I would not describe myself as a mystic, nor would I say that I am particularly attracted to mysticism. On the contrary, I tend to shy away from such things. I would even go so far as to say that I have a sneaking sympathy for Ronald Knox’s quip (or was it Newman’s) that mysticism begins in mist and ends in schism.
It’s not that I don’t respect mysticism—as long as it is grounded in orthodoxy. I have a great love for the mystical meanderings of St. John of the Cross, and who but a fool does not have profound respect for the feisty spiritual levitations of St. Teresa of Avila?
It’s just that I have always been more comfortable with the union of faith and reason to be found in Augustine or Aquinas than in the surrender of the sense and the senses to transcendental flights of selfless self-discovery.
There are exceptions. I can lose myself in the presence of beauty, be it the beauty of nature or the beauty of art, as Hopkins does, or as the great Romantics do: losing myself in the beauty so that I can discover God’s presence there, and, in so doing, find myself more deeply through the very losing of the self in the transport of delight.
In any event, this rather perambulating preamble serves to illustrate, I hope, that I am uncomfortable with any feeling that could be labeled as “mystical.” And yet, a few days ago, I had a near-death experience that can only be described as deeply mystical in a really life-changing way. Indeed, I will never be the same again.
It all began in the early evening as I was weeding kudzu from the woods on our property, a worthy but wearying endeavor that can be likened to the Long Defeat of which Tolkien writes. Suddenly I was aware of dozens of needles shooting searing pain into my body. I had disturbed a wasps’ nest. Somehow the vesperish hordes had managed to get inside my clothing and were venting their venomous spleen on my defenseless skin. Needless to say I beat a hasty retreat to my home and removed the items of clothing as expeditiously as possible.
The worst was now over—or so I thought.
I began to feel decidedly odd. Pins and needles washed over every inch of me, from the top of my head to the base of my feet and all points in between. I began to shiver uncontrollably. My face began to swell and blister. I began to feel dizzy and queasy.
My wife, Susannah, had seen enough. She ushered the children into the car, as I staggered, dazed, behind her. She wanted to get me to the emergency room as quickly as possible.
As we drove, things got much worse very fast. My vision faded so that all I could see were bright fuzzy shapes, much like the façade of Rouen Cathedral in Monet’s impressionistic depiction of it in full sunlight. I began to gasp for air and my heart pounded at an accelerated and accelerating rate. It was beating faster than it had ever beaten even after the most vigorous treadmill work out—much faster. I was now completely convinced that I was about to die. It was only a question of whether the cause of death would be the impending heart attack or whether it would be asphyxiation: a cardiac arrest or suffocation.
It was then that I had the mystical experience that will forever change my life. As I realized that I was on the point of death, a great sense of peace and resignation came over me. I was ready and, as Hamlet reminds us, the readiness is all. I would add, however, and very quickly and insistently, that it was not because of my own holiness but because I was being lifted up by supernatural hands. My rational self was very much aware that my wife was beside me, driving the car, and that my children were in the seats behind. My rational self would have screamed in panic at the thought of leaving them to fend for themselves without my protection as pater familias. How would they cope without me? Yet no such thoughts could assail the sense of being uplifted in supernatural hands, taken to a level of peace and acceptance that I had never theretofore known.
All this time, as peace prevailed at the point of death, I remained aware of my wife beside me. Realizing that we weren’t going to make it to the hospital on time, she had dialed 911 and was arranging to meet the ambulance at a halfway point. I was compos mentis. I knew what was going on. I could hear every word. And yet I was somewhere else, held aloft by mystical hands which I’d never felt before. It did not feel odd. Or strange. It felt entirely natural. I was fully at home in those hands. I felt safe. Nothing could harm me, not even death. What was passing away seemed almost trivial by comparison.
All of this sounds horrific now that I’m “safely” back behind the vale of tears with my loving family, from whom I would now wish nothing less than being separated, least of all by the deadening separation of death itself. But that’s the point. There’s no recess of my subconscious that could have been responsible for that abiding and superabundant sense of peace, nor was I ever unconscious, remaining aware at all times of everything Susannah was saying. The peace did not come from within me but from without—from above. It was supernatural. I have no doubt. It’s the only rational explanation.
My wife parked the car and I could hear the sirens of the emergency vehicles in the distance. I felt her hand on my palpitating chest. She prayed intently for the intercession of St. Philip Neri whose prayers, we were convinced, had helped heal our son of the hole in his heart (the details of which I recount in my book, Race with the Devil). Immediately my heart slowed down, my eyes could see and the breathing came more easily. I was still in a mess and was mightily relieved when the ambulance arrived but the worst of it was already over. The answer to prayer.
I had of course had an anaphylactic shock, which had almost killed me. Paradoxically it had brought me back to life. I will never be the same. How can I be? I have felt the hand of God and of his angels and saints lifting me into His Presence.
I now see as I have never seen before. “I stumbled when I saw,” says Gloucester in King Lear. Now that I’ve seen, I have less excuse than ever to stumble.
Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.