Purgatory the Movie was begun early in our sophomore year of high school, despite the assignment not being due until Halloween of the following year. Each fall Holy Cross Academy asks its eleventh grade to produce and perform a small mystery play dealing with Purgatory for the Halloween party. This tradition never rose so high, or fell so far, as when my classmates and I turned our hands to the task. 

For years and years we had watched the older students put on their versions of a Purgatory play, and all the while we prepared, plotted, and dreamed. We were determined that our Purgatory would be the biggest and brightest spectacle in our school’s history. No mere play could satisfy this thirst for the spectacular, and so, with two aspiring film makers in our ranks, we turned to the glory of the silver screen.

Setting Our Hands to the Work

10th grade was spent writing the script. Every free period would find three or four of us clustered around a computer as someone typed out the best ideas our fifteen year old brains could come up with. What emerged was thirty minute tour de force, jam packed with police chases, heavily armed Angels of Death, and a soundtrack of the best music of the 20th Century. Shooting began at the very end of 10thgrade and work continued until the night before the film was due. We could not help feeling very proud of Purgatory the Movie. Our class had come together to make something fun, informative, and earnest. Saint Peter was in his best bathrobe and the Lord had smiled on our work.

Tragedy struck, not with a bang, but with a whimper. As we left school the night before our premier one of us accidentally erased the completed film instead of a file full of raw footage. When the mistake was discovered the project was already past saving. Two of our number were allowed to skip most of their classes that day in order to salvage something to show to the school, but the result could not help being anticlimactic and embarrassing.

Embracing a Tradition

While none have been as ambitious or as disastrous as our attempt, Purgatory the Movie was not the end of the school’s tradition. Purgatory plays are put on every year just as they were eleven years ago.  This is as it should be. The tradition is bigger than any one iteration of the play. Indeed, it was only our knowledge of the tradition that made this glorious failure possible. Had we been given the assignment a month before Halloween, there would have been no time for ambition to tempt our minds.

When I look back on those school days, I realize how divorced life has become from the ritual traditions that filled Holy Cross. Traditions require a cultural memory, something which is utterly lacking in my neighborhood and in my workplace. I am a single mote of dust blown about by the world and only superficially related to the motes that are blown along beside me. The only ritualism left to me is in the Church, but even here it has been relegated to formal liturgy. There is no outlet for the creative freedom man desires as a sub-creator, the freedom which was offered to my classmates in our Purgatory assignment. 

As materialism seeks to isolate mankind into atomized consumers, it is beholden on Catholic schools to recognize their role as, very likely, the only true community that their students will belong to. Any school has the ability to create and sustain creative traditions, but a Catholic school has the added ability to draw their students to a deeper participation in the Faith. Channeling the creative freedom of students through the limitations of a set form, setting them up as the stewards of the tradition, is one of the only illustrative experiences students will have as to what it means to be a steward of God’s creation, and a free partner alongside the Creator at his work. 

I mention creative traditions specifically to exclude the lifeless revival of historical pious traditions. Teenagers are sophisticated detectors of the superficial and disingenuous. A Marian procession and May Crowning will only ever be one more tedious religious ceremony until the students are invited to participate.  The invitation must not be to a cold formalism, but should involve a dynamic use of their sub-creative freedom. If Holy Cross had handed us a fully vetted script and told us to perform the play exactly as it was written, we would have given an ironic performance, entirely in keeping with teenage stereotypes. It was the freedom granted to us within the frame work of the tradition that inspired us. And although our inspiration led to mixture of of tragedy and farce, it warms my heart to think of some  future class rising to the challenge of Purgatory the Movie 2: This time it’s actually a completed film.