(c. 700 AD)
St. Bede the Venerable, eight-century author of A History of the English Church, tells us the story of St. Drithelm of Northumbria, who died, viewed the afterlife, and then was permitted to return to life and tell others of his vivid experience.
Drithelm was a mature adult, the devout head of a devout family. Around 693 AD a severe illness resulted in his apparent death. But the next day, when mourners surrounded his bier, he suddenly sat up. The mourners, except his wife, fled out of fright. But Drithelm told his wife: “Be not afraid, for I am now truly risen from death . . . But hereafter I am not to live as I have been wont, but rather in a very different manner.” Then he went to church, where he spent many hours in prayer. Returning home, he divided his property into three parts: for his wife, for his children, and for the poor. He next called on King Alfred and told him the full story. At the King’s request, the abbot of Melrose Abbey admitted Drithelm as a monk.
Drithelm did indeed live the rest of his life in a “very different manner.” He spent his remaining years in a hermitage on the banks of the Tweed River engaged in constant prayer and mortification. Often he would combine the two by standing in the freezing waters of the Tweed and reciting the psalms. Visitors would comment, “It is wonderful, Brother Drithelm, that you can stand such cold.” He would reply, “I have seen greater cold.” Especially did he warn those who came, about the need of wholesome fear for their lot in eternity. His words and example influenced many for good. Drithelm was never officially canonized, but Alcuin, the great Northumbrian scholar (735?-804), lists him as one of the saints of the church of York.
What had changed Drithelm’s whole way of life was an astounding vision of eternity that he had when “dead.” He recounted this vision only to those who would heed it. Among them was the monk Haemgils from whom Bede had learned about it.
On dying, St. Drithelm said he had found himself in the presence of a “handsome man in a shining robe.” This guide showed him three vistas. The first was a long valley with a road running down the middle. On one side was a great fire, on the other a blizzard of freezing snow and hail. On both sides were countless souls who would flee the flames to cool off in the blizzard, and then flee the blizzard to warm up in the fire. Drithelm thought this must be hell, but the guide said it was not.
They next came to a place of intense darkness. Here the guide left him for awhile. Soon Drithelm saw a deep pit. Out of this pit, tongues of flame would throw up souls like sparks and then swallow them again. Among those souls he saw a clergyman, a layman, and a woman. The stench of the pit was unbearable. As he stood looking, a crowd of devils surrounded him threateningly, but when the guide returned, they fled.
The third vision was of a pleasant meadow full of sweet-smelling flowers and happy people. The guide said, “This is not the Kingdom of Heaven.” When they did come towards that kingdom and sense from afar its light and sweetness, the guide would not let him go any farther. He then explained to Drithelm that the first valley was filled with people who had been saved only at the moment of death. They had much purification to endure, but the prayers and Masses offered for them on earth could shorten their suffering. The pleasant meadow was for those whose need for purification was slighter. Those who died without imperfection, he said, would enter heaven at once. But those who entered the dark hole of hell could never escape. The guide then told Drithelm that he must return to life, but should live better thereafter. Actually, Drithelm was sad to leave this afterworld.
Today scientists are making a special study of these “out of body” occurrences of people apparently dead. One of their recollections on returning to life is that of having moved towards a lovely light, which made them reluctant to come back to this humdrum world.
Is not God reminding us through experiences like Drithelm’s that the “Kingdom of Heaven” is far lovelier than the beautiful but treacherous world in which we now live?
–Father Robert F. McNamara