A novel depiction of the ups, downs, joys, and healing found in Purgatory

Michael Norton’s A Hiker’s Guide to Purgatory follows an old tradition but blazes a unique trail in its portrayal of the afterlife.

Fictional portrayals of purgatory have a grand lineage. Dante climbed the seven-tiered mountain centuries ago, and Tolkien placed his character Niggle (in the short story “Leaf by Niggle”) in a sort of otherworldly hospital-cum-labor camp. Michael Norton’s A Hiker’s Guide to Purgatory follows this tradition but offers unique matter for meditation.

The main character, Dan, awakens in a beautiful landscape, oriented toward a distant, majestic mountain. A full hiker’s backpack is ready to hand, so he starts hiking. He is a Catholic, so he knows where he is, and is mostly relieved to find that Purgatory isn’t the fiery dungeon he had come to expect from some aspects of his Catholic upbringing. (It’s more like Montana.)

At first, Dan’s journey feels fairly easy. He sets up camp every night, eats instant oatmeal from his backpack that never runs out of anything, and then hikes all day in the company of a dog who serves as a guide. Other guides and companions pop in and out of the story, but often, Dan is alone. He does some soul-searching, remembering his whole life, all the things he did wrong and all that he suffered… and occasionally remembers to pray.

Just as one might be tempted to dismiss the book as too psychologized, or too slow, it takes a turn. Reading it, one realizes that Purgatory might not be a straightforward climb up a single peak—at least, not for everyone. Dan has gone through one round of repentance and cleansing, but he must go much deeper before he is through. Once earthly distractions and hellish lies are swept away, the soul sees itself exactly as it truly is, and it enters heaven only when it knows itself to be ready.

This novel acknowledges that some of that readiness comes from suffering: feet sore from hiking, loneliness, the heat of a desert, and even voluntary fasting and acts of charity. But Norton points out that, at least for some people, the most important part of the cleansing and healing of Purgatory is actually joy. Dan has to learn not only how to be alone with God but also how to love his neighbor, accept help, and receive the beautiful gift of heaven that he formerly refused.

Isn’t that the hardest part, for those of us (I count myself foremost) who have pride firmly entrenched in our hearts? Receiving something that we don’t deserve and can never repay is perhaps the most humbling experience of all, and yet, if we could only do that—both now and for eternity—we would be filled with joy. A child doesn’t turn down a free, undeserved ice cream cone, but we too often turn down grace.

Some details of the story feel too “told” rather than “shown.” For example, a flashback describes how a teen-aged Dan, witnessing the changes in the Church during the 1960s and 1970s that coincided with an upheaval in his own family, saw the Church as unreliable and God as aloof and distant. Although I can easily believe that this really happened to countless real-life Dans, somehow it feels difficult to believe of this particular Dan, who elsewhere rues the hellfire-but-temporary vision of purgatory he was taught in his pre-conciliar youth and appreciates the approachable, post-conciliar pastor who helped him revert.

Similarly, the reader is told that Dan’s desire for heaven is growing, but it’s hard to feel it with him as he enjoys so much of God’s love in purgatory. But these are minor complaints. To fully flesh out even more aspects of Dan’s character and his historical context would require a much longer book. And to make the reader fully feel Dan’s desire for heaven, perhaps the reader would have to be in purgatory himself. Despite the long tradition, purgatory is still pretty hard to imagine.

The novel’s great success, however, is in portraying the healing aspect of purgatory. For Norton, God wants to give us not only a patching-up of our broken souls, achieved through apologies and repentance, but a complete, down-to-the-roots restoration. This restoration flows from trust in Him and spills out into all our relationships. He wants to make us perfect, as He, our Heavenly Father, is perfect. This is the Catholic doctrine of salvation, as opposed to the snow-covered dung-heaps of Luther or the self-merited heaven of Pelagius.

The story gathers speed and urgency as Dan nears the end of his journey, making the last few chapters of the novel a true page-turner, even though we know the ending. Dan gets to heaven, but how he gets there exactly at the end of his long hike is the exciting part.

A Hiker’s Guide to Purgatory
By Michael Norton
Ignatius Press, 2022
Paperback, 270 pages


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About Rachel Hoover 12 Articles
Rachel Hoover lives and writes in Nashville, Tennessee.

6 Comments

  1. Several years ago, a young man under the name of Wanderer made a post (On another site) relating to his physical and spiritual abuse by priests which was manifest by signs of him now being a very badly damaged personality.

    My Post directed at him “Wanderer, you have a heavy cross to carry, but you are not alone, many of your brothers and sisters in Christ suffer grievously too. What you are looking for can only be found within your own heart, quiet your heart and make a fresh start” ………

    After the above post, contact was made with Wanderer by e-mail. Wanderer consider sharing this reflection with me

