Do You Mean Limbo or Purgatory?

By Maeve Maddox

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A while back, I made a note of a radio announcer’s comment that Edward Snowden, who had been granted asylum in Russia, “has been in purgatory” in the Moscow airport.

Considering that Snowden was simply existing in the airport until such time as he could enter a country, I thought that the more appropriate word here would be limbo, not purgatory.

Limbo and Purgatory are concepts in Roman Catholic belief. Through the centuries, official doctrine has shifted, but in the popular imagination—and therefore in a sense applicable to its metaphorical use—Purgatory is a place of punishment. Limbo is merely a place or state of waiting, no pain involved.

Limbo, from Latin limbus (border, edge, hem, or fringe) is situated on the border of Hell. It’s imagined as a passive, peaceful place where the souls of righteous people who lived before Christ wait until Judgement Day. The souls of unbaptized children also go there. Some Christians believe that the souls of more recent righteous non-Christians who never had the opportunity to know Christ, may also await judgment in Limbo.

Purgatory, on the other hand, is a place of spiritual cleansing and purification.

The Latin verb purgare means, “to clean out.” The noun purgatio is “a cleaning out,” and purgatorium is a place of purging and cleansing. Purgatory, therefore, is a place where cleansing takes place.

Modern Catholic belief does not dwell on the punishment aspect of purgatory. According to John Thiel, professor of religious studies at Fairfield University, “purgatory virtually disappeared from Catholic belief and practice since Vatican II.” Nevertheless, in the popular imagination, purgatory is a place of torment, if only temporary. For that reason, in many examples of the purgatory metaphor in the media, limbo frequently seems the better choice.

The deal, announced last year, is still stuck in regulatory purgatory in Taipei.

Presumably, the deal is simply awaiting approval.

The expression regulatory purgatory started climbing on the Ngram Viewer in 1975, peaking in 1990, at which time it started a precipitate decline that experienced a turnaround in 2014.

A Google search for the phrase brings up 3,550,000 hits. From what I can tell, the phrase refers to the way government regulations tend to delay the plans of developers.

The following extract from an article with the heading “Escaping regulatory purgatory,” suggests that writers who use the phrase are in fact thinking of limbo, but reach for purgatory because it sounds worse:

With no viable debate at the top, the big issues go unresolved, and regulated companies are left in a kind of limbo, needing relief but not knowing how to help themselves. Many companies, convinced that there is no escape from this regulatory purgatory, do not even try to improve their relations with regulators.

Sometimes, perhaps, speakers genuinely believe that limbo and purgatory mean the same thing.

A British reader of a blog in The Atlantic writes:

I’m looking for a word for the items of clothing which sit perched on a chair in my bedroom, waiting to be reworn. They are not yet ready for the laundry bin (since I plan to rewear them), but they are no longer suitable for the wardrobe (which I reserve for clean clothes). I assume others keep their lightly worn clothes in a similar purgatory?

Again, as no torment is involved, the more appropriate metaphor for the state of the temporarily homeless clothing would be limbo.

Here’s an example of an apt use of purgatory:

Families suffer when someone they love descends into the purgatory of addiction.

This usage is apt because drug addiction is certainly a torment, but with treatment, it can be temporary.

In browsing for examples of purgatory being misused for limbo, I came across two interesting bits of string: St. Patrick’s Purgatory and the legal term, oath purgatory.

St Patrick’s Purgatory is the name of a cavern on Station Island in Lough Derg, County Donegal. Ireland. According to legend, Christ appeared to St Patrick there and showed him a deep pit with a narrow opening that was an entrance to Purgatory. The use of purgatory in the name may predate the church doctrine of Purgatory as a place of punishment in the afterlife. The cave may have been used as a literal purgatorium—a place of cleansing, like a Native American sweat lodge. In Ireland, people would enter such a small enclosed place to inhale medicinal smoke produced by burning various plants.

Black’s Law Dictionary defines oath purgatory as “the term applied to a sworn statement where a person purges himself and attempts to clear himself of wrong doing or misconduct.”

Bottomline: being in limbo means being in a state of waiting; being in purgatory connotes temporary suffering as prelude to something better.

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