I’m not quite sure how this morning I came across this essay from the late Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, meditating on death. He wrote it in the year 2000, in the wake of his own painful near-death experience with an abdominal tumor discovered only after it ruptured his intestines. This part is particularly striking:
Here comes a most curious part of the story, and readers may make of it what they will. Much has been written on “near death” experiences. I had always been skeptical of such tales. I am much less so now. I am inclined to think of it as a “near life” experience, and it happened this way.
It was a couple of days after leaving intensive care, and it was night. I could hear patients in adjoining rooms moaning and mumbling and occasionally calling out; the surrounding medical machines were pumping and sucking and bleeping as usual. Then, all of a sudden, I was jerked into an utterly lucid state of awareness. I was sitting up in the bed staring intently into the darkness, although in fact I knew my body was lying flat. What I was staring at was a color like blue and purple, and vaguely in the form of hanging drapery. By the drapery were two “presences.” I saw them and yet did not see them, and I cannot explain that. But they were there, and I knew that I was not tied to the bed. I was able and prepared to get up and go somewhere. And then the presences—one or both of them, I do not know—spoke. This I heard clearly. Not in an ordinary way, for I cannot remember anything about the voice. But the message was beyond mistaking: “Everything is ready now.”
That was it. They waited for a while, maybe for a minute. Whether they were waiting for a response or just waiting to see whether I had received the message, I don’t know. “Everything is ready now.” It was not in the form of a command, nor was it an invitation to do anything. They were just letting me know. Then they were gone, and I was again flat on my back with my mind racing wildly. I had an iron resolve to determine right then and there what had happened. Had I been dreaming? In no way. I was then and was now as lucid and wide awake as I had ever been in my life.
Tell me that I was dreaming and you might as well tell me that I was dreaming that I wrote the sentence before this one. Testing my awareness, I pinched myself hard, and ran through the multiplication tables, and recalled the birth dates of my seven brothers and sisters, and my wits were vibrantly about me. The whole thing had lasted three or four minutes, maybe less. I resolved at that moment that I would never, never let anything dissuade me from the reality of what had happened. Knowing myself, I expected I would later be inclined to doubt it. It was an experience as real, as powerfully confirmed by the senses, as anything I have ever known. That was some seven years ago. Since then I have not had a moment in which I was seriously tempted to think it did not happen. It happened—as surely, as simply, as undeniably as it happened that I tied my shoelaces this morning. I could as well deny the one as deny the other, and were I to deny either I would surely be mad.
“Everything is ready now.” I would be thinking about that incessantly during the months of convalescence. My theological mind would immediately go to work on it. They were angels, of course. Angelos simply means “messenger.” There were no white robes or wings or anything of that sort. As I said, I did not see them in any ordinary sense. But there was a message; therefore there were messengers. Clearly, the message was that I could go somewhere with them. Not that I must go or should go, but simply that they were ready if I was. Go where? To God, or so it seemed. I understood that they were ready to get me ready to see God. It was obvious enough to me that I was not prepared, in my present physical and spiritual condition, for the beatific vision, for seeing God face to face. They were ready to get me ready. This comports with the doctrine of purgatory, that there is a process of purging and preparation to get us ready to meet God. I should say that their presence was entirely friendly. There was nothing sweet or cloying, and there was no urgency about it. It was as though they just wanted to let me know. The decision was mine as to when or whether I would take them up on the offer.
I believe Fr. Neuhaus saw angels. Something similar, but not nearly as dramatic, happened to me a couple of nights after my sister’s cancer diagnosis. I tell this story in The Little Way Of Ruthie Leming. I was spending the night at her house, in her bed, while she and her husband were still in the hospital. I lay there staring up at the ceiling, praying. Suddenly I turned angry at God. Why her? Why?! I prayed, and began heaving and sobbing.
And then, I became aware of a presence hovering above me. My eyes were wide-open, and I saw nothing, but I felt it — him? her? — there, as surely as if I could sense the presence of another person in a pitch-black room. I heard no voice, but the presence conveyed to me the message that Ruthie would not survive this cancer, but that I should not be afraid, because things are as they are supposed to be. What is about to happen has to happen.
Then it was gone. And I was at peace.
I think that was an angel. I told my wife about it the next morning, in case Ruthie didn’t make it; I wanted to be sure that nobody accused me of making it up after the fact of her death. After that, I never believed that Ruthie would survive, though I would have been thrilled beyond all telling if she had defied the angel’s prediction. What the angel told me that night, though, gave me the philosophical courage, if that is the phrase, to watch my sister die over the next 19 months. I believed a messenger from God told me that her death was fated, was within the will of God. The messenger didn’t explain why it had to happen, and I’m sure I wouldn’t have been able to understand it anyway. But I believed him. That incident only lasted a moment, but it took me from a state of near-convulsive weeping and sorrow into a state of tranquility, almost as if a doctor had delivered a powerful injection. I never doubted that what happened was real.
Has anything like that ever happened to you? Tell me about it.
An aside: once, when my son Lucas was just learning how to talk, he was restless during mass, and I took him out of the church, into the foyer, which was separated from the sanctuary by a glass wall. Lucas rested in my arms, his head on my shoulder, as I watched the priest celebrate mass on the other side of the partition.
Suddenly, he pulled himself upright, looked at the far side of the foyer, pointed at something I couldn’t see, and said, “Angel!” He kept pointing, turning slightly, following something as it moved out of the room and towards the altar. “Angel!” he said again, and then, “Angel!” Then he put his head back on my shoulder and went to sleep.
Julie and I noticed with all three of our children that when they were babies, they would every so often lie on the bed and fix their eyes on something on the ceiling, on the far side of the room. We would observe their eyes seeming to follow something, and their face would register delight. There was nothing there, at least nothing Julie and I could see. But those babies were seeing something. I’ve had friends observe the same phenomenon with their babies. Have you seen this?