Purgatory and the Playboy: Remembering Hugh Hefner
Purgatory and the Playboy: Remembering Hugh Hefner
Two weeks ago today, Hugh Hefner died at the age of 91. Almost immediately, writers rallied to denounce (or acclaim) the fraudulent idea of his “legacy.” What he left behind him can be called a legacy only in the same sense as the aftermath of a disaster. My hope is that his life’s work, like that of the Marquis de Sade, will fade to the point that while some ill-minded devotees retain it as a living memory, the rest of the world will frown and beg some clarification when it is mentioned, raising their eyebrows in surprise to learn that “Hef” is the root of some disparaging epithet.
I don’t intend to rehash this already well-worn ground. His public life was a massacre, a desecration of life. What I want to consider is his death.
Since he died I’ve heard several times what has to be the worst thing you could possibly say of another person, “I hope he burns in hell.” Jesus! Where should we end up with such a heart? This idea may be born of an impulse toward justice–one thinks of the men and women trapped in pornography, the children harmed and murdered in its path, the marriages buckled under its weight–but justice calls us to denounce sin, not souls. Though She warns that Hell must be expected as the result of sin, the Church has never presumed to declare the presence of any soul there.
But is it possible to believe the alternative–that a man who so completely embraced and promoted such grave evil could now be gazing down from heavenly beatitude? If we are well-formed in the Faith, we can certainly imagine that God in His Mercy would welcome any sinner into His Kingdom. He said it Himself: “I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance” (Lk 5:32). What we cannot believe is that God would allow such a soul to enter His Kingdom as it was in life–not because His Mercy is too small for such a thing, but because it is too great.
Speaking of Purgatory
Of course, I am speaking of the doctrine of Purgatory. Although Western Christian piety was once characterized by a lively sense of this truth, in modern times it has suffered the vitriol of those who deny it, and the neglect of those who acknowledge it.
The very idea of Purgatory has grown unpalatable. I don’t really know why this should be. Perhaps something in the modern Christian mind demands a crudely simple picture of afterlife, tidily separated in a loosely conceived Heaven and Hell, and nothing else. Our whole experience of life speaks against this impulse. God created a physical order of immense grandeur and complexity; when He reveals to us the spiritual order of His Creation, why should we expect it to be less stupendous, less startling, less intricate?
Then again, what most call to mind when they hear the word is not what the Church teaches about Purgatory. In most ears, mention of God’s cleansing (i.e. purgation) of the soul after death carries with it images of some horrible place and some agonizing period of time. To what degree these ideas reflect the reality is an important, but difficult question. What is certain in Church teaching is simply that Purgatory exists, and that we can help the souls who are “there.”
All who die in God’s grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified, are indeed assured of their eternal salvation; but after death they undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of Heaven.
The Church gives the name Purgatory to this final purification of the elect, which is entirely different from the punishment of the damned….This teaching is also based on the practice of prayer for the dead…From the beginning the Church has honored the memory of the dead and offered prayers in suffrage for them, above all the Eucharistic sacrifice, so that, thus purified, they may attain the beatific vision of God.
(Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1030-32)
Beyond this, the Church proposes nothing binding on the faithful. Purgatory may be a place; what is certain is that it is a state of soul. Our experience of it may be somehow related to our sense of time; but whether it is or not, we may be confident that prayer and sacrifice assist the soul as it is cleansed, even as here we offer ourselves and others to God, requesting His help to shake off our hindrances (cf. Heb 12:1).
The testimony of the Church Fathers, among other ancient sources, demonstrates that Purgatory, understood as these two points of doctrine, has been integral to the Christian faith from the very beginning1. More importantly, the doctrine is reflected and confirmed throughout Scripture by the Apostles and by Jesus2. In fact, I would suggest that it is key to His message and His mission. This may seem strange to say, but that is because we believe that Jesus came to save us from pain. He did not: He came to save us from sin.
Pain is the consequence of sin, and in the end God intends to free us from both sin and pain entirely (Rev 21:4). But if we are to break free of sin in the first place, there is no way around pain. As such it is part of the treatment, not the disease. Christians are called to pain, not for its own sake, but because it is necessary to pass through it in order to achieve our end (1 Pt 4:1-2). Our life is to follow Christ; and look at His life! We are told to take up our Cross with Him (Mt 16:24; Lk 9:23). We are encouraged to rejoice, not in spite of, but in our sufferings (Rm 5:3-5). Because of Jesus our pain is redemptive, healing, and freeing–it is a share in His Own sufferings (Rm 8:15-17; 2 Cor 1:5).
Hell is painful because it is marriage to our sin forever. It is pain without recompense, suffering without healing, slavery without release. Holiness is painful because it is the marriage of sinful creatures to the perfect God, and in this union there is loss. We lose everything we cannot offer to Him. That is what it means to become like Him Who knows no evil.
Because of this, there is Purgatory. Even if it were not a fact of revelation, it is a theological necessity.
