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Purgatory

SIR OWAIN

The story of Sir Owain recounts the medieval legend of a journey into Saint Patrick’s Purgatory, whose entrance reputedly lay on an island in Lough Derg in County Donegal, Ireland. Sir Owain’s adventure supposedly took place in the middle of the twelfth century and was first recorded, in Latin, towards the end of that century. The tale was widely copied thereafter and translated into many medieval European languages. A Middle English version is found in the famous Auchinleck Manuscript of c.1330–40, a manuscript that was the product of a London scriptorium and now lying in the National Library of Scotland. The story of Sir Owain was used to recount the life of Saint Patrick in the South English Legendary, a hagiographic compilation found in many manuscripts of the fourteenth century, including the early-fourteenth century Corpus Christi College, Cambridge MS 145.

We begin the story of this adventure from the South English Legendary

Seint Patrik com þoru Godes grace · to prechi in Irlonde · to teche men hore right bileue · of Iesu Crist to ynderstonde · so fol of wormes þat lond he vond · þat nomon nemight gon · Saint Patrick, through God's grace, came to Ireland to guide men onto the right path and to teach them to love Jesus Christ, but when he arrived he found the place so full of snakes that there were some areas that no man could set foot into without being bitten by them and poisoned. So he prayed that the land might be delivered from these dreadful creatures. God heard his prayer, and ever since then, no snake has ever been found in Ireland. Every tree, and the very soil itself, is free from these poisonous creatures and only newts can be found here. In this way, God, through the agency of Saint Patrick, did a great service to Ireland.

A sheep was once stolen and word came to Saint Patrick about the crime. Saint Patrick declared that whoever had taken the animal from its true owner should return it, and he reminded the people of this many times in church. But it was to no avail. Then one high day, when everyone was in church for a festival, Saint Patrick again called for the thief to return the sheep and, afraid suddenly of having to repeat himself ad infinitum, he called upon the animal itself to communicate its whereabouts. Suddenly a loud bleating came from the stomach of a man sitting in the church. This villain was sorely ashamed to be so openly revealed as the thief.

It was a custom of Saint Patrick's to go down onto his hands and knees at every cross that he came to. On one particular occasion, as he went about preaching, he failed to notice a cross that everyone else could plainly see. People wondered at this and asked why he did not kneel at this cross that was so close nearby. Saint Patrick looked about and asked where it was, for he couldn't see one. The people thought he had gone mad. Then a voice from beneath the ground said:

'If this holy man cannot see this cross it should come as no surprise to you. It is for my sins that my bones lie here. I was a pagan whilst I lived on Earth and my soul is now in hell, and it is because my remains lie so close to this cross that Saint Patrick cannot see it.'

…and the medieval romance Sir Owain now takes up the tale:

Saint Patrick tried to persuade the people of Ireland by the power of his preaching to follow the will of God, but their wicked ways were ingrained within them and often they laughed at his words. They refused to follow his teaching, they explained, unless he could show to them someone who had actually been to hell and could tell them all about the suffering in that place at first hand. And failing this, they said, they would continue in their long and hallowed traditions.

When Saint Patrick heard this he was greatly upset and saw all his dreams of converting the Irish to Christianity ebbing away. He spent many days and weeks fasting and praying, asking God to send him some way of persuading the Irish to abandon the devil and to learn to love the omnipotence of Almighty God.

Then one day, as he was in church doing service to the Almighty and praying, he fell fast asleep in front of his altar and, sleeping soundly, he began to dream of the multitude of things that are in heaven; and in his dream, Christ came to him and gave him a very heavy book. There is no author on Earth who could have written such a book. And there never shall be, for it tells of everything holy, everything that pertains to God. Jesus also gave him a beautiful staff and it is known as 'God's Staff' in Ireland to this day.

When God had given him these gifts, Saint Patrick imagined – in his dream – that Christ lead him into a wide desert and there he came to a great hole in the ground, expansive and ugly to look into. It was black and round and its shear sides made it perhaps the most frightening, yawning chasm that anyone has ever seen. When Saint Patrick saw this he was terrified – in his dream.

