St. Robert Bellarmine relates that in the days of the Venerable Bede, a very unusual event occurred in England – one that could be compared to the miracles of the first ages of the Church.
There was in Northumberland a man named Drithelm, who, with his family, led a very Catholic life. One day, he fell sick, and his illness grew worse day by day. It was not long before all the life was drained from his body, and his soul passed into Eternity.
Drithelm’s death was a hard blow to his wife and children. They were with him to the end, and even when he was dead, they could not leave him. After he died, the widow and children spent the whole night in tears by his body.
But the next day, before the grieved family could bury the father, they saw him suddenly return to life! He had been lying down, but now he sat himself up. At this sight, his children were so terrified that they all ran out of the room. Only the wife, though trembling with fear, remained with her risen husband.
He immediately assured her that all was well:
“Fear not,” he said; “It is God Who restores me to life. He wishes to show the world a man raised from the dead. I have yet long to live upon earth, but my new life will be very different from the one I led up until now.” Then Drithelm arose full of health, and went straight to the local church. He was there for a long time, all the while in prayer.
From that day, Drithelm indeed led a very different life than he ever had – He lived to prepare himself for death, and advised his loved ones to do the same. He spent his time occupied in three ways; in prayer, in the hardest labor, and in extraordinary penances.
Drithelm made a deep impression on all who saw him. His mortified life, his downcast eyes, even the features of his face – it all clearly showed how mindful he was of the judgments of God. After all, he had truly died and been brought back to life. In those hours that passed between his death and his return, he had experienced something extraordinary in Eternity. And though he lived for many, many years after that experience, time never wore this memory away – it was always as fresh in his mind as the moment it happened.
One day, he was asked to reveal – for the benefit of others – what had happened when he died. This was his answer:
“On leaving my body, I was received by a kind person, who became my guide. His face was dazzling, and he appeared surrounded with light. He arrived at a large, deep valley of immense extent, all fire on one side, all ice and snow on the other; on the one hand braziers and caldrons of flame, on the other the most intense cold and the blast of a glacial wind.
“This mysterious valley was filled with innumerable souls, which, threw themselves from one side to the other, as if they were being tossed by a furious tempest. When they could no longer endure the violence of the fire, they sought relief amidst the ice and snow; but finding only a new torture in the bitter cold, they cast themselves again into the midst of the flames.
“Stupefied, I watched this continual alternating of horrible torments, and as far as my sight could extend, I saw nothing but a multitude of souls which suffered without ever having repose. Their very appearance instilled fear within me. I thought at first that I saw hell; but my guide, who walked before me, turned to me and said,
‘No. This is not the hell of the reprobate, as you think it is. Do you know what place this is?’
‘No,’ I answered.
‘Know, that this valley, where you see so much fire and so much ice, is the place of punishment for the souls of those who, during life, have neglected to confess their sins, and who have deferred their conversion to the end. Thanks to a special mercy of God, they have had the happiness of sincerely repenting before death – and of confessing and detesting their sins. This is why they are not damned, and on the great day of judgment, they will enter into the Kingdom of Heaven. Several of them will obtain their deliverance before that time, by the merits of prayers, alms, and fasts, offered in their favor by the living, and especially the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass offered for their relief.’ “
This was the experience that remained with Drithelm for the rest of his life, and inspired his many and severe mortifications. His austerities reached such a point that his companions were astonished that he could endure them. Drithelm simply replied: “I have seen penances still more astonishing.”
This event had a strong impact throughout England. Many sinners, touched by the words of Drithelm, and struck by the austerity of his life, became sincerely converted.
In conclusion, St. Robert Bellarmine tells us: “This fact appears to me to be of incontestable truth, since, besides being conformable to the words of Holy Scripture, ‘Let him pass from the snow waters to excessive heat“, Venerable Bede relates it as a recent and well-known event. More than this, it was followed by the conversion of a great number of sinners – the sign of the work of God, Who is accustomed to work wonders in order to produce fruit in souls.”