—A prominent priest ponders his near-death experience
In 2003, as part of a series on NDErs who came to public prominence for reasons other than their NDE, Vital Signs published excerpts from a book by Father Richard John Neuhaus. In the book, As I Lay Dying: Meditations Upon Returning, he described his NDE.
Father Neuhaus was president of the Institute on Religion and Public Life, the author of several books exploring religion’s role in contemporary American social policy, and has been called “one of the most influential intellectuals in America” by U.S. News and World Report. Father Neuhaus died January 9, 2009, at the age of 72.
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 [following three operations for an intestinal tumor and a ruptured spleen— Editor’s note], and it was at 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 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. 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 am now as lucid and wide awake as I have 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, ran though the multiplication tables, and recalled the birth dates 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 I would never, never let anything dissuade me from the reality of what had happened. Knowing my skeptical self, 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 sure, 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 to deny either I would have to play very peculiar tricks with my mind.
“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 they 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 said that then and there I resolved never to doubt what had happened. That does not mean that I have not subsequently questioned it. I have done so many times. There is that marvelous statement by [Cardinal] Newman that a thousand difficulties do not add up to a doubt. I believe that. A doubt is a decision against something. You tell me that something happened,
…and I say, “I doubt that.” That is a decision against. It is a very different matter if I say that I do not understand how that happened…That means I have a difficulty with what you are telling me, but a thousand difficulties do not add up to a doubt. Difficulties occur in a search for understanding.
It is settled doctrine among almost all Christians that public revelation ended with the apostolic era. But after the first century God did not go out of the business of communicating with his creatures. Over the centuries, numerous saints of impeccable orthodoxy have reported such communications, often in the form of apparitions or visitations. Thus, at least for Catholics, the apparitions of the Blessed Virgin Mary at Lourdes, Fatima, Guadalupe, and elsewhere. These are commonly called private revelations, although they can have public repercussions in the devotions that grow up around them.
What happened to me on that hospital bed was, of course, no world-class apparition. There was no message to be conveyed to anyone else. It was a word very personally addressed to me. To judge from what many others say, it was not even so extraordinary, at least not in terms of the frequency of such things happening. More than a third of adult Americans say that they have at some point in their lives received communications from angels, saints, or God himself, and, at least on the surface, many reports bear similarities to mine. I cannot judge such reports, although, as I said, I am skeptical about some of the more elaborate and apparently fanciful accounts of “near death” experiences.
But 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. But then, that separation had not happened; presumably I had not yet died; the experience was on the near side of death. 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 this 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.
But my thinking about what happened that night does not stop there. Also included in the skeptic’s catalogue of difficulties is the possibility that I simply m i s r e m e m b e r what happened. That is very unlikely, however, since in the hours, days, and weeks following the event I was going over and over the details. Were I mistaken in my recalling of what happened, it would be a mistake without parallel in my experience. There is no rational excuse for crediting such a hypothetical possibility. So do I think it happened as I remember it happening? Yes. Is the interpretation I have placed upon the experience accurate? It seems to me the most plausible interpretation. It makes most sense of what happened. 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.
We speak of death as an ending and as a transition to something else. It is the terror of destruction, and it is liberation. Death attacks from without and matures from within. It is both violent alien and a friend’s offer of peace beyond understanding. Death happens to us without our permission and invites our collaboration. It is the most natural of things and the destruction of everything that is natural and right. Little wonder that the poets never tire of the subject. In dictionaries of quotations, the number of entries on death is second only to the number of entries on love; the one, like the other, seeming to be everything and nothing, the more indescribable as it is the more described. . . .
Is it possible that death is part of life, after all, or even that death is not at all? Is it possible that, between this world and the next, we simply move from life to life? . . .I know what I understood by the announcement to me that night. If I chose to go with them, something would happen between here and where we were going, and that something is called death. I did not take that next step. Had I taken it, I sensed that I would be moving into the unknown, into what I could not anticipate in advance.
“Everything is ready now.” Had I then and there said yes, the next step would have been the moment of truth. Truth undoubtable and irrevocable. From Socrates and Plato through the entirety of the human tradition, a secure belief has been that a verdict will be rendered upon the life concluded. And in that last moment is an instance of perfect freedom in which one is asked to submit to judgment. Perhaps that is presumption, perhaps an unwavering faith in the mercy of God. That, too, is for God to judge. It is simply that the message did not require that the judgment be now. It could be delayed for a time. In that, too, I was granted freedom. I was given permission to think it over for a time. Or so I understood the message.
It would mean leaving my body behind, for clearly that devastated body with all its tubes and wires and clamps wasn’t going anywhere. That was a sadness, since I was very attached to my body. Well, I thought, this body would be going to an undertaker, probably to the one around the corner on Second Avenue. I had long ago made up my mind that I did not want to be embalmed. A funeral Mass the next day and then into the ground to await the resurrection, that’s the way I wanted it. I mentioned this to a priest friend who told me it would not be possible. The cardinal, he explained, insists upon presiding at the funeral of every priest and often he is in Rome or otherwise prevented from getting there for several days. So embalming it is, then. I know it sounds odd, but I thought I owed my body an apology for this further and egregious indignity.
There is nothing that remarkable in my story, except that we are all unique in our living and dying. Early on in my illness a friend gave me John Donne’s wondrous Devotions upon Emergent Occasions. The Devotions were written almost a year after Donne had almost died and then lingered for months by death’s door. He writes, “Though I may have seniors, others may be elder than I, yet I have proceeded apace in a good university, and gone a great way in a little time, by the furtherance of a vehement fever.” So I too have been to a good university, and what I have learned, what I have learned most importantly, is that, in living and in dying, everything is ready now.
Reprinted with the kind permission of Basic Books (c) 2002, a member of the Perseus Books Group.