Speaking of Paradise
What will Heaven be like? I used to love to pose this question late at night when my older brother and I were supposed to be sleeping. He would lean out over the edge of the top bunk and we would offer the best things we could think of: we will be with our whole family, be able to fly, talk to animals, breathe underwater, run so fast it’s like teleporting (there is some fascinating truth to this last one). Our imaginings had to do with pleasure–legitimate, wholesome, and mainly physical pleasure. All of this is true, but there is much more.
Heaven is the vision of God face to face (1 Jn 3:2; 1 Cor 13:12)–God Who is Himself all goodness, all truth, and all joy. In this union there is every taste that is sweet, every impulse that is pure, every contentment and every longing.
But we don’t want that. Strange as it may seem, our lives prove it: whenever we sin, in the smallest or the greatest way, we demonstrate that within us there is an appetite that would trade the greatness of God for a momentary bauble. And we know that as we go on making this choice again and again and again, we are enacting a scorched-earth policy within ourselves, relinquishing one territory after another of the will and all that supports it until it is no longer difficult to reject God’s offers of friendship. In fact, it becomes far easier to go on rejecting than to turn and accept. Our hope is that before we die God will prevail upon us in the mysterious exchange of His Providence and our freedom, and so we “work out [our] own salvation with fear and trembling” (Phil 2:12).
Suppose that He does prevail. I have died, and He has taken me to Himself–but God! How am I to enjoy eternal happiness in the state I am in when I leave this world? My soul corroded, my will degraded, my emotions, intellect, and every faculty distorted and turned from their true end–so much of me does not even want God, not at the cost of my petty liberties!
Unless I have become entirely perfect before death, there is clearly a change that has to occur before I can receive the gladness God intends for me. If the change were not forthcoming, I would be miserable and wish that it were.
Our souls demand Purgatory, don’t they? Would it not break the heart if God said to us, “It is true, my son, that your breath smells and your rags drip with mud and slime, but we are charitable here and no one will upbraid you with these things, nor draw away from you. Enter into the joy.”? Should we not reply, “With submission, sir, and if there is no objection, I’d rather be cleaned first.” “It may hurt, you know”–”Even so, sir.”
(C.S. Lewis, Letters to Malcolm)
Speaking of Misery
Out of all distortions of the soul, few are more degrading than lust. It holds out to us one of the greatest goods imaginable, human love, and we thrill with desire toward its promise and radiance: mutual care, new life, tenderness, fidelity, bewildered ecstasy in the grandeur of the Other.
Instead, we wake up sore and lost; we ask, where are you going; we lie to our spouses about what we’ve done; we act happy in front of our kids; we try to click past the banner that demands a subscription; we wait for the doctor to come back with the results; we watch the future narrow to a point, sputter, and close.
It does not take long for this choice to become a force of its own, gnawing away at every restraint in the hope of running completely free. And when lust is free, it destroys the freedom of everything else.
The man who invited the world to join him in bowing themselves beneath this beast deserves no credit for what he did; but he deserves pity for what he endured. Most people have the restraint of shame still pulling back on lust like a tether. Hugh Hefner cut that loose from the beginning. Over him lust exercised full sway, strengthened in its action by acclaim, riches, and long life. He was Prometheus in silk pajamas, bringing disease instead of fire, offering himself as a perpetual feast to gorge the monster. His misery must have been extreme, and that gives me hope for his soul.
There, leaning back in a chair, with his arms hanging down by his sides, and his legs stretched out before him and supported on his heels, sat the drunken cabman. His wife lay in her clothes upon the bed, sobbing, and the baby was wailing in the cradle. It was very miserable altogether.
…[He] sat staring at nothing, neither asleep nor awake, not quite lost in stupidity either, for through it all he was dimly angry with himself, he did not know why. It was that he had struck his wife. He had forgotten it, but was miserable about it, notwithstanding. And this misery was the voice of the great Love that had made him and his wife and the baby…, speaking in his heart, and telling him to be good. For that great Love speaks in the most wretched and dirty hearts; only the tone of its voice depends on the echoes of the place in which it sounds. On Mount Sinai, it was thunder; in the cabman’s heart it was misery; in the soul of St. John it was perfect blessedness.
(George MacDonald, At the Back of the North Wind)
As Lewis puts it, pain is God’s megaphone to rouse a deaf world. Misery is God’s invitation to return to Him and be happy.
When death came, cutting through excuses and intoxications, forcing the cup of misery to the lips of a man whose life had piled debt on debt, might it be that within him there still burned one pitiful, lonely spark that called out for a taste of happiness?
There are some signs that Hefner at the end was seeking happiness–I would say “true happiness,” but only as a concession. Happiness is just one thing, though it is truly found in many places and degrees. It may be that misery proved his antidote, as it is meant to do.
As Christians, charity compels us to desire his company in Paradise; and the Divine Mercy assures us that this is a reasonable hope. However, it is also reasonable to believe that one who caused so much harm has a good deal of “postgraduate study” to accomplish.
The tragedy of our loss of belief in Purgatory is not only that many more people exit this life unprepared, but that many such souls go on suffering its pains longer than they would if we were mindful of their trial and offered prayers and sacrifice on their behalf. In the treatise On the Care of the Dead, St. Augustine directs the faithful to offer alms, prayers, and the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass for the souls of the departed, even if they are not in a position to profit from them.