Then God explained that whoever has gone against his commandments and done sinful things, but has repented and accepted penance and resolved to live a better life in the future, can suffer in this very hole a portion of the penance that he must do for his sins. A night and a day within this grisly place will be enough to forgive such a person many of their sins and clear for them the way to God's love.

And if a man believes in Christ with all his heart, practices poverty and lives a good life, he need not spent very much time in this hole at all and will never suffer the more severe of the torments to be found within it, for these are reserved for those who deserve to suffer them. And afterwards he will be taken to Paradise.

When Christ had finished speaking, he showed Saint Patrick all around the perimeter of this hole, then left him there alone.

When Saint Patrick awoke out of sleep and found the things that Christ had given him, the book and the staff, lying beside him, he picked them up and gave thanks to the King of Heaven for them. He knelt and thanked Jesus Christ for these divine gifts and this divine knowledge, knowing that with it he could attempt once more to convert the pagan Irish to Christianity.

Without delay, Saint Patrick caused a fair abbey to be built, to honour Saint Peter and Our Lady, to instruct the people and to glorify God through the power of music and scripture. White cannons were installed there, Augustinian monks, to serve God around the clock, and the book and the staff that God gave to Saint Patrick remain there to this day. The abbey is on an island in Lough Derg, in County Donegal, and it is well-known that Saint Patrick founded it and there is none to compare with it. Both rich and poor find activity, solace and joy there!

At the east end of this abbey lies this hole, this grisly chasm, surrounded by a stone wall that Saint Patrick had built, and it is kept securely under lock and key. This place, you may be certain, is the genuine Saint Patrick’s Purgatory, for in this particular era many a man descended through it into hell, as the story says, and suffered torment for his sins before emerging again, through God’s grace, and all of them said, when they returned, that they had witnessed the sufferings that take place in hell. And those who returned also gave an account of the joys that they saw, of the angels singing to Almighty God and to the saints, that is to say, the joys of Paradise, may Christ speed us quickly towards that!

When all the people of Ireland learned, through Saint Patrick, about the joys to be found in heaven, which had been witnessed by people who had made the journey down into the pit that lies at the east end of the abbey on Lough Derg, they came in droves to be christened and to confess their misdeeds and to have all their sins forgiven. And so they all became Christians through the intervention of God and the diligent prayers of Saint Patrick – now listen to what I say!

By the time of King Stephen, who brought stability to England following the turmoil of a civil war, there lived in Northumberland an energetic and courageous knight, as this verse relates. He was called Sir Owain by the people of his district, and he knew a lot about fighting. Sir Owain cared little for the commandments of God, and sinned constantly against his creator. But one day he reflected upon the evils that he had committed during his life and began to fear for his soul, and so he thought it might be a good idea to seek forgiveness for them and to try to wipe the slate clean, if he could.

And by chance, it happened, shortly after this uncharacteristic display of contrition, that he found occasion to visit the bishop of Ireland in the very abbey that guarded the hole, a hole which would, Sir Owain now realised, offer him a perfect opportunity to cast off the burden of his sins. He confessed to the bishop and asked for absolution and a suitable penance. He would sin no more and live the rest of his life as God wished him to.

The bishop was delighted to hear this and quickly admonished Sir Owain for all the wicked deeds that he had done. He told him that he would have to suffer multiple penances, and grievous ones at that, if he wanted to wash himself clean of them.

Sir Owain replied: 'I shall gladly do whatever God wishes for me! Even if you were to instruct me to go into Saint Patrick's Purgatory, I would willingly do so.'

'No, Owain, my friend,' replied the bishop. 'There is no need for that to be a part of your penance.' And the bishop told him of the horrors to be found in that purgatory and strongly advised him against going there. 'Choose some other punishment,' he urged.

But nothing the bishop could say was of any use. Sir Owain was resolved to let nothing stand in the way of his redemption. So the bishop led him into the church, to acquaint Sir Owain with God’s commandments and to let events unfold as it seemed they must.

Sir Owain spent fifteen days in prayer, fasting and in much discomfort. Then the prior and his monks led him in procession, holding a cross and carrying banners, towards the hole.

