Near Death Experiences
Once in Manresa he was ill with a high fever which brought him to death’s door, and he felt sure that his soul was about to leave his body. At this moment the thought occurred to him that he was a just man. It annoyed him to such an extent that he did nothing but resist it and place his sin before his eyes. He had more trouble with this thought than with the fever itself, but he could not overcome it no matter how he tried to get the better of it. However, as the fever abated a little and he was no longer in immediate danger of death, he began to cry out to certain ladies who had come to visit him that for the love of God if ever they saw him at the point of death again, they should cry out and remind him that he was a sinner and should remember the offenses he had committed against God.
On another occasion, when he was on his way from Valencia to Italy by sea, the rudder of the ship was broken by a mighty storm, and matters came to such a pass that in his own judgment and that of many other passengers they could not in the ordinary course of events escape death. He examined himself carefully and prepared for death, but could not have any fear because of his sins, or of being condemned. He had rather great confusion and sorrow for not having made a proper use of the gifts and graces that God our Lord had bestowed upon him.
Again in the year 1550 he was very ill, and he and many others thought that his last hour had come. This time, thinking about death, he found so much joy and so much spiritual consolation in the thought of dying that he melted into tears. This became so common with him that he often turned his thoughts away from death to avoid having so much of this consolation.
There is a note added after the suggested meditation on Hell in the first week of The Spiritual Exercises. It reads as follows: “If the one giving the Exercises judges that it would be profitable for the exercitant, other exercises may be added here, for example, on death and other punishments of sin, on judgment, etc. Let him not think this is forbidden, though they are not given here.” The “First Week” of The Spiritual Exercises is devoted to putting the one making them in touch with his or her own sin, and the sin of the world. It is clear from the excerpt from Ignatius’ autobiography above, and this notation in The Exercises, that Saint Ignatius believed that the contemplation of one’s own death, and/or the punishments of Hell, could be a very effective aid in helping one come to a greater awareness of his or her own sin.
Now I’ll be the first to say that Saint Ignatius seems to go a bit overboard with his concern about what he is thinking or feeling as he contemplates the possibility of death, but we should be careful not to dismiss his concern altogether. Instead, we should take the opportunity to ask why Ignatius’ concerns strike us as so extreme. Is it because, trusting in God’s forgiveness, we can’t imagine the possibility of Hell and eternal punishment? If this be the case—as it so often is in the mind of many today—how, then, do we account for the fact that Jesus himself warned us of the dangers of Hell and eternal punishment? Or is it because, having entered into a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, we already believe our salvation to be assured? Some might be surprised to know that as Catholics we do not believe we can have assurance of salvation in this life. Or, it may be that we just would rather not talk about such indelicate possibilities. But, I believe, that Saint Ignatius’ suggestion that we should indeed contemplate such possibilities points to a vitally important reason for doing so: Faced with the reality of our own sin, we realize we cannot become complacent in our attempts to more perfectly follow Christ and achieve his will for our lives. The Spiritual Exercises are not an experience which takes place merely in the matter of 5, 8 or 30 days. If entered into properly, they invite us into a process of lifetime growth in the spiritual life, a life of constant conversion, in which we must continually, as we do in the Mass each time we worship, call to mind our sins even as we also contemplate the extraordinary life which Jesus calls us to. We are called to live in constant wonder at the fact that though we are sinners, we are invited by Christ to walk with Him, and share in the work of God’s Kingdom.
Matthew Lickona, in his book Swimming With Scapulars, gives us an example of what a more contemporary mediation on one’s own death might look like:
Christmas Eve of 1992 found me just off the coast of Florida, getting pounded silly by the early morning waves. I was nineteen, and I enjoyed throwing myself against the six-footers as they broke. I enjoyed the roaring violence of it: the way my body’s motion was suddenly halted and reversed; the way I was thrown down by the surrounding water, spun around, and held under so that I lost my sense of direction; the way I had to fight my way back above water, sometimes against a sucking riptide. But after one particularly disorienting collision, and a riptide that gripped me long enough to engender that moment of thrilling terror—will I make it up?—I gained the surface and found I had lost my scapular.
“Whosoever dies wearing this scapular shall not suffer eternal fire.” Tradition holds this to be the promise given by the Blessed Virgin Mary upon the garment’s presentation to the Carmelite Prior St. Simon Stock in 1251. Though I had been enrolled in the scapular—two small squares of brown wool connected by strings and worn around the neck—for the better part of a year, I didn’t understand how it “worked.” Surely an article of clothing could not guarantee salvation? The promise sounded almost dangerous, a temptation to presume on God’s mercy.
But then, I supposed, if you were not one of the elect, then God would see to it that you were not wearing your scapular at the time of your death . . . God is not mocked.
As I felt the bare patch of skin on my chest where the wool square used to be, I thought of my own soul, itself weighed with sin. Was God finished being merciful with me? Was he preparing to take my life and subject me to judgment, now that I was out from under Our Lady’s promise? I panicked, and thrashed my way to shore.
What was I thinking, fighting riptides with serious sin—and the consequent threat of hell—on my soul? I once heard it said that if Christians really believed that Christ was in the tabernacle, they would never leave the church. Similarly, if I really believed my eternal fate was in jeopardy, why wasn’t I curled up on a priest’s doorstep, begging him to hear my confession?
I don’t really have an answer, except to say that growing up with God and the devil, heaven and hell, Jesus and Mary, sin and salvation, and all the rest of it had made them familiar to me, perhaps too familiar. It was easy to overlook their significance, easy to ignore the urgency and import of their existence. At nineteen, death and what cane after felt very far away. That last riptide, combined with my lost scapular, brought them a little bit nearer.
Now you may not wear a scapular, or even know what one is. But that, I think, is really beside the point. The point is that Matthew’s reflection is just the kind of thing Saint Ignatius encourages. We don’t need a scapular, a riptide, or even severe turbulence (that always works for me!) to prompt us to contemplate our mortality. We might just ask the question: If death were near, what haven’t I accomplished in my life in and relationship with Christ that I would like to have accomplished by the time of my death, and how can I be better ready to meet my Savior in the next life? None of us are finished products.