A Knight in St. Patrick’s Purgatory

Each year St. Patrick’s Day falls during Lent and the question arises how should we observe his feast during the penitential season? If it falls on a Friday will there be special dispensations for corned beef? If you give up alcohol for Lent can you celebrate with a glass of whiskey on March 17th? St. Patrick’s Day festivities are a welcome break in the somber 40 days, but there is actually a connection between the popular saint and taking on surprisingly severe penance. In a medieval tale, a young knight named Owen journeys into a portal to the Otherworld to voluntarily take on an extreme penance to cleanse him of the sin of cruelty. The place of purgation he enters is called St. Patrick’s Purgatory, and the island of Lough Derg connected to the legend draws pilgrims even today.

The first Old French version of the tale, the Espurgatoire seint Patriz (c. 1190) was penned by a twelfth century authoress who calls herself Marie. Marie wrote popular stories of love and chivalry, fables, and possibly a hagiography of St. Audrey in addition to her vernacular translation of the Celtic adventure of Owen’s quest for purgation. Marie’s retelling brings her own interpretation and storytelling flair to build onto her Latin source written by an English Cistertian monk, H. of Saltrey.[1] We know very little about the woman referred to as Marie de France beyond what she tells us: “Marie’s my name, I am from France.”[2] Perhaps she was residing in Anglo-Norman England when she was writing, hence the distinction that she hails from elsewhere, but anything beyond her name and country of origin is guesswork. What we do know is that Marie’s Espurgatoire was a famous retelling of the popular legend and imaginatively highlights the role of suffering in freeing Christians from sin. She calls her text “Des Peines de l’Espurgatoire,” or “The Pains of Purgatory”[3] in reference to the suffering of the souls subjected to ten torments described in the poem.

St. Patrick’s Purgatory as a Physical Place

While modern readers might find it bizarre that one could journey to Purgatory with a pair of good shoes and a sense of adventure, a 12th century reader would have believed the veil between the physical world and the spiritual realm to be quite thin. Marie’s audience would not have thought it odd that the Otherworld could be just a pilgrimage away. The particular entrance to Purgatory referenced in this legend was well known in Marie’s era. According to the 7th century text, The Book of Armagh, St. Patrick had once retreated to Croagh Patrick for 40 days and 40 nights,[4] and this event was the first seed of the idea of a site in Ireland where one could reach Purgatory.[5] By the late 12th century, the concept of St. Patrick’s Purgatory had developed and grown in the popular imagination,[6] eventually settling on the location of the island of Lough Derg. Gerald of Wales, author of The History and Topography of Ireland (ca. 1188), describes the Purgatory as an island separated into two parts. One has a church frequently visited by angels and local saints. The other, inhabited by evil spirits, contains nine pits. He claims that when a poor soul attempts to spend the night in one of these pits, he is seized by demons and experiences torments of fire and water leaving him barely alive. Yet, unless he commits a very serious sin after this purging, the experience cleanses him from his sins and he need never “endure the pains of Hell.”[7]

In Marie’s Espurgatoire, she describes how God revealed her story’s otherwordly setting to St. Patrick in this way:

God led Saint Patrick away

And showed him

In a waste and desert place

Void of people,

A round pit,

Large and deep within;

It was also dark, you can be sure,

And fearsome beyond measure.

Then he told Patrick that in that place

The entrance of purgatory could be found,

And whoever was of firm belief,

Had hope in God,

Confessed his sins,

And hereafter received communion,

Would be able to enter there.

Were he able to stay in that place

An entire day and night,

And return by the same way,

He would be entirely cleansed of his sins.[8]

Marie and her source, H. of Saltrey, claim that St. Patrick himself first began writing down the oral accounts from pilgrims who experienced the torments of the Purgatory.[9] She explains, “Whatever they wished to recount and tell, Saint Patrick had written down on the spot.”[10]

And yet, Marie clearly does not view this compelling otherworldly setting as merely a backdrop for her story. The theology of Purgatory is important to her. While other French poets, in their translations of the legend, left out H. of Saltrey’s prefatory explanation of the origins of the doctrine, Marie retains these references to theologians of Purgatory.[11] She gives a vibrant defense and explanation of the doctrine and cites Church Fathers, Pope St. Gregory the Great, and St. Augustine when laying down her theological foundation for the soul’s need to be cleansed from sin before being ready for Heaven.

