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Saint John Bosco, born in Italy in 1815, started having vivid dreams at age 9 that would continue throughout his life. One of his most memorable and terrifying dreams involved a visit to Hell. He awoke from it with burn marks on his palms after having touched the outer wall of Hell. The following is the saint's account in his own words.
I have another dream to tell you, a sort of aftermath of those I told you last Thursday and Friday, which totally exhausted me. Call them dreams or whatever you like ...
I spent the whole next day worrying about the miserable night in store for me, and when evening came, loath to go to bed, I sat at my desk browsing through books until midnight. The mere thought of having more nightmares thoroughly scared me. However, with great effort, I finally went to bed.
Lest I should fall asleep immediately and start dreaming, I set my pillow upright against the headboard and practically sat up, but soon, in my exhaustion, I simply fell asleep. Immediately, the same person from the night before appeared at my bedside.
"Get up and follow me!" he said.
"For Heaven's sake," I protested, "leave me alone. I am exhausted! I've been tormented by a toothache for several days and need rest. Besides, nightmares have completely worn me out." I said this because this man's apparition always means trouble, fatigue and terror for me.
"Get up," he repeated. "You have no time to lose."
"Where are you taking me?" I asked.
"Never mind, you'll see." He led me to a vast, boundless plain, veritably a lifeless desert, with not a soul in sight or a tree or brook. Yellowed, dried-up vegetation added to the desolation. I had no idea where I was or what I was to do. For a moment, I even lost sight of my guide and feared that I was lost, utterly alone. When I finally saw my friend coming toward me, I sighed in relief.
"Where am I?" I asked.
"Come with me, and you will find out!"
He led the way, and I followed in silence, but after a long, dismal trudge, I began worrying whether I would ever be able to cross the vast expanse, what with my toothache and swollen legs. Suddenly, I saw a road ahead. "Where to now?" I asked my guide.
"This way," he replied.
We took the road. It was beautiful, wide and neatly paved. "The way of sinners is smooth stones, and at their end are hell and darkness and pain" (Sirach 21:11). Both sides were lined with magnificent verdant hedges dotted with gorgeous flowers. Roses, especially, peeped everywhere through the leaves. At first glance, the road was level and comfortable, and so I ventured upon it without the least suspicion, but soon I noticed that it insensibly kept sloping downward. Though it did not look steep at all, I found myself moving so swiftly that I felt I was effortlessly gliding through the air. Really, I was gliding and hardly using my feet. Then the thought struck me that the return trip would be very long and arduous.
"How shall we get back to the Oratory?" I asked worriedly.
"Do not worry," he answered. "The Almighty wants you to go. He who leads you on will also know how to lead you back."
The road kept sloping downward. As we were continuing on our way, flanked by banks of roses and other flowers, I became aware that the Oratory boys and very many others whom I did not know were following me. Somehow, I found myself in their midst. As I was looking at them, I noticed now one, now another fall to the ground and instantly be dragged by an unseen force toward a frightful drop, distantly visible, which sloped into a furnace. "What makes these boys fall?" I asked my companion. "They have spread cords for a net; by the wayside, they have laid snares for me" (Psalm 139:6).
"Take a closer look," he replied.
I did. Traps were everywhere, some close to the ground, others at eye level, but all well concealed. Unaware of their danger, many boys got caught, and they tripped; they would sprawl to the ground, legs in the air. Then, when they managed to get back on their feet, they would run headlong down the road toward the abyss. Some got trapped by the head, others by the neck, hand, arms, legs or sides and were pulled down instantly. The ground traps, fine as spiders' webs and hardly visible, seemed very flimsy and harmless; yet, to my surprise, every boy they snared fell to the ground.
Noticing my astonishment, the guide remarked, "Do you know what this is?"
"Just some filmy fiber," I answered.
"A mere nothing," he said, "just plain human respect."
Seeing that many boys were being caught in those traps, I asked, "Why do so many get caught? Who pulls them down?"
"Go nearer and you will see!" he told me.
I followed his advice but saw nothing peculiar.
"Look closer," he insisted.
I picked up one of the traps and tugged. I immediately felt some resistance. I pulled harder, only to feel that, instead of drawing the thread closer, I was being pulled down myself. I did not resist, and soon found myself at the mouth of a frightful cave. I halted, unwilling to venture into that deep cavern and again started pulling the thread toward me. It gave a little, but only through great effort on my part. I kept tugging, and after a long while, a huge, hideous monster emerged, clutching a rope to which all those traps were tied together. He was the one who instantly dragged down anyone who got caught in them. "It won't do to match my strength with his," I said to myself. "I'll certainly lose. I'd better fight him with the Sign of the Cross and with short invocations."
Then I went back to my guide. "Now, you know who he is," he said to me.
"I surely do! It is the devil himself!"
Carefully examining many of the traps, I saw that each bore an inscription: pride, disobedience, envy, the Sixth Commandment, theft, gluttony, sloth, anger, and so on. Stepping back a bit to see which ones trapped the greater number of boys, I discovered that the most dangerous were those of impurity, disobedience and pride. In fact, these three were linked together. Many other traps also did great harm, but not as much as the first two. Still watching, I noticed many boys running faster than others. "Why such haste?" I asked.
