By JAMES K. FITZPATRICK
Are psychic experiences and extrasensory perception real? I say they are, or can be. Beyond that, I think they provide an answer to the objections offered by nonbelievers who doubt the reality of Jesus’ promise of an afterlife. Why do I think psychic experiences are real? Because I had one. Just one, but it was so real and intense that I have no doubt about its authenticity. It is an experience I described years ago in The Wanderer. If by chance there is anyone reading this column today who remembers the earlier column, I ask you to bear with me. The context was different back then.
The experience took place when I was in my 30s, somewhere in the late 1970s. My brother Brian was in his early teens at the time (he was born when I was 16), and an active player in a New York City roller hockey league. I can remember the details as if it all took place yesterday. You will have to take my word that I am not exaggerating in the slightest as I relate them to you. (I am fully aware that it would ruin the credibility of my story if I fudged even the slightest part of the narration.)
It happened about two or three o’clock in the morning. I was sound asleep, when I was jolted awake by a dream more intense than any other that I can recall. In the dream, I saw my brother lying on a table covered with white sheets. He was writhing in pain and crying out my name. What did I do in response? Nothing. It was a dream. I put the images out of my mind and went back to sleep. I had to be awake for work in just a few hours. I didn’t think of the dream again as I got up and shaved and left for my commute to the job. I didn’t tell my wife about the dream. Again, it was just a dream.
The workday was uneventful; the dream never entered my mind. I drove home in the late afternoon. I walked the dog, then sat down to listen to the radio and read the mail. At which point, the phone rang. I picked it up and heard my mother’s voice on the line. As soon as I heard her, I recalled the dream. I said to myself, “Uh-oh, something’s wrong with Brian.”
The news was not all that bad. Brian was recovering from a successful operation to remove splinters from his eye. He had been hit accidentally by a raised hockey stick. (In those days the sticks were made of wood and the roller hockey players did not wear the wire face masks that have been made mandatory for young hockey players.) Brian had been lying on his back in pain on an emergency room bed around the time when my dream pictured him in that state.
I guess someone could argue that it was all a coincidence. And I would not be able to disprove such a contention. It does not matter: I harbor no doubts. I will go to my grave convinced something mysterious and extraordinary, beyond the world of the senses, took place that night. Somehow the sights and sounds of my brother in duress, 50 miles away, came to my consciousness without the aid of my senses. That’s the definition of an extrasensory perception.
And what does all this have to do with Jesus’ promise of eternal life in Heaven for those who believe and follow Him? I would argue a great deal. We all have heard those who cast doubts upon the Church’s teachings about the faithful departed being aware of themselves as individuals after they die, whether in Heaven, Hell or Purgatory. We have heard smart alecks making the point that it is senseless to pray to patron saints for their intercession in our lives, because they have no ears; or to imagine them being aware of our earthly plight because they have no eyes. Their eyes and ears are with their bodies in their earthly graves.
There are those who make the same point about our prayers and Masses for the salvation of our loved ones’ souls. They will argue that we are wasting our time because our deceased loved ones cannot be aware of themselves as persons, as individuals, when their brains are in their cemetery plots; that we cannot think and experience self-awareness without our brains. Those who argue this way make the same point about the lost souls in Hell. How can they feel pain from the “fires of hell” when their nervous systems, in one form of decomposition or another, are still in the ground, or perhaps even in a cremated state?
In fact, I have been told that there are theologians in good standing with the Church who make the same point. They maintain that the deceased will not be aware of themselves as individuals and experience the fullness of the Beatific Vision until the Last Judgment, when their souls will be united with their risen bodies. (This is not as unpalatable a prospect as one might think on first hearing. In this scenario, as far as the deceased are concerned, the time between their death and the Last Judgment would be an instant. You are not aware of what you are not aware.)
I would argue that psychic phenomena and extrasensory experiences answer these objections to the Church’s teachings about Heaven. Psychic phenomena illustrate why there is no reason to think that the saints and our deceased loved ones are not aware of themselves in Heaven; that they can hear and comprehend our prayers of petition for intercession with the Father, even if their ears and brains are not yet united with them. I “saw” and “heard” my brother during his surgery through some channel that did not require my eyes and ears and brain to be interacting with his physical presence.
Why should it be a preposterous thought to think that our deceased loved ones and patron saints are able to interact with us in an analogous manner?
We should keep in mind that God the Father is a Spirit. He has no ears, no eyes, but it is central to our beliefs as Catholics that He can see and hear us during our lives on Earth; that He sees every sparrow that falls to earth.
I do not know if St. Paul’s description of Heaven in 1 Cor. 2:9 as a place where we will partake in “things no eye has seen, no ear has heard, no human heart has conceived” as God’s reward for “those who have loved Him,” is exactly applicable here. But it makes the case that we are presumptuous if we think we can define the nature of Heaven on the basis of our understanding of how knowledge is acquired and comprehended in our daily lives in our earthly existence.
When we try to do that, we end up like the little boy on the beach in the legend told about St. Augustine.
You will remember the story: about how St. Augustine came across the boy while the great theologian was attempting to grasp the nature of the Holy Trinity. The boy had dug a hole in the sand and was going out to the sea again and again to carry some water in a little seashell to pour into the hole. St. Augustine asked him, “What are you doing?” “I’m going to pour the entire ocean into this hole,” the boy responded. “That is impossible; the whole ocean will not fit in the hole you have made,” said St. Augustine. The boy replied, “And you cannot fit the Trinity in your tiny little brain.” The boy then disappeared.
The legend goes on to tell us that St. Augustine believed he had seen an angel. True story or not, the moral is sound.