Owen’s Journey

The legend of St. Patrick’s Purgatory fits into the tradition of the Irish imrama, or tales of voyages to the Otherworld such as the Navigatio of St. Brendan (c. 1110-1120) and the mid-12th century Vision of Tnugdal. In the Espurgatoire the hero Owen is not dreaming or having a vision as is often the case in this genre. He is wide awake when he voluntarily and physically seeks out his adventure to the Otherworld. Owen not only volunteers but even demands, against the wishes of his superiors, to experience the purgation of sins through the torments of Purgatory. After remorsefully confessing his sins to an Irish bishop, Owen is unwilling to accept what he believes to be an unfittingly easy penance given by the holy man. Instead Owen insists on the extreme penance of a journey into Purgatory: “Too much have I transgressed against my Lord, and offended my Creator. Accordingly, I would choose, by your leave, the most heavy penance. I shall go forth and enter Saint Patrick’s Purgatory, so as to be purged and delivered from my sins.”[12] It is no coincidence that there are ten torments to be endured. In medieval numerology the number ten is representative of perfection, revealing that when Owen has suffered through all ten torments he will be perfected by God.

Before beginning his quest, Owen must go through a period of preparation and receives guidance from a holy prior about how to respond to the demons’ torments he will suffer. The prior advises him “In whatever torment you will experience, call on the name of Jesus Christ . . . for you will be delivered by his name.”[13] This reliance on Jesus is essential because in the Espurgatoire, the demons of Purgatory torture souls by dragging them by hooks through fire, nailing them to the ground, hanging them by burning chains, roasting them on spits, plunging them into burning liquid, etc. While the demons promise Owen long life and pleasure if he would just turn back, he is not taken in by their lies and perseveres through the pains they inflict. Although every particular torment differs slightly from the others, each of Owen’s sufferings play out in the same way. It is not merely the pain itself, but Owen’s response to his suffering that is paramount. By trusting in the power and mercy of God to save him in his weakness, Owen is delivered. “When he began to feel great pain, he called upon Jesus for pity. Jesus’ name protected him well from the first torment to which he was subjected. After this invocation that he made upon the most Holy Name, he was set free.”[14] In this he imitates Our Lord who calls out from the Cross to his Heavenly Father when in the midst of his suffering (Matt 27:46).

Suffering in Purgatory

Owen’s cry for deliverance is one of many ways the legend of St. Patrick’s Purgatory is built upon and echoed in the culmination of the whole vision literature genre, penned a century later by Dante. In the Divine Comedy a sinner, Bonconte de Montefeltro, cries out with contrition with his last breath invoking the name of the Blessed Virgin. After a life of sin, this final sign of remorse and piety is enough to redeem his soul and save him from the fires of Hell.[15] Dante’s rich geography in Purgatorio builds on the imaginative tradition present in St. Patrick’s Purgatory and brings brilliant color to the concept of Purgatory.

At first glance, both Dante’s Purgatorio and Marie’s Espurgatoire look like what we imagine Hell to be in the popular imagination: souls in torment. Marie’s description is nearly the demons-with-pitchforks you would see in a movie. The terraces of Dante’s mountain have more obviously transformative torments than St. Patrick’s Purgatory. The souls of the proud on the first terrace, for instance, are brought low by carrying heavy rocks on their backs in order to develop the virtue of humility. The link between sin and purgatorial trial is clear. Without an understanding of the power of suffering in the pursuit of holiness, Purgatory as depicted by Dante and Marie could be mistaken for Hell. Yet, each have something Hell does not: the hope of Heaven.

The sufferings of the knight Owen and the trials of the souls described by Dante are not punishments inflicted by God. Their suffering is transformative. Like the ascent up the mountain of Purgatory in Dante, the goal of purgatorial suffering is to bring a soul closer to God. The cleansing fires of Purgatory are the fires of God’s love burning away what is sinful so we can experience true holiness.

But we do not have to undergo purgation alone. The torments Owen experiences increases his faith by forcing him to rely on the grace and mercy of God in his suffering. Although suffering is an essential part of our spiritual growth, we must rely on the sufferings of Christ himself for redemption. Each purgatorial torment Owen suffers is a pale imitation and a remembrance of Christ’s salvific suffering in his Passion. Owen is transformed by his experience and no longer acts cruelly (the sin for which he was punished) and ends up serving as an interpreter for an abbot.

But the end of Owen’s story is not the end of Marie’s Espurgatoire. Before completing her book, Marie offers a strange ending that brings the reader out of the Otherworld into this one. In this tale a priest devoted to a holy life is tempted by demons to sleep with a young woman who has been entrusted to his care. By the grace of God, he is brought back from the brink of this mortal sin. To protect himself and the young woman from sin he castrates himself, robbing the demons of the prize of his soul. He takes to heart Matthew 5:30, which claims it is better to cut off the hand that offends rather than to fall into sin. Like Owen’s penance in St. Patrick’s Purgatory, the tempted priest’s actions sound bizarre to the modern reader. But Marie takes sin seriously. And rather than leaving the pursuit of holiness to the realms of an imaginative Otherworld, she brings this all-important quest into our present life on earth.