'Sir Owain, here is the gateway that you seek,' said the prior as they arrived at the perimeter of the hole. 'Go straight into it and soon you will find yourself in pitch darkness, but continue going north. You will soon be far beneath the ground, but shortly you will come to a wide open space and in this space you will find a stone hall, the like of which does not exist anywhere on the surface. There will be a little light for you to see by, but not much. It will be like dusk in winter. Go into this hall and wait there. Soon you will have company. Thirteen of God's servants will come to you and they will instruct you how best to continue your journey.'

Then the prior and all the monks prayed for him and into the hole went Sir Owain. They shut the gate behind him.

Sir Owain shortly came to the underground space and there was the stone hall, standing before him. It was constructed in a way that no building is ever constructed on Earth. The knight was amazed that he could be standing in such a place, for the pillars were spaced so widely apart that everything around him was visible, on every side.

When he had waited at the edge of the hall for quite a time, and had got his bearings as far as he was able to, he ventured further inside. Thirteen men suddenly appeared. They were clerics, it seemed, wearing white habits. All their tonsures were freshly shaved and they were led by a principal who welcomed Sir Owain, sat down and motioned to the knight to join him, as the book says, while he explained, as best he could, what to expect.

'I shall advise you, my dear fellow,' he said, 'as I have advised many other men who have taken this path before you. Hold firmly to your beliefs and do not let your faith in God waver in any way. For when we leave you, you shall encounter a thousand fiends all eager to bring you to the utmost grief! Know that if you do anything at all that they tell you to, you shall forfeit your very soul! Hold God in your heart, and think upon the Passion that he suffered on the cross for you. For unless you do as I instruct, you shall be destined, body and soul, for the darkest regions of hell and everlasting damnation. Use God’s exalted name, and then the fiends can do you no harm.'

When he had thus counseled the knight, he rose from his seat and left the hall. He gave Sir Owain into God’s care, and then they all walked soberly away.

Sir Owain stayed where he was, in fearful anxiety. He called out to God, and prayed. Then, after a short period of absolute silence, Sir Owain heard a fearful cry. It was as though the sky had fallen to the Earth. He was terrified! And by the time the initial shock of this had subsided, a host of fiends had appeared, a thousand or more, crowding around Sir Owain. They were loathsome to look at, both from the front and from behind! They surrounded the knight and opened their bum-cheeks grotesquely in front of him, made him shout and curse them, and taunted him that he had come in the flesh to seek out for himself the joys of hell, that last forever!

The chief of these devils fell down in front of Sir Owain and said: 'Welcome Sir Owain! You have come to suffer torture in order to nullify your heinous sins, but it will gain you nothing. You shall be given harsh, agonising and barely endurable pain for the deadly sins that you have committed. You will never have suffered a greater misfortune than when you begin to dance with us, when we begin to play our game with you.'

'But it needn't be like this!' cried another fiend. 'Let us bestow upon you our love, for you are one of us after all. Let us take you back to the place where you left the prior, all of us together. Or perhaps you would like to abandon your journey and stay here with us. We have known you for such a long time now, and will take pleasure in drawing our hooks into you.'

Sir Owain refused categorically! 'I reject all your advice!' he cried. 'I shall endure my penance.'

When the fiends heard this, they began to make a big fire in the middle of the hall. They bound Sir Owain’s hands and feet and cast him into the flames. Sir Owain called out to Our Lord and at once the fire disappeared and not so much as a coal or a spark remained. When Sir Owain saw this, his confidence increased, and he realised that his former sinfulness had been due in large part to the temptations of these very fiends who were surrounding him now.

The devils went out of the hall, dragging Sir Owain along with them, and they took him into a land beyond. There was no comfort in this place, but only hunger, thirst, cold and damp and there was not a tree to be seen anywhere. A cold wind blew so strongly that a man could scarcely hear another speak, and it chilled Sir Owain to the marrow. The fiends travelled onwards with the knight until they came to a valley. Sir Owain fancied that he had come to the deepest pit of hell and when he neared the place he could scarcely look up for the horrors he could sense around him. He could see a large open space in which hundreds of people were lying face down or crawling on their hands and knees, naked with horrific wounds upon their bodies, crying: 'Alas! Alas!' as they tried to move their limbs against the iron shackles that held them. They wailed and screamed: 'Mercy! Mercy! God Almighty!' But there was no mercy, only blind terror and the grinding of teeth. It was a ghastly sight.

