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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