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I’ve often wondered why there isn’t more commerce between the living and the dead. Not that I’m advocating necromancy, you understand; just wondering why it is that our Lord in His wisdom does not command or allow the souls living in what St Augustine calls the hidden receptacles to manifest themselves more often to mortal men.  The bishop of Hippo himself used to ponder the same question.  There is a touching passage in one of his earlier works in which he argues that departed souls must be ignorant of what passes on earth, for otherwise why did not his mother come to comfort him when he was feeling downcast, as she had always done while she lived?  But later he changed his mind.

It might seem that such transactions would be highly beneficial for us on earth.  Would we not be comforted and inspired if a blessed soul were to appear? Would we not be fitly chastened to see a soul come up from some purgatorial chamber, dim or twilight? And what more effective way to terrify unto salvation those still in deadly sin than the apparition of a soul from hell?

Yet we know that all these things are rare.  Not unheard of, true: we have only to read the Dialogues of St Gregory to find examples, or, if you prefer something more modern, you could turn to Aardweg’s Hungry Souls. Yet, they are rare. Why is this?

Miracles, of course, must be infrequent, since otherwise they would not be recognisable as miracles.  But such apparitions are perhaps not miraculous.  For a spirit to move to some new location and clothe itself briefly with a small portion of visible matter as with a garment does not obviously exceed its natural powers.  And even if it be a miracle, its usefulness to mortals would not depend on this, but would come from its being a reminder or revelation of great truths.  So why does not God will such apparitions to be frequent, as He wills that sermons about these same truths should be often preached by His ministers, who have not experienced that of which they speak?

I think that visions of this kind would not be as useful as we suppose.  Quidquid recipitur, after all, ad modum recipientis recipitur.  Suppose someone were scared out of mortal sin by seeing a lost soul.  That would do him no good, but just the opposite, unless he persevered in his new way of life.  Then is he to be helped to do this by a constant series of such grim visitations?  In that case, he would live in a constant state of horror, hardly propitious for growing in spiritual liberty and love.  But perhaps he could be given just one such fright to start him off?  But it is better for his conversion to be effected by human preaching, since that is meritorious for the preacher.  And if the man is so hard-hearted that he can be converted only by such a visitation – or, to speak more exactly, if among all created means, only such a visitation would tend to produce in him those serious thoughts and desires which God normally wills to be a precondition for conversion – how likely is he to persevere when once the initial shock has worn off?  Would he not be more likely (again, without prejudice to the freedom of divine grace – I do not want Aelianus to tax me with Molinism) to write the whole thing off as an hallucination, or as a strange experience best forgotten? Our Lord implies that this would be the case for the rich man’s five brothers. 

But it would console us, at least, if someone whom we loved, and about whose salvation we were fearful, were to come to us from purgatory, to reassure us, and it would be good for both of us if that soul should move us to prayer.  Yet, if that were the rule, and not the exception, what if the soul did not appear to us?  Would we not have to conclude that that soul was lost?  How could we bear such knowledge?  If it is hard for us wayfarers to think of the eternal loss of souls in general, and to unite in our minds this part of revelation and the divine love, how would it be if we learned of the loss of some soul whom we had known and loved?  Would not such knowledge be an obstacle for the spiritual progress of all but those already perfect?

But if a blessed soul were to appear – surely that would be only encouragement for the beholder, and no obstacle?  But again, what are his dispositions?  If he is an incorrigible scoffer, he has now one more thing to scoff about.  If he lacks faith rather from thoughtlessness than from scorn, such a visitation would perhaps make an impression, but need it lead him to conversion?  It might lead him to pride as easily as to humility; or, if he is the sort that would tend to be humbled by it, then he could be humbled also by a good sermon.  But at least if he were already in the right path, would not the apparition be helpful?  Yet we have St John of the Cross, doctor of the Church, to contradict this.  Any such extraordinary manifestation, he insists, is liable to lead the beholder away from the purely spiritual path of faith, hope and charity, and to alloy his motives thenceforth with curiosity and the prospect of sensuous delight.

Yet we know that such manifestations do occur, and so they must be sometimes useful.  There are some souls whom God wishes to help who are, so to speak, not likely to be helped in other ways; and for the human race as a whole, or at least for the elect as a whole, it is useful that such things happen sometimes and be recorded.  But it is also good that they be rare.

Yet perhaps many people have some lesser experiences: not apparitions, but, as it were, something imperfect and rudimentary within the same genus.  Often those who have been bereaved speak of an awareness of the presence of the departed soul, and we need not suppose that these things are usually just imagination.

I once knew an old man, very simple, cheerful, and pious.  He had never learned to read and write, having hardly been schooled.  His father, I think, must have been mad: at any rate, when the old man was a boy, his father had once branded him with a red-hot poker.  He served in the War as a conscript, and the example of some Catholic led him to convert. He had never married, and lived alone.  His conversation was often hard to follow, and yet he was the sort of person whom it raised your spirits to hear speak.  Then I went to live in a foreign land and forgot him.  One morning in that foreign land, between sleep and waking, I had a sort of sense of that old man’s soul ascending and that he greeted me as he went, disburdened of all the troubles of his long life. 

That very day a message came from my own country to say that he had died.

 

 

 

 

 

 

It was perhaps appropriate that the same-sex ‘marriage’ bill should have been passed by the House of Commons on the feast of St Agatha. According to her, admittedly late, acta, St Agatha was tortured by having her breasts cut off; praying later in her prison, she was favoured by a heavenly apparition of a man. The man explained that he was the apostle Peter, consoled her for her sufferings and healed her wounded body.

We speak of a country as the mother of her people. Marriage is the institution by which she nourishes those who are born to her, so that they may grow up strong and healthy. One of the properties of marriage, its indissolubility, had long been denied by our divorce laws. But now it is not simply a property, but the very essence itself that is denied. By formally denying the essence of marriage Parliament has as it were cut off from our motherland the maternal organs by which she may nurse her young. Who can heal her now? Only Peter.

When St Thomas was in the convent at Naples and was praying in the Church, there appeared to him Brother Romanus, whom he had left teaching at Paris. Brother Thomas said to him: “Welcome! Whence dost thou come?” But Romanus said to him: “I have passed from this life, and I am allowed to come to thee by reason of thy merits.” Then Brother Thomas, summoning up his courage, for he had been much disturbed by the sudden apparition, said to him: “If it be pleasing to God, I adjure you by God to answer my questions. First: How does it stand with me? and are my works pleasing to God?” And the other answered: “Thou art in a good state, and thy works are pleasing to God.”

Then the Master continued: “And what of thyself?” And Romanus answered: “I am in eternal life, but I was in Purgatory sixteen days because of some negligence of which I was guilty in the affair of a will which the Bishop of Paris entrusted to me for speedy execution; but I, through mine own fault, was tardy in executing it.”

Lastly S. Thomas asked: “What about that question we have so often discussed together: Do the habits we have acquired here abide with us when we are in our Fatherland?” But the other replied: “Brother Thomas, I see God, and you must ask me nought further on that question.” But Thomas at once said: “Since you see God, tell me whether you see Him with or without any intermediate image?” But Romanus replied: “As we have heard, so we have seen in the City of our God, and forthwith disappeared. But the Master remained astonished at that marvellous and unwonted apparition, and filled with joy at his favourable replies.

(from the Life by Bernard Gui, a witness at the trial of canonisation)