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Teresa of Avila 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.

waspIt 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.

god's handsAll 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.

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32 replies to this post
  1. As one who has a terminal case of cancer, this article was very comforting. I’m glad you are doing so well. “To be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord”. It don’t get no better than that. 🙂

  2. Joseph, like you I am a believer in Christ. Unlike you, I have long subscribed to what I believe is the reality of the mystical that so many, as you say for yourself, feel uncomfortable with. I hold these beliefs because of accounts such as yours. We believe in a world unseen and, as you experienced, there are times when that world and this valley of tears overlap, whether it be for our comfort or for our revelation. Yours is a fantastic account and I am grateful that you made it through, that you may share it with the rest of us.

  3. Now I understand why I don’t see eye to eye with you on many issues. I put Faith in the transcendent before anything rational at all you. Clearly do not.

    • Faith and Reason ate both important. We have to have at least no contradiction between the two. Test the spirits.

  4. Joseph: your account reminds me of Henri Nouwen’s experience in the 1980s during a spleen bleed after being hit by a car (recounted in his book “Beyond the Mirror”). I am of a scientific skeptical temperament yet know this must yield in the end to unmeasurable and unnameable realities most especially divine love.

    On a more practical note – get yourself to an allergist. Shots are available to immunize against sting allergies. They work.

  5. I’m glad you’re alright, Mr. Pearce, and also very thankful for this piece. If Catholics can’t have a mystical experience now and then for whatever is God’s reason, who can?? We receive His flesh and blood, after all!

  6. My mom recently died, and was a faithful follower of Jesus all her life. Your account gives me comfort in that if what happened to you happened to her, then her passing was joyful and wonderful and I am happy for her. I would that she had such a beautiful passing, without fear or trepidation, and could hear our prayers and words of love for her until her last breath. Thank you for sharing this story.

  7. My grandfather’s near death experience (NDE) left a lasting impression on me as a child. He was electrocuted and his heat stopped. This was back in 1953 or so. He floated above his body, then found himself at the top of valley. At the center of the valley, he saw a bright light that filled him with such peace, rest, wonder, and joy. There was a blue flash of light and he was in the valley next to the light. He saw flowers underneath the light that he knew represented his wife and kids. Then another blue flash, and he knew he could not stay. He felt a deep pang of regret that he had to go back to this life. Coming back into his body, he felt pain and coldness, but soon recovered. However it changed his life forever. He gave up his job and moved back to a beautiful area where my grandmother’s family had originally settled after coming to Canada from Ireland in the mid 1800s and bought a dairy farm. For ten years he tried to make it work, but modernization of farms was in full swing and the land, although beautiful, was not great farm land. I believe he was seeking some earthly approximation of what he experienced in that light when he made that move.

    As a university student, when I read Augustine’s Confessions, the passage that struck me the most was this one at the beginning of Book I: “Thou awakest us to delight in Thy praise; for Thou madest us for Thyself, and our heart is restless, until it repose in Thee.” This passage reminds me of my grandfather and his experience. My degree is in Classics and Comparative religions. I studied Saint Theresa, Saint John of the Cross, and Saint Therese of Lisieux, along with Augustine, Anselm, Bonaventeur, and Aquinas in the late 1990s, And, although these studies make it apparent to me how rational and reasonable is the faith, I still go back to that experience of my grandfather as the place where my faith really began. It implanted in me a firm conviction that all these reasonings and theologies ultimately stem from an experience of the divine. Although I certainly do not believe that all religions are equal, I do believe that this presence of the divine lives in every culture in every place in history. And, although God instituted the sacraments, he is not limited by them.

    God bless,
    Daniel

  8. Glad to hear you were “saved” – either way! I always wonder about these events: everyone experiences peace and warmth. No one that I have encountered experiences what looks like hell. And, where do the firest of purgatory fit into these experiences?

    • Don,

      I have read of several hellish near death experiences. Whether those were actually hell or maybe some of them purgatory is hard to tell, but they are out there.

  9. In looking at Don’s commet I would like to mention an example of a priest who almost went to hell. His name is Father Steven Scheier. You might went to look up his encounter.

  10. Based on the details of the attack and assuming this occurred in Tennessee this was not just a wasp attack but a yellow jacket attack. They are indeed wasps but a really nasty variety. They can have very large nests which afford you the opportunity to be stung more times than you thought possible. People do occasionally die from such attacks. I’m glad you survived and appreciate you sharing your experience.

  11. Thanks for sharing. That is a great account and comforting to hear. What a blessing! Just curious, is there a specific way that you have been changed, or how you will live your life?

  12. Great story. I had an agrument with my husband one night as I was crying I said, “Lord God how much longer must I endure this cruelty”? I didn’t realize at the time that I was moving from side to side when I crossed over into a plain, like walking through a door, I felt all this peace and love. I said, “wow” 3 times also I said “I’m not worthy to be here”. Then a cloud appeared with great light and spoke to me and I realized this was God after speaking to me God touched my cheek. I knew with all certainty that I was guided to Heaven in my grief He made things right. I have been blessed with Gods graces and been at peace ever since with no bad days or moods. My life has changed.

  13. Thank you for sharing. I’m so happy your family is, again, complete.
    Ps. 91:11, 12 “For He shall give his angels charge over thee, to keep thee in all they ways. They shall bear thee up in their hands, lest thou dash thy foot against a stone.”

  14. This is where you brought me to tears…..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.

  15. What an amazing story, Joseph! I’d love to hear how this encounter with death–and God–has changed you. Will you be coming back to La. for the next Chesterton conference?

    • Good to hear from you! Yes I’ll be back in Louisiana for next year’s conference. See you then, God willing!

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