Vital Signs

"I Had Always Been Skeptical…"

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…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.

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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.

 

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