clare in Bastia, Italy.

"This print," writes Van Den Aardweg, a psychotherapist, "was left on the night of June 5, 1894, when the deceased Sister Maria of St. Luigi Gonzaga appeared to Sister Margherita. According to the account of the event, the deceased, who had been a pious nun, appeared dressed as a Poor Clare sister, surrounded by shadows but recognizable. To the surprise of Sister Margherita, she explained that she was in purgatory to expiate for her bouts of impatience, her not accepting God's Will [during a long illness]."

There was a woman named Marguérite in Metz, France whose mother-in-law is said to have appeared to her and imprinted scorched fingerprints on a page in Imitation of Christ where it says, "Truly I labor in the sweat of my face, my heart is tormented by grief, I am laden with sin... and no one can liberate and save me, but You, my Savior."

There was Louise Sénèchal, who died on May 7, 1873 and allegedly left a burn mark on a night cap [below, left] in order to substantiate her need for Masses.

The Mass is often a request from those on the other side!

For your consideration!

Before we go much further, it's important to know that souls from purgatory long have said despite the sufferings, they would never return to the blindness of earth.

"The thought of purgatory is productive rather of consolation than of terror," said St. Francis of Sales, a doctor of the Church and an expert on the subject. "Great as the torments of purgatory are, the interior consolations granted there are nevertheless so ineffable that no earthly bliss and enjoyment can equal them."

Moreover, the flames may be symbolic in some cases or at the lowest levels of purgatory, which also has places that are more misty than ablaze. Nearest Heaven, purgatory begins to resemble paradise.

But suffering -- burning ones, apparently -- there are.

Is it really a "burning" in the physical sense, or a way of transmitting an idea of expiation?

For besides forgiveness, there must be penance for every sin (the stain of sin must be "burned" away), and as John Paul II once said, "every trace of attachment to evil must be eliminated, every imperfection of the soul corrected."

The nightcap, scorched pages, and other pieces of evidence are on display at the Church of the Sacred Heart of Suffrage along the Tiber near the Vatican. Indeed, the Sacred Heart is especially invoked for purgatorial souls, we learn -- as is Mary's Immaculate one.

In the church, reports Dr. Van Den Aardweg, is the collection known as the Piccolo Museo del Purgatorio (Little Museum of Purgatory). "These physical objects with evident burn marks are carefully examined, and humanly speaking it must be excluded that they are fakes, first because they are attested to by honest and reliable witnesses and authenticated by various diocesan authorities after critical examination, and second, due to the nature of the evidence itself," says the researcher. "It is virtually impossible in most cases artificially to produce burn traces or marks such as those we encounter here in prayer books or tissues."

Interestingly enough, reports Dr. Van Den Aardweg (who is from Holland and active in the pro-life movement), in November of 1897 the altar in a chapel where the church was later erected there was a fire.

"Many people who were present thought they discerned through the flames, on the left side of the altar, the face of an anguished person," he writes. "Whether it was truly an apparition of a soul from purgatory, one can still see the distorted features of this face on the wall, which was conserved when the chapel was demolished and the present church completed in 1917 [top, left]."

This starts to make images claimed in other objects take on a bit more meaning.

Most startling of all may be the Czestochowa phenomenon.

This occurred when a deceased priest reputedly burned his fiery hand print into an altar corporale (the fine linen used in the Mass to cover the chalice) during the 19th century.

"Two clerics of the monastery (Pauline Order) had promised one another many years ago that the one who would die first would give the other one a sign from the beyond," says the author. "This was what the other one was thinking about, when one day he just had finished Holy Mass and, as usual, was folding together the corporale before him, in nine folds. The evil doubt went through his head that perhaps there would be no survival after death at all.

"At that moment, a hand appears, lays itself on the corporale, and immediately disappears again."

What will the modern Pharisees and Sadducees say about all this -- documented by a scientists?

The point: there seems to be a fire in purgatory, as in hell, but in purgatory the soul is headed to Heaven; fire as with gold purifies. A mystery this is: why suffering is so effective at expiation. Van Den Aardweg marshals the facts in what may be the most compelling book on purgatory since the famed Unpublished Manuscript on Purgatory (revelations from a deceased nun, who also spoke of fire).

This book is not just about fire. But it is an intriguing aspect. There was the woman in 1922 in the Saarland (Germany) who saw a priest surrounded by fire.

There was the daughter near Luxembourg whose father left a burn mark of his hand (in a prayer book and on a handkerchief).

As we will see, souls often show themselves in a way that represents their sins (and their purification).

"Do you then suffer much?" a mystic once asked a soul who appeared to her (this was the princess, Eugenie von der Leyen).

"Look at me!" was the soul's reply. Then she was as if flooded with flames.

A caution: in the afterlife, we can expect the negative too much, when the vast majority of those who "die" and return emphasize the joy, even if they have to purify.

[resources: Hungry Souls: Supernatural Visits, Messages, and Warnings from Purgatory, The Amazing Secrets of Purgatory, After Life, and Unpublished Manuscript on Purgatory]

[also: retreats on afterlife: San Antonio and San Francisco]

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