Note that I said, “come back to life after dying,” and not, “near death experiences.” A prime example of this is Venerable Athanasius “the Resurrected One”, Recluse of the Kiev Near Caves. He was actually dead, and it was not until the igumen (head of a monastery) came to bury him on the third day that they found him alive. Unlike those who talk about pleasant near death experiences, this is what he said: “Seek salvation, obey the igumen in everything, repent each hour and pray to our Lord Jesus Christ, to His All-Pure Mother and to Sts. Anthony and Theodosius, to allow you to end your life here. Do not ask me anything else, for I must pray.”
After this he lived for twelve years more in solitude in a cave. During that time he spoke not a word to anyone. He wept day and night, and partook of a little bread and water only every other day. Just before his death, he assembled the brethren, and repeated his earlier words to them, and then he peacefully departed unto the Lord.
A little more similar to these now so common, and potentially lucrative, descriptions of near death experiences, at least in regard to the length of time, is Venerable Hesychius of Mt. Horeb, who was only dead for one hour. After this, he secluded himself in his cell as a recluse, and for twelve years he dwelt in complete solitude. He would not converse with any of the brethren, but devoted himself to the singing of Psalms and penitential weeping. Before his death, Blessed Hesychius said to the assembled monks: “Forgive me, brethren. He who acquires the remembrance of death cannot sin.”
So what are we to make of all these common stories about pleasant near-death-experiences? Well, the next day (that being yesterday), I came across a story that may well give a very good hint as to what these stories will result in. This story is about a politician who dies and has to spend just one day in hell:
“So, you’re a politician…”
“Well, yes. Is that a problem?”
“Oh, no. Not problem. However, we’ve recently adopted a new system for persons in your line of work, and unfortunately you will have to spend a day in hell. After that however, you’re free to choose where you want to spend eternity.”
“Wait! I have to spend a day in Hell?!” says the politician.
“Those are the rules,” replies St Peter.
“But…” St. Peter clicks his fingers, and WOOMPH, the guy disappears.
The politician awakes, curled up in a fetal position with his hands over his eyes, knowing he’s in hell. He listens for the screams… sniffs the air for brimstone… and… nothing… just the smell of… fabric softener… and cut grass?
“Open your eyes!” says a voice. “C’mon! Wakey, wakey! We’ve only got 24 hours!”
Nervously, he uncovers his eyes, looks around, and sees he’s in a hotel room. A nice hotel room… with 18 foot faulted ceilings… it’s a penthouse suite. A man in a fine Italian suit is smiling at him holding a martini.
“Who are you?” the politician asks.
“Well, I’m Satan!” says the man, handing him the drink and helping him to his feet. “Welcome to hell!”
“This… is hell? Where’s the pain and suffering?”
Satan gives him a wink, and says, “Oh, we’ve been grossly misrepresented over the years. It’s a long story, but we don’t have time for that right now. This is your room. The minibar is free, of course, as is the room service. There’s extra towels next to the hot-tub and if you need anything, anything at all, just call the front desk. But enough about the room. It’s a beautiful day. Take a look outside.”
A bit stunned by the lavish surroundings, the man wanders over to the floor-to-ceiling windows to see the sun glowing. Far below, he sees a group of people cheering and waving at him from a golf course.
“It’s just one of our 6 pro-level courses on site, and there’s another 6 just a few minutes drive past the beach and harbour, and another 6 in the other direction.”
Without a word, the politician follows Satan down the hall and on to the glass elevator, which takes them to the glittering lobby. Everyone waves and welcomes him as Satan signs autographs and gaily talks shop with the joyful staff. They walk out the door towards the golf course, and the politician sees the group on the golf course is made up of every one of his old friends, people he’s admired for years but never met or worked with, and people whose work he’s admired, but died long before his career began.
And… out of the middle of the group walks his wife, with a big smile and the body she had when she was 20. She throws her arms around him and plants a delicate kiss on his cheek.
Everyone cheers and applauds, and they all have the time of their life… well, you know what I mean.
After a wonderful day in the sunshine, the politician returns to the hotel with his wife for an exquisite meal with the finest wine he had ever tasted. Following which… lets just say their honeymoon paled in comparison. A few hours later, as the politician deeply and peacefully slept on his 100% Egyptian cotton pillow… St. Peter wakes him up.
“So, that was hell. Wasn’t what you expected, was it?”
“No! Not at all!” says the politician.
“So then,” says St. Peter, “you can make your choice. Is it hell, which you saw, or heaven, which has choirs of angels singing, the presence of God, streets of gold, and so on.”
“Well… this may sound strange, but… I think I’d prefer hell,” says the politician.
“Not a problem. We totally understand. Enjoy!” and St. Peter clicks his fingers again.
The politician wakes up in total darkness. The stench of sulphur and bodily fluids invades his nose as distant screams of agony hang in the air. As his eyes adjust, belches of far off flames illumine the suffering souls in the distance. A sudden bolt of lightning reveals Satan next to him, wearing the same fine Italian suit as yesterday. His eyes cold and his smile evil beyond words.
“What is this?!” he cries. “Where’s the hotel? Where’s the pool? Where’s the restaurant… free drinks… golf courses… sunshine… Where’s my wife?”
“Oh, she’s here,” says Satan. “As for everything else… we were campaigning yesterday, but today, you voted!”