This particular sorrow and torment is reserved for the foul sin of sloth, as the story tells us. Whoever is slow to serve God may well lie in fear of this horror when he is brought to purgatory! This was the first torment that Sir Owain got a taste of and it disturbed him greatly. But now he has passed it and is on the way to see another place of torture.

Sir Owain could see men and women lying and screaming: 'Alas!' for their wicked lives. Sir Owain saw that each soul lay supine upon the ground, face upwards but pinned down to the earth with red-hot iron nails through their hands and their feet and their heads! Some had loathsome dragons sitting on them, others had black toads, snakes and lizards, biting them all over. This is the torment reserved for gluttony. For God's love, this vice is far too common; avoid it at all costs!

Sir Owain next felt an icy wind cut its way through purgatory, a biting wind that came out of the sky and froze every soul to the bone. The fiends leapt upon the souls and thrust hooks into their flesh – yes, flesh! – and they screamed in agony. Whoever is an adulterer, man or woman, or allows themselves to engage in sex outside of lawful marriage, shall suffer this fate.

'You have been a lecher and a glutton all your life,' taunted the devils, 'and this shall be your fate, unless you go back to wherever you came from, straight away.'

'No!' cried Sir Owain, remembering the advice given to him by the white monks. 'I shall continue my journey by the grace of God Almighty and not turn back.' The fiends would have seized him then, but he cried out the name of omnipotent God and they suddenly became as weak as lambs, all of them. So they led him further and came to a place where only those villains who have done truly shameful things are ever taken.

Listen now, and be quiet! This open space was full of suffering and torment. Some were hanging by their feet, suspended from red-hot iron hooks, others by the neck, some by the stomach and some by the back, all in different ways. Some had been thrust into a furnace, with molten lead and sulphur vaporising above the fire. Some were hanging by their tongues. 'Alas!' was their constant cry and no other utterance. Some lay on gridirons shining white-hot against the fire, and many of these were people whom Sir Owain recognised; they had been his associates and his acquaintances and the sight of them made his own colour change a little for the worse!

A wildfire suddenly swept through the place, consuming everything in its path. Ten thousand souls and more were burnt; those hanging by the feet and by the neck were thieves and the associates of thieves and had been a great nuisance to other people during their lives. Those hanging by the tongue had been backbiters: they cried 'Alas!' as best they could and gave out a strangled scream so loudly that it should serve as a lesson to us all, man or wife, to beware of scolding and complaining of others behind their backs.

All the places that Sir Owain came to were part of the torments of purgatory. Punishment for the sins of this life. Those who are constantly making oaths by the saints or giving false evidence and wrongly condemning the innocent, this is where you'll all end up!

Sir Owain came to a wheel and it was a horrible sight! The wheel was turning; it was huge and all ablaze like a revolving torch with hooks protruding from it everywhere. A hundred thousand souls and more had been set dangling from this horrific device by the fiends, but Sir Owain had no chance of recognising anybody on it, because the devils were making it revolve so fast! And out of the ground oozed an electrical discharge that glowed blue in the darkness and made the air stink. The crackling blue fire crept all over the wheel and burnt all the souls hanging from it to a fine powder.

This wheel is for those with a love of money, who now reign supreme in this world. A covetous man never has enough gold or silver or land and is greedy for more right up until the day he dies.

'You have been very keen to acquire more and more wealth!' cried the fiends to Sir Owain. 'We will put you upon this wheel unless you go straight back to your own country as quickly as you can.'

Sir Owain ignored their advice, for he knew that to listen to it was the worst thing that he could do. So the devils seized Sir Owain and bound him tightly to the wheel. But although the hooks tore at his flesh and the fire threatened to burn him to a powder, his thoughts were always upon Jesus Christ. Suddenly, an angel came down and rescued him, and there was nothing the devils could do about it.

So they led him further, in great discomfort, until they came to a high mountain. It was as red as blood and the men and women who were standing on it seemed to be in great distress, for they were screaming and wailing as though they were mad.

'If you are puzzled and horrified by all this lamentation,' the fiends said, 'we can tell you that they have fully deserved God's anger. And they shall soon receive a drink that they will not like at all.'

