Beliefnet
Several years ago, prominent Catholic thinker Richard John Neuhaus became gravely ill and nearly died during an emergency operation. In this excerpt, Father Neuhaus reflects on the "presences" that were revealed to him in his hospital ward. Reprinted from "As I Lay Dying" with permission of Basic Books.

I have not mentioned 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 have 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 bed staring intensely 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 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, maybe longer. 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.

***

Tell me that I was dreaming and you might as well tell me I was dreaming that I wrote the sentence before this one. Testing my awareness, I pinched myself hard, ran through the multiplication tables, and recalled the birthdays of my seven brothers and sisters, and my wits were vibrantly about me. All of this took five or seven minutes, maybe less. I resolved at that moment that I would never, never let anything dissuade me from the reality of what has happened. Knowing my skeptical self, I expected I would later be inclined to doubt it.

"Everything is ready now." I would be thinking of 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.

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 or spiritual condition, 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 continue to have difficulties with what I so clearly remember. It was so unambiguously benign, suggesting such a smooth and easy transition between this life and whatever is to follow. That does not fit my understanding of the wrenching and painful separation of soul from body, the destruction of the body-soul being that I am. Then too, the Christian tradition, along with Plato and the best of the ancients, insists that death is followed by judgment, a final reckoning. That is a prospect that is not unattended by fear, even terror. Yet the message was so very friendly and consoling, as though a positive outcome of the judgment was confidently anticipated. This raises a dramatically different possibility. As there are good angels, so there are evil angels. What if the visitation was in fact a temptation to presumption, to the mortal sin of taking for granted the mercy of God? At least hypothetically, that cannot be ruled out. But I do rule it out, for all this happened in the context of conscious and firm reliance on the forgiving grace of God in Christ.

***

Am I glad it happened? Yes, glad and grateful. It is an abiding consolation and, in its remembrance, an ever-recurring occasion to recognize that reality is ever so much more strange than we are inclined or able to imagine. Such a thing has not happened to me since. It is enough.

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