Pope Recounted Near-Death Experiences Strikingly Similar To Modern Cases
By Michael H. Brown
Do some people really get a glimpse of life after death? Are there those who "die" and come back?
Such cases seem to greatly inform us on how to live our lives -- and prepare for the next. But what does the Church say? Are instances where people claim they entered eternity while clinically "dead" in line with Christianity?
As we have mentioned previously, one of history's most memorable pontiffs, Pope Gregory the Great, recorded near-death experiences in a book called Dialogues back in the sixth century, and in them are striking parallels to what is reported by thousands of survivors today. As in modern cases, those who traversed the boundaries of death likewise reported a passage -- a barrier across which death became permanent -- and a wondrous land that seemed made of precious stone (but much better than our jewels and gold). They also related encounters with angelic beings who helped them evaluate their lives (something that is also an uncanny mainstay in modern occurrences).
In the vast majority of modern-day experiences, the accent is on the positive. It is a tremendous experience that positively transforms the lives of those who have it.
But as Gregory reported, there is also a netherworld, and according to the Pope, this was seen in the case of a hermit who was revived from death and testified that he had been to hell, where he said he saw several powerful men dangling in fire.
He was himself being dragged into flames but was rescued by an angel in shining garment, who sent him back to life with the words: "Leave, and consider carefully how you will live from now on."
This is highly similar to those who have near-death experiences in our own time, watching their entire lives flash before their eyes and sent back because of God's grace, a second chance, or because it was not yet their time.
Call it the ultimate manifestation of Christ's mercy. That's another similarity: a phenomenally high percentage of those who have near-death experiences see Jesus, even if they are not believing Christians. He stands at the threshold and embraces them with an incredible, indescribable love. Most who have the experience say it was the most pleasant thing that ever occurred to them and emphatically stress that they did not want to return to earth -- that they had found their true home. They always stress how impossible it is to describe the goodness!
But there is also the possibility of deep purgatory or even hell for those who reject God and love, who succumb to pride, who violate the commandments. Gregory recorded the case of a prominent businessman named Stephen who had never believed in hell but altered his viewpoint after a brush with the netherworld. "Stephen confessed to Gregory that he had never believed the stories about hell and punishment but that his brief visit to the infernal court changed his mind," writes scholar Carol Zaleski.
The most influential of Gregory's anecdotes was that of a soldier who died from the plagues sweeping across Rome as a chastisement in the Middle Ages. As Gregory the Great recounted, "A certain soldier in this city of ours happened to be struck down. He was drawn out of his body and lay lifeless, but he soon returned [to life] and described what befell him. At that time there were many people experiencing these things. He said that there was a bridge, under which ran a black, gloomy river which breathed forth an intolerably foul-smelling vapor. But across the bridge there were delightful meadows carpeted with green grass and sweet-smelling flowers. The meadows seemed to be meeting places for people clothed in white. Such a pleasant odor filled the air that the sweet smell by itself was enough to satisfy the hunger of the inhabitants who were strolling there. In that place each one had his own separate dwelling, filled with magnificent light. A house of amazing capacity was being constructed there, apparently out of golden bricks, but he could not find out for whom it might be."
This reminds us of modern near-death experiencers who attempt to convey what they say are buildings but not really buildings and a light beyond any earthly luminosity. It also brings to mind what mystics describe as the "odor of sanctity."
Less than two hundred years later, in the eighth century, the famed Anglo-Saxon monk and scholar St. Bede recounted the case of a man who likewise "died" and was met at the onset by a man "of shining countenance and bright apparel" who took him to a valley that roared with flames on one side while the other raged with hail and snow. Countless souls were tossed to and fro in this place that, it was explained, was not really hell but a place of "temporary torments."
We might describe that as "lowest Purgatory." There are different levels. Some say the lowest levels are similar to hell. There is also a middle, "gray" area. At the top of Purgatory it is nearly paradise (we learn from some such experiences). As we meditate during Lent, let us remember those who fall into an unpleasant afterlife and whom Bede said "can be released from their punishments by Masses, prayers, alms, and fasts performed by the living on their behalf."
Then there is Heaven itself -- which we'll be discussing shortly. According to Bede, Drythelm traveled to a realm of clear light and a wall beyond which was that same flowery meadow. Here he met "many companies of happy people" (it was actually the threshold of Heaven, an "antechamber," not yet Heaven itself), and sweet singing as he approached paradise.
"Do not be afraid, for I have truly risen from the death by which I was held fast, and have been permitted to live again among men; nevertheless, from now on I must live not according to my old habits," said Drythelm, "but in a much different manner."
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