No sooner had the fiends said this than a fierce wind arose and blew Sir Owain and the devils and all the people on the mountain high up into the air. They were propelled like military projectiles until they fell down again into a stinking river that ran off the mountain. The water was as cold as ice and the pain and shock of the landing cannot be described. Sir Owain was stunned as he wallowed about in the freezing river, angry and on the point of losing consciousness, when suddenly he remembered God: at once, he was lifted out of the water and deposited softly onto the land.

This torture, I believe, is for harbouring animosity and for showing unkindness towards others. Unkind, indeed, was that blast of wind that cast Sir Owain into the smelly water, so learn from this, everybody, and beware!

The fiends led Sir Owain quickly onwards until they came to a hall. It was like no building that Sir Owain had ever seen before. Acrid smoke arose from it and a great heat radiated from the place, so much so that it made Sir Owain break out in a sweat. He refused to go any further. The fiends cried out in a rage: 'Keep going, or you will very shortly die; unless, perhaps, you wish to turn around and go back the way you have come?'

Sir Owain would not be tricked. But when he reached the door of this hall, the sight that greeted him was twice as bad as anything he had imagined. Here was suffering beyond measure! This place was certainly devoid of all bliss. The entire floor of the hall was full of round pits that were full to the brim with liquid metal – brass, copper and sulphur. Men and women were standing in these stinking pools, some to the navel, some to the chest and some to the chin, suffering grievous and unimaginable torture, crying and shrieking like lunatics, as they paid this huge price for their deadly sin. For each person suffered in proportion to the magnitude of their guilt. Some had bags of red-hot money tied about their necks which they had to eat; these had been moneylenders when they had been alive on Earth. Beware then, those of you who may be thinking of charging interest on your loans! Some of those standing up in the pools of metal had their heads and shoulders set upon by devils; these were liars and hoarders who did not support the poor, nor pay any taxes to Holy Church.

'You will have to bathe in this liquid metal before you can leave this place,' said the fiends to Sir Owain, consolingly. 'For your financial misdemeanours you are required to spend a little time washing your dirty soul clean, in these pits.'

In great fear, Sir Owain cried out to omnipotent God and to Mary his mother, and at once he was taken out of this hall and away from the torments and the devils. He cried out again in joyous relief. But then a flame shot out of the ground! In front of it oozed a pool of pitch and tar. Sir Owain recoiled once more in horror. The fire contained every colour, but especially blue, yellow, green and black, and it burnt all the souls that it engulfed. Those inside the flame let out a howl of sheer terror, like those who are attacked by a poisonous snake.

The devils took Sir Owain and carried him towards this pool. 'Now you can find comfort Owain,' they chided, 'for you can hurry now with our friends into our place of exotic caged birds, our garden and our castle tower. Those who are brought here, Sir knight, can you imagine that they are anything but peaceful and enjoying every luxury, in this pit of hell? Now turn back, before we put you in at hell's gate! There is no escape from this place for all of eternity, not for any cries to God or his mother Mary, nor for any ingenuity or clever scheming.'

Sir Owain was alert to their subterfuge and ignored their advice to turn back. So the fiends seized him and tied him up, then threw him into that dark and stinking prison. Down he fell, down and down, and it grew hotter and hotter until he began to burn. Sir Owain cried to Almighty God for help; with faith and conviction he cried out to Almighty God, and out of the pit he came! Which was fortunate because this is the punishment for the foul sin of pride, which will last, I assure you, for eternity, and he would have been lost forever had he stayed there. Sir Owain lay beside the pit, thankful that he had been rescued; but his clothes were all torn and burnt and he couldn’t see how he could continue his journey through this strange and frightening country with his body so badly consumed by fire.

Sir Owain’s face drained of blood at the thought. Fiends appeared around him, but none that he recognised. Each had sixty eyes that glared down upon him, sixty grisly and loathsome eyes, and each of these devils had sixty hands.

'Do not fear being left alone in this place,' they consoled. 'You shall have us by your side at all times, to continue your education, just as you have been instructed by our fellow devils in other places.' And they seized hold of Sir Owain and brought him to a stinking lake. Never before had Sir Owain seen such a place. The smell from it was more nauseating than the stink from the foulest dog. It was as black as pitch and a mile deep. Sir Owain could see a narrow bridge stretching over this lake.