Yet this does not benefit all for whom such things are done, but only those who prepared for such benefit while they were yet alive. But since we cannot determine who these people are, we ought to do them for all those who have been reborn, so that we do not overlook anyone whom these benefits can and should reach. For it is better to do these things uselessly for people whom they will neither help nor hinder, than to not do them for someone whom they could help.
(St. Augustine, On the Care of the Dead, 22)
We are commanded to love our enemies and do good to those who persecute us. It is because of the great harm he caused that Hugh Hefner should be the object of our prayers. He should always have been; and if he is not able to benefit from the grace of God any longer, it is a cause for mourning rather than celebration.
But he may yet be able to receive good from us. If we follow Christ, Who desires that all be saved, we must hope that he is even now a brother of ours, more secure in eternity than are we who may yet fall. And as we are a people of faith, ours must be a “faith working through love” (Gal 5:6).
Remember Hugh Hefner in the place it matters most: your prayers. Pray with me not only to end his work in the world, but to cleanse that same work from his soul–the soul God gave him so that he would one day surrender it back again.
Prayer for the Souls of the Departed
V. Eternal rest grant unto him, O Lord.
R. And let perpetual light shine upon him.
May he rest in peace. Amen.
May his soul and the souls of all the faithful departed,
through the mercy of God, rest in peace. Amen.
Prayer of St. Gertrude
I offer You the Most Precious Blood
of Thy Divine Son, Jesus,
in union with the Masses said
throughout the world today,
for all the Holy Souls in Purgatory,
for sinners everywhere,
for sinners in the universal Church,
for those in my own home,
and in my family. Amen.
A brief Litany of Saints
St. Mary Magdalene, pray for us.
St. Gertude, pray for us.
St. Maria Goretti, etc.
St. Gianna Molla,
St. Agnes of Rome,
St. Augustine of Hippo,
St. Thomas Aquinas,
St. Faustina Kowalska,
St. Maximilian Kolbe,
St. John Paul the Great,
St. Therese of Lisieux,
St. Teresa of Calcutta,
St. Francis of Assisi,
St. Anthony of Padua,
St. Rita of Cascia,
St. Jude the Apostle,
St. John the Beloved,
St. Paul the Apostle,
Chaste Heart of Joseph, pray for us.
Immaculate Heart of Mary, pray for us.
Sacred Heart of Jesus, have mercy on us.
St. Michael Prayer
St. Michael the Archangel, defend us in battle,
and be our protection against the wickedness and snares of the devil.
May God rebuke him, we humbly pray.
And do thou, O Prince of the Heavenly Hosts,
cast into hell Satan, and all evil spirits
who prowl about the world seeking the ruin of souls. Amen.
Prayer to the Divine Mercy
O Blood and Water
which gushed forth from the Heart of Jesus
as a fount of Mercy for us, I trust in You!
Jesus, I trust in You!
- ST. AUGUSTINE
“In the books of the Maccabees we read of sacrifice offered for the dead. Even if it were nowhere at all read in the Old Scriptures, not small is the authority, which in this usage is clear, of the whole Church, namely, that in the prayers of the priest which are offered to the Lord God at His altar, the commendation of the dead has also its place.
ON CARE TO BE HAD FOR THE DEAD, Chap. 1:3
Willis, J. R. (Ed.). (2002). The Teachings of the Church Fathers (p. 458). San Francisco: Ignatius Press.ST. JOHN CHRYSOSTOM
Mourn for those who have died in wealth and did not from their wealth think of any solace for their soul, who had power to wash away their sins and would not.… Let us weep for these; let us assist them according to our power; let us think of some assistance for them, small though it be, yet still let us assist them. How and in what way? By praying and entreating others to make prayers for them, by continually giving to the poor on their behalf.… Not in vain did the Apostles order that remembrance should be made of the dead in the dreadful Mysteries. They know that great gain results to them, great benefit; for when the whole people stands with uplifted hands, a priestly assembly, and that awful Sacrifice lies displayed, how shall we not prevail with God by our entreaties for them. And this we do for those who have departed in faith.
HOMILIES ON PHILIPPIANS, 3:4
Ibid. (p. 393)
ST. GREGORY THE GREAT
“Each one will be presented to the Judge exactly as he was when he departed this life. Yet, there must be a cleansing fire before judgment, because of some minor faults that may remain to be purged away. Does not Christ, the Truth, say that if anyone blasphemes against the Holy Spirit he shall not be forgiven ‘either in this world or in the world to come’ (Mt. 12:32)? From this statement we learn that some sins can be forgiven in this world and some in the world to come. For, if forgiveness is refused for a particular sin, we conclude logically that it is granted for others. This must apply, as I said, to slight transgressions.”
Ibid. (pp. 453-454)
- Cf. Mt. 12:32 (note the interpretation of St. Gregory the Great, above), 5:21-26; Lk 12:57-59; 1 Cor 3:10-15; also relevant is the passage in Maccabees cited by St. Augustine above, 2 Mc 12:43-45.
- ST. AUGUSTINE