Diving into the Espurgatoire’s cave of demons—with hooks ready to skewer the poor souls inside—sounds extreme, foreign, and perhaps a bit silly and cartoonish. But in this season of Lent, we, like Owen, are choosing to seek purgation of our sins, a choice that seems strange to the culture around us. We have the opportunity to take up prayer, fasting, and almsgiving not as meaningless punishments, but as practices that help us to grow in holiness. Like Owen, we want to do penance for our sins and to be closer to Christ, the Suffering Servant. As Catholics we recognize that Purgatory is necessary because we are not yet perfect. Suffering is the refining fire the burns away sin in order to be molded into what God created us to be. As T.S. Eliot reminds us, we have “the choice of pyre or pyre—to be redeemed from fire by fire.”[16] Like Owen and the tempted priest, we have the choice to live apathetically with our sin or we can live in this life purgatorially, accepting our crosses and calling out to Jesus in our weakness.

May we make the same choice they did, inspired by the tale of St. Patrick’s Purgatory, as we journey through this penitential season of Lent.

[1] Hugh the abbot of Sartris requested that H. of Saltrey write down the story referred to as the Tractatus de Purgatorio sancti Patricii. Owen, the hero of the tale, recounts his adventure to a monk named Gilbert of Louth in the text and H. of Saltrey claims Gilbert as his source.

[2] “Marie ai num, si sui de France” v. 4, Fables.

[3] Marie de France. Saint Patrick’s Purgatory, trans. Michael J. Curley (Tempe: Arizona Board of Regents for Arizona State University, 1997), 46.

[4] Seventh-century writer Tírechán describes Patrick’s retreat in the Book of Armagh, a collection of texts about the saint: “And Patrick proceeded to Mon Aigli, intending to fast there for forty days and forty nights, following the example of Moses, Elias, and Christ...and Patrick proceeded to the summit of the mountain, climbing Cruachán Aigli, and stayed there forty days and forty nights, and birds were troublesome to him and he could not see the face of sky and land and sea” from The Patrician Texts in the Book of Armagh, Ed. Ludwig Bieler, with F. Kelly (Dublin: Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, 1979), 153.

[5] Introduction by Yolande de Pontfarcy. Saint Patrick’s Purgatory: A Twelfth-Century Tale of a Journey to the Other World, trans. Jean-Michel Picard (Dublin: The Four Courts Press, 1985), 18-19.

[6] For example, the account of St. Patrick’s lent on Croagh Patrick is expanded in Jocelin de Furnesse’s Vita sancti Patricii to include a tradition of pilgrims experiencing torments as penance when they imitated the holy saint by staying a night on Croagh Patrick as Yolande de Pontfarcy explains in the introduction to Saint Patrick’s Purgatory: A Twelfth-Century Tale of a Journey to the Other World ,19.

[7] Giraldus Cambrensis. The History and Topography of Ireland, trans. John J. O’Meaba. (Atlantic Highlands: Humanities Press Inc., 1982), 61.

[8] Marie de France. Saint Patrick’s Purgatory, trans. Michael J. Curley (Tempe: Arizona Board of Regents for Arizona State University, 1997), 63.

[9] Rupert T. Pickens. “Marie de France Translatrix,” Le Cygne: bulletin of the International Marie de France Society 1, (2002): 7-24.

[10] Marie de France. Saint Patrick’s Purgatory, trans. Michael J. Curley (Tempe: Arizona Board of Regents for Arizona State University, 1997), 63.

[11] Introduction by Michael J. Curley to Saint Patrick’s Purgatory, trans. Michael J. Curley (Tempe: Arizona Board of Regents for Arizona State University, 1997), 25.

[12] Marie de France. Saint Patrick’s Purgatory, trans. Michael J. Curley (Tempe: Arizona Board of Regents for Arizona State University, 1997), 63.

[13] Ibid., 85.

[14] Ibid., 93.

[15] Dante Alighieri. Purgatorio, trans. Anthony Esolen (New York: Modern LIbrary, 2004), Canto 5, vv. 101-102.

[16] T.S. Eliot. Collected Poems 1909-1962. “Four Quartets” (Harcourt Brace, 1991), 207.

Featured Image: Albrecht Durer, Study of a Rider, 1498; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-100.


Haley Stewart

Haley Stewart is a writer, speaker, and podcaster living in central Texas with her beekeeping husband and four children. She earned her BA at Baylor University and is the author of The Grace of Enough: Pursuing Less and Living More in a Throwaway Culture. You can find her at her blog Carrots for Michaelmas and as co-host of the podcast Fountains of Carrots.

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