"Because they are dragged by the snare of human respect."
Looking even more closely, I spotted knives among the traps. A providential hand had put them there for cutting oneself free. The bigger ones, symbolizing meditation, were for use against the trap of pride; others, not quite as big, symbolized spiritual reading well-made. There were also two swords representing devotion to the Blessed Sacrament, especially through frequent Holy Communion and to the Blessed Virgin. There was also a hammer symbolizing confession and other knives signifying devotion to St. Joseph, St. Aloysius and to other saints. By these means, quite a few boys were able to free themselves or evade capture.
When my guide was satisfied that I had observed everything, he made me continue along that rose-hedged road, but the farther we went, the scarcer the roses became. Long thorns began to show up, and soon the roses were no more. The hedges became sun-scorched, leafless and thorn-studded. We had come now to a gulch whose steep sides hid what lay beyond. The road, still sloping downward, was becoming ever more horrid, rutted, guttered and bristling with rocks and boulders.
I kept going, but the farther I advanced, the more arduous and steep the descent became, so that I tumbled and fell several times, lying prostrate until I could catch my breath. Now and then, my guide supported me or helped me rise. Panting, I said to my guide, "My good fellow, my legs won't carry me another step. I just can't go any farther."
"Now that we have come so far, do you want me to leave you here?" my guide sternly asked.
At this threat, I wailed, "How can I survive without your help?"
"Then follow me."
We continued our descent, the road now becoming so frightfully steep that it was almost impossible to stand erect. And then, at the bottom of this precipice, at the entrance of a dark valley, an enormous building loomed into sight, its towering portal tightly locked, facing our road. When I finally got to the bottom, I became smothered by a suffocating heat, while a greasy, green-tinted smoke lit by flashes of scarlet flames rose from behind those enormous walls that loomed higher than mountains.
"Where are we? What is this?" I asked my guide.
"Read the inscription on that portal, and you will know."
I looked up and read these words: "The place of no reprieve." I realized that we were at the gates of hell. The guide led me all around this horrible place. At regular distances, bronze portals, like the first, overlooked precipitous descents; on each was an inscription, such as "Depart from Me, you cursed, into everlasting fire which was prepared for the devil and his angels" (Matt. 25:41).
Suddenly, the guide turned to me. Upset and startled, he motioned to me to step aside. "Look!" he said.
I looked up in terror and saw in the distance, someone racing down the path at an uncontrollable speed. I kept my eyes on him, trying to identify him, and as he got closer, I recognized him as one of my boys. His disheveled hair was partly standing upright on his head and partly tossed back by the wind. His arms were outstretched as though he were thrashing the water in an attempt to stay afloat. He wanted to stop but could not. Tripping on the protruding stones, he kept falling even faster. "Let's help him; let's stop him," I shouted, holding out my hands in a vain effort to restrain him.
"Leave him alone," the guide replied.
"Don't you know how terrible God's vengeance is? Do you think you can restrain one who is fleeing from his just wrath?"
Meanwhile, the youth had turned his fiery gaze backward in an attempt to see if God's wrath was still pursuing him. The next moment, he fell tumbling to the bottom of the ravine and crashed against the bronze portal as though he could find no better refuge in his flight.
"Why was he looking backward in terror?" I asked.
"Because God's wrath will pierce hell's gates to reach and torment him even in the midst of fire!"
As the boy crashed into the portal, it sprang open with a roar, and instantly a thousand inner portals opened with a deafening clamor as if struck by a body that had been propelled by an invisible, most violent, irresistible gale. As these bronze doors — one behind the other, though at a considerable distance from each other — remained momentarily open, I saw far into the distance something like furnace jaws spouting fiery balls the moment the youth hurtled into it. As swiftly as they had opened, the portals then clanged shut again. I tried to jot down the name of that unfortunate lad, but the guide restrained me. "Wait," he ordered. "Watch!"
Three other boys of ours, screaming in terror and with arms outstretched, were rolling down one behind the other like massive rocks. I recognized them as they too crashed against the portal. In that split second, it sprang open, and so did the other thousand. The three boys were sucked into that endless corridor amid a long-drawn, fading, infernal echo, and then the portals clanged shut again. At intervals, many other boys came tumbling down after them. I saw one unlucky boy being pushed down the slope by an evil companion. Others fell singly or with others, arm in arm or side by side. Each of them bore the name of his sin on his forehead. I kept calling to them as they hurtled down, but they did not hear me. Again, the portals would open thunderously and slam shut with a rumble. Then, dead silence!
"Bad companions, bad books and bad habits," my guide exclaimed, "are mainly responsible for so many eternally lost."
The traps I had seen earlier were indeed dragging the boys to ruin. Seeing so many going to perdition, I cried out disconsolately, "If so many of our boys end up this way, we are working in vain. How can we prevent such tragedies?"
"This is their present state," my guide replied, "and that is where they would go if they were to die now."
Just then, a new group of boys came hurtling down and the portals