The doctrine of Purgatory had not yet been defined by the Church in Hildegard’s time, and would not be formalized until the council of Florence in the 15th century. The evolving doctrine was nevertheless affirmed by the Roman Church from the time of the Early Church Fathers. St. Hildegard’s vision reflects, in general, the same understanding of Purgatory that is taught by the Church today, though she visualizes and describes the punishments of that mysterious place as much more severe.
In one of her many letters she portrays a vision she experienced of a soul entering Purgatory. She states that once the soul had left the body it was immediately judged by God and sent to a desert-like region in the North (for Hildegard, the North was where hell was) [translation by Baird, Joseph L., The Personal Correspondence of Hildegard of Bingen. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), pp.126-127]:
…and this region was like land that had been beaten upon by torrential rains and then dried up and creased, as it were, by great ridges because of an intemperate climate.
The soul was caught up in a whirlwind. Then she saw a house with scorpions rushing toward it from the South, and coming from the East, a pack of wild boars:
The soul was whirled about, here and there, by a huge whirlwind, and blown around in the midst of a great abundance of straw, flying like thatch from a roof and destroyed. After it had been worn out this way by the whirlwind, it was thrown into that house I mentioned before and, there, it was subject to such fierce fire that it glowed like a red-hot iron. Then, It was thrown among the poisonous scorpions, which punctured it with their venom, and, afterword, among the wild boars, which took great bites out of it.
In the letter, Hildegard explains that the individual punishments correspond to the sin committed: “Thus it was on account of its [the person who died] instability and its false and deceiving way of life, this soul suffered the afflictions of the whirlwind.” The fire inside the house was punishment for “…hidden sins, which were very grievous.” It was because of the person’s “continually duplicitous tongue,” that it was tortured by the scorpions’ poisonous stings. Being “torn among the boars” was the punishment for having committed rape.
Hildegard describes a door in the building that was closed off; it led to the “infernal pit”. She states that this soul would escape hell because, in life, it engaged in an unspecified formal discipline of penance, and because God had given its human body a physical infirmity.
The Catechism does not offer specifics about the punishments of Purgatory; it only speaks of a “cleansing fire”. But it does remind us that the Church grants indulgences for the dead, and recommends alms-giving, works of penance, and above all, having masses celebrated on their behalf. The popular traditional website Rorate Caeli invites anyone to enroll their loved ones who have passed away in the Rorate Caeli Purgatorial Society. They have received commitments from fifty-four priests who have agreed to celebrate a Traditional Latin Mass specifically for those enrolled in the society on a regular basis. There is no cost.
Purgatory’s a mystery; don’t take chances! St. Hildegard’s grim vision of Purgatory, like many of her other visions, might be worth remembering.