'Do you see this bridge?' taunted the devils. 'This is called the Bridge of Paradise. It is a bridge that you must cross. And as you are doing this, we will throw stones at you and the wind will buffet you and you will not make it to the other side but will fall off in the middle towards all our friends who are waiting for you far below. And when you have fallen, you, who have served us many a day and done our bidding, will find all of our friends coming to you with their sharp hooks, ready to drag you into hell!'

Sir Owain looked at the frightening bridge, and at the black water swirling beneath it, and the sight terrified him. The fiends swarming beneath the bridge were more numerous than the specks of dust in a sunbeam! The bridge was as high as a tower and as sharp as a razor and the water beneath it revealed, within its depths, flashes of lightening, and there were rumbles of thunder.

There is no educated man who can write with ink, nor any man who can imagine, nor any Doctor of Divinity who can guess, the magnitude of the torment that truly lies beneath this Bridge of Paradise. But books assure us that it is the entry to hell itself, as Saint Paul bears witness. Whoever falls off this bridge can expect no redemption.

'There is no need for you to attempt this crossing!' taunted the devils. 'Flee peril. Escape from sorrow. Retreat from woe. Go back, back to the place that you came from. Go now! We will take you back.'

Sir Owain remembered how many of the fiends' temptations God had already given him the strength to refuse, and set his foot upon the bridge. It seemed that there was nothing to fear, for the edge was not sharp at all. When the fiends saw that he was more than halfway across, they cried: 'Fate has tricked us! We have lost him!'

Sir Owain got safely to the other side of the bridge and thanked God and his mother Mary for delivering him out of such a nasty predicament. He found himself holding a cloth-of-gold. He had no idea how he came to be holding it, but he quickly clothed himself in the fine garment and at once, all the wounds that he had sustained, all the burns and the cuts and the bruises, spontaneously healed. He thanked the Holy Trinity! And as he looked around, his eyes lit upon a stone wall. The fabric of the wall shone like red gold along its entire length and Sir Owain could see no end of it in either direction. But then he saw a gateway, and it was fairer by far than any entrance through any wall that he had ever seen before. There was nothing of timber and stone about it but red gold and precious gems, all created by God – there were jaspers, topaz, corals, rich sapphires, rubies and onyx, and diamonds as well, set into recesses with small columns and arches made of pure crystal with embellishments of red gold. By as much as Our Saviour is more skilled than any mortal painter or goldsmith, so the gates of Paradise are richer and more finely-made than any that are to be found on Earth.

The gates opened by themselves, and a beautiful perfume filled the air. Sir Owain took such great strength from this atmosphere, and from the beautiful fragrance, that he felt he could go back and fight with all the fiends once again and suffer a thousand times more pain and suffering than he had already done.

Sir Owain approached this entrance, and when he got there he could see a large procession of people holding candles and golden candlesticks, banners and crucifixes. There were popes and cardinals, kings and queens, knights, abbots and priors, monks, canons and bishops with crosses, Franciscans, Dominicans, Carmelites, Augustinian friars, black and white nuns – every order that exists in Christendom was represented there. Men and women who had given their vows in the order of holy wedlock were there also, and all thanked God that Sir Owain had been delivered from the torment of fiends and devils and had made his way alive into Paradise.

When they had finished their music, two came forward out of the procession holding golden palm fronds – two archbishops! They approached Sir Owain and stood on either side of him. Then they led Sir Owain around, introducing him to a happiness that exceeds all joy! The singing was blissful – it was in perfect harmony and with a precise and intelligent ear for each part that had to be sung. The melody was from God and each singer contributed with a joyous voice. Angels accompanied them on the harp and the fiddle and the psaltery, and always there was a merry ringing of bells. But no one is allowed to sing in this place unless they are clean of all sin, and free from all vice. Please God, for the wounds that you suffered for us on the cross, and your mother Mary, grant to us the honour to sing in this place! This joy is the reward for love and charity towards God and mankind. Whoever rejects the tainted love to be had on Earth, and loves only God and the Holy Trinity, shall sing within this place!