    Give me your hand and together we will try to understand.
    You wander lonely as a cloud
    Stony ground is all you found
    Come out of the dark we will embrace His heart
    Church and priest cannot give us peace
    Quiet the heart as we make a fresh start
    Turning stone no one home
    Quiet the heart as we make a fresh start
    Friend or foe no longer do we seem to know
    Quiet the heart as we make a fresh start
    Rest then pain, then the same all over again
    Quiet the heart as we make a fresh start
    Briar and thorn all are torn
    Quiet the heart as we make a fresh start
    As we twist and turn do not squirm
    Quiet the heart as we make a fresh start
    Sorrow and pain, we cannot take it again
    Quiet the heart as we make a fresh start
    Pain and sin again we begin
    Quiet the heart as we make a fresh start
    Suffering understood can become love
    Quiet the heart as we make a fresh start
    Suffering and pain, He knew the same
    Quiet the heart as we make a fresh start
    We look only at His love as we are understood
    Quiet the heart as we make a fresh start
    Taking His hand, we begin to understand
    Quiet the heart as we make a fresh start
    Our Fathers love given from above
    Quiet the heart as we make a fresh start
    Anguish and sorrow, we can face tomorrow
    Quiet the heart as we make a fresh start
    Suffering and pain will never be the same again
    Quiet the heart as we make a fresh start
    As we come out of the dark, He will embrace our heart
    Quiet the heart as we make a fresh start
    Born anew, Father, we embrace you
    Quiet the heart as we make a fresh start
    With the bright morning dew, again we walk anew
    Quiet the heart as we make a fresh start
    Pure is love that’s dipped in blood (Suffering)
    Freeing the heart to see
    The love that dwells in you
    Also dwells in me.
    Quiet the heart as we make a fresh start

    My Response to Xxxxx’s E-Mail to my post above.
    Thank you Xxxxx for reading my full post and accepting that my intentions are sincere
    The start of my poem/meditation was meant as a joke to create friendliness between us (help lighten the difficulty of the situation we find ourselves in), a play on words, wander =Wanderer my sense of humour, (taken from that wonderful poem by Wordsworth) it is strange that we all see (feel) humour differently, I suppose the main thing is, that it does not cause anyone to feel uncomfortable, left out, or intimidated.

    I am uneducated of Irish descent Xxxxx, leaving school in England in the early sixties been unable to read or write, you appear to write at will a large amount with great easy, for me, it is difficult without the computer and spelling check facility etc, and even with the computer, it takes me a long time. I don’t often lose my temper but tend to be a bit over-emotional which tends to be an Irish trait.

    It is true that I can never truly walk in your shoes as you could never truly walk in mine, but I do know that you are suffering and searching, my post which was meant to be a meditation to calm the heart, not change you in any way or impose my own opinion upon you, I have found that when we do this reflect on the teachings of Jesus and look at ourselves with honesty, before our Father in heaven, this leads us out of the darkness of our convoluted thought, and leads us into an acceptance of ourselves (in trust), before our Father in heaven.

    Xxxxx as I reflect upon my own failings/sins I always quiet my heart in trust and make a fresh start, I have done this for many years I have little to offer you, but if you do the same as me, I am confident that you will grow spiritually, you will no longer look for approval from others as you will find it within your own heart before the only One that matters our Father in heaven. Take care

    As I now reflect upon this struggle, I realize that I have been in Purgatory most of my life for which I thank God because as Jesus says

    “Anyone who is thirsty may come to me! Anyone who believes in me may come and drink! For the Scriptures declare, ‘Rivers of living water will flow from his heart.
    Praise the Lord!

    kevin your brother
    In Christ

  2. Some will argue that purgatory exists only in the minds of the fearful!. God does not name this construct and for something of such significance, there should be a fulsome mention of the idea! it is not to say that we are not deserving of such a fate, however God works out matters according to His own council. When we are in Christ, He sanctifies us and that is a very difficult process in of itself.

    John 5:24 Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life.

    Romans 8:1 There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.

    John 3:18 Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.

    Our reliance is upon the King of Kings and Lord of Lords. He died as a sacrifice for sin. Let us rejoice in His love for us.

      • Dear Dave:

        Thank you for helping me out on this one! Truth and godly learning are of the utmost importance.

        The Catechism advises that Holy Scripture is paramount to our understanding as Christians.

        What verses would you recommend that will give me a fuller appreciation?

        Blessings of concordance,

        Brian

  3. “snow covered dung-heaps of Luther”? Wow, somebody doesn’t like Luther! You might be doing time in purgatory yourself for that comment. Just kidding, It make me laugh, but I don’t really know too much about him. I went to a wedding at a Lutheran church (ties to our local Finnish Community) recently and saw a beautiful stained glass picture of Martin Luther and St. Peter standing together. I wasn’t sure of the significance of those two together, but it was quite striking to look at.

    • Hello Jill, as a convert from the LCMS to the Catholic Faith, I can assure you Ms. Hoover’s comment about Luther’s view of man as “snow covered dung-heaps” in regard to justification is consistent with Luther’s theology. This is an actual phrase that has been attributed to Luther, by Lutherans and non-Lutherans for some time. Although, Dave Armstrong’s article on the subject makes clear no one has been able to find the exact quote in any of Luther’s writings (English edition). It’s a fascinating read: https://www.patheos.com/blogs/davearmstrong/2016/04/luthers-snow-covered-dunghill-myth.html. Blessings, Father James

3 Trackbacks / Pingbacks

  1. A novel depiction of the ups, downs, joys, and healing found in Purgatory | Franciscan Sisters of St Joseph (FSJ) , Asumbi Sisters Kenya
  2. A novel depiction of the ups, downs, joys, and healing found in Purgatory – Via Nova Media
  3. A novel depiction of the ups, downs, joys, and healing found in Purgatory | Passionists Missionaries Kenya, Vice Province of St. Charles Lwanga, Fathers & Brothers

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