Understanding Purgatory Through Haibane Renmei

Purgatory is a topic that has always ruffled some feathers in Christian denominations outside of the Catholic Church.  Usually it stems from the idea that there is no need for a middle place for souls since in most other Christian faiths one is either saved or not saved with no in-between. This means that the idea of souls needing purification after death is a pretty radical one, and often is a pretty difficult concept to grasp. I had been thinking about how to better explain this idea to some of my non-Catholic friends when I stumbled unexpectedly onto an answer. It’s funny how sometimes the things we are desperate to gain a deeper understanding of find ways to reveal themselves to us.

Haibane Renmei is a beautiful, simplistic anime that does just that. Any Catholic familiar with the theology regarding purgatory will immediately ind a very strong correlation between what we understand of purgatory and the story of the Haibane living in Old Town. Haibane are humanoid otherworldly beings that are born from cocoons in a peculiar walled city. While in the cocoon each Haibane has a dream, a dream that must be remembered in order for a Haibane to be appropriately named. Arriving without wings and a halo soon after hatching Haibane recieve both, though the process of growing wings can be a painful one. It’s also interesting to note the correlation between the color of healthy Haibane wings (gray) which suggests that they are good creatures but perhaps not at their full potential since their wings are not white, a color commonly associated with angelic beings that are fully pure.

This theme of working towards inner perfection is one that you see repeat itself often in Haibane Renmei, as many of the characters have their own particular hang ups they are required to work through. The life of a Haibane is extremely regulated. They are not paid, they are expected to work for the town and provide a service, and are not allowed to own anything new. All of their possessions must be second hand.  The parallel to penances here is very strong, and that penance is not just an act of reparation, but also an act of self-mortification that allows someone to focus more fully on overcoming their spiritual hang ups.

The world of Haibane Renmei is deceptively rich and deep and as a Catholic, watching it provided me with many hours of introspection regarding my own spiritual journey. This correlation between purgatory and the Haibane becomes even stronger when the end goal of all Haibane is revealed. It’s no secret that all Haibane are only temporary visitors to the walled city. Each Haibane must work to uncover and understand the meaning of their cocoon dreams and break free of the “circle of sin” that keeps them from moving on. If a Haibane is successful this Haibane will receive an interior knowledge that the task is complete, they are sufficiently purified of their shortcomings and will make a “Day of Flight” and forever dissapear beyond the walls of the city.  Very much like our ideas of purgatory when a soul enters into purgatory to expiate sin, but knows that this pain, this work of purification will eventually result in their freedom from the temporary suffering of purgatory and the attainment of the beatific vision. A beautiful parallel made easy to understand by watching the lives of the Haibane unfold.

I could go one for pages about the Catholic symbolism regarding  sin, redemption, mortification, obedience, faith and more but I firmly believe that the easier thing for those curious about the show would be to simply give it a watch through and experience it for yourself.

I find it hard to describe my feelings watching the show because I often found myself lost in thought  considering the connections to my faith that were blatantly being made. I highly recommend it to all Catholics who are seeking a greater understanding of why it’s sometimes necessary to make a pit stop in purgatory on our way to heavenly perfection.  The simple every day lives of the Haibane are beautiful, their journeys each so unique and different. It is more of a slice of life anime, so it’s slower moving, but you’ll find yourselves drawn in and enchanted by this show.   It’s a short watch I believe 12 to 13 episodes max, each episode 30 minutes or so.  You can find it on Crunchy Roll.  I’d be very interested in hearing other’s Catholic experiences with the show and their own personal stories.

Tell me what you think in the comments section.

1 Comment

  1. Years ago, I watched this anime, and it threw me in for a loop. It challenged my own way of thinking and brokenness as it engaged with concepts of the circle of sin and the inability of the self to save itself, made most pronounced in the last episode. I found myself weeping so many times because of how much it resonated with my soul the things that the two main characters, Rakka and Reki went through.
    Haibane Renmei appears to be a message for those who have or have thought about suicide. I think even in the day of the anime’s release, Japan had (and may still have) a high suicide rate. The haibane appear to be those who have committed suicide, their dreams possibly detailing how they died. The crows such are the people who previously know them interceding in some way for them. The process of Old Town is to bring them to recognize the worth of their lives in preparation for life above. I may be wrong on this, especially over some of the details (like some haibane having black wings from losing hope or having actually committing suicide), but I think it still speaks as a reminder of the worth of one’s life.
    Thanks for the post!

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