There were many other beautiful things that Sir Owain could see. High trees with branches in which sat the birds of heaven singing their beautiful notes, breaking in and out of a myriad of melodies both high and low, with a merry glee. Sir Owain thought himself quite prepared to spend the rest of eternity listening to such a wonderful sound. Soon he was taken to see the Tree of Life, which played such a large part in the expulsion of Adam and Eve from this Paradise. There were gardens full of flowers, roses and lilies of all colours, primroses, wild roses, chrysanthemums, columbines, in fact, every flower one might imagine. The garden contained more plants and blooms than any on Earth and the leaves were always green and fresh and everything was as sweet as licorice because there is no alternation of winter and summer in this place. There were springs and splash-pools whose water was sweeter than any mead. But one thing above all caught Sir Owain's eye: four crystal-clear streams carried water away and out of Paradise, one called Phison with gold in its sediments, a second called Gihon from which diamonds and precious gems could be gathered, a third, Euphrates and a forth, Tigris. I tell no word of a lie! All those who love to live a blameless life shall experience this place at first hand and see much more than I am able to describe here, beneath the glory of God on high; blessed be his name!

Some souls appeared to be by themselves, others in groups of up to a dozen or so, but all were happy to be where they were, and intermingled and conversed with one another like sisters and brothers. Some of them were dressed in scarlet, others in purple or golden silk, or in white vestments like those that priests wear at Mass. Sir Owain could see by each soul’s clothing how each had fared in life. I can make a comparison with the stars – the joys of Paradise are distributed in a way that resembles the brightness of the stars. A star may be much brighter than all the others nearby and no star has the same luminosity as any other, but even the dimmest of them all is a star none the less. In the same way, no two souls that Sir Owain could see were experiencing the same amount of bliss, but the soul that had apportioned to itself the least joy thought that it had the most, and counted itself happy enough!

The two archbishops accompanied Sir Owain as they guided him around the gardens. 'Brother, may God be praised!' they both exclaimed, 'You have achieved your desire. You have seen with your own eyes the joy and the pain that is to be found in this place. Before you go, we shall tell you exactly the route through which you have been brought. The land that was so full of sorrow and in which you suffered so much pain and woe is called purgatory. This other land that is so extensive and so broad and so full of happiness, and that you can see all around you and is full of such joy, is called Paradise. No man may enter Paradise until he has had his soul cleansed in purgatory. Only then may he enter this place. And we lead them into joy,' explained one of the bishops, 'in groups of ten or twelve. Some are so deeply immersed in the terrors of purgatory that they have no idea when they shall be released. But if their friends do good works and have Masses sung for their soul, or do other charitable things, they shall all the more quickly be released out of their misery and brought into Paradise. And here, all will eventually pass upwards into God's glory, the High Kingdom, or Celestial Paradise, but no one can know when God will send for them. Only Christians can achieve this, and there is no happiness to compare with it. When we come out of the heat of purgatory we cannot go there immediately, we must spend a long time in the Earthly Paradise before being called to see God's face in the Celestial Paradise. The child that is born tonight, before the soul can be brought here, shall pass swiftly over the pains of purgatory. But the way is hard and difficult for the old man who has spent a long time in sin.'

They went further onwards until they came to a high mountain. All the souls around them were happy and lighthearted and they travelled for a long while until they came to the top and heard all sorts of birds singing, for there is always more joy in a bird's song than in the music from a fiddle or a harp. The land that is called the Earthly Paradise is located on Earth, but this other that they are approaching is called the Celestial Paradise, God's kingdom, whose bliss is like no other and it lies above the air.

Had Adam not gone against God's will, he, nor none of his descendants, would have had to have left the Earthly Paradise that Sir Owain has just seen. But because Adam disobeyed so badly, he was forced to wield a pick and a shovel and dig ditches to support his wife and himself, with many a blistered hand. God was so angry that Adam had to clothe himself in a fig leaf and go around half naked. Learn from this example, if you are sane! An angel came with a sword of fire and drove them out of Paradise into Middle Earth, between heaven and hell, and their descendants have lived in sorrow and woe ever since. And when he died, Adam went to hell, and all his descendants as well, until God's son was born and then crucified and released Adam from that prison and saved him from an eternity of hopelessness.

The bishops asked Sir Owain to tell them what colour he thought Paradise to be: 'White or grey, blue or red, yellow or green perhaps,' they suggested.

'I shall tell you,' said Sir Owain. 'It is a thousand times brighter than gold.'

'Yes, indeed!' said the bishops. 'And what you can see is only the gateway to it!'

The South English Legendary briefly takes up the story once more…

'For we are still not in true Paradise,' they explained. 'Each day we receive souls from purgatory, and a number of the souls who are already here with us will make their way to heaven, so our numbers in Earthly Paradise increase and decrease, but we have no idea who shall be called to heaven next. Only God knows this. But while we are here on this summit, Our Lord allows us a taste of the food of heaven, a sweet and pure sustenance. Before you leave here we invite you to experience this with us.'

No sooner had he said this than a sort of breath came down from heaven that shone clear and bright, overspreading all the land, and a bright light caused them all to bow their heads instinctively. Sir Owain raised himself, and the light seemed to penetrate every limb of his body, and every joint. He felt more joy and delight than he had ever felt before. He stood as though he was paralysed, and didn't know where he was, nor whether he was alive or dead. It felt as though he was in a dream. Such power has the joy of heaven.

This beauty lasted for only a short while, but it was long enough to fill them with the holy light. Sir Owain looked about and understood his true being, so replete was he with the blessed radiance. It was so delicious and so good that he thought that if he took no more food ever again he would crave for nothing, so satisfying was this meal that he had just experienced.

'Lo!' said the archbishops who were showing him around. 'Now you have seen something of Our Lord's grace.'

…and from the medieval romance Sir Owain:

'But it is our judgment,' they said, 'that you must now retrace the path along which you have come. Guard yourself from deadly sin, and when you die you shall be led by angels into this everlasting joy.'

Sir Owain wept copiously and begged them to let him stay; he pleaded with them to ask God to let him stay, so that he would never again have to experience the horror of purgatory. But his pleading did him no good. So he said his goodbyes and departed, although he was sorely distressed to have to do so. Suddenly, a thousand fiends approached him from near the Bridge of Paradise, as quickly as bolts from a crossbow! But they were unable to get close to him, however hard they tried. And then Sir Owain found himself back at the hall. Before him were the thirteen monks, standing there. They held up their hands, thanked God a thousand times and urged Sir Owain to go back into the land of Ireland, as quickly as he could.

And as this story tells, the prior who kept the entrance to Saint Patrick’s Purgatory dreamt that night that Sir Owain had survived his ordeal and that he would arrive back in the morning, through the grace of God Almighty. So the prior and all his brothers went in procession, with crosses and banners, to the hole into which Sir Owain had disappeared. And when they arrived, they saw a bright light shining in the darkness and from the centre of this light emerged Sir Owain, God’s knight. They all knew from this that Sir Owain had survived purgatory and achieved Paradise, and was now a holy man.

They led him into the church and for fifteen days Sir Owain prayed and paid homage to God, and at the end of these fifteen days he took up a bag and a walking stick and made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land to see the spot where Our Lord Jesus Christ had been crucified, and where he rose from the dead, blessed be his name! Sir Owain visited Bethlehem, when God was born of Mary, and the place where Christ arose into heaven. And then he went back to Ireland and took a monk’s habit, and lived there for seven years. And when he died, he went, through God’s grace, straight into the joy of Paradise.

Now God – for the love of Saint Owain – grant us heaven's bliss and Your presence for evermore. Amen.

Translation and retelling of Sir Owain copyright © 2007, 2016 by Richard Scott-Robinson

references

Saint Patrick – Wikipedia

Saint Patrick's Purgatory – Wikipedia

Sir Owain – TEAMS Middle English texts

Complete text of the 14th century South English Legendary, edited by Charlotte d'Eveyln and Anna J Mill, 1956, reprinted 1967 (volume 1, containing the story of Saint Patrick's Purgatory, reprinted 2004) available through the Early English Text Society (EETS)

Medieval Institute Publications – Foster, Edward E (Ed), 2004. Three Purgatory Poems: The Gast of Gy, Sir Owain, The Vision of Tundale. TEAMS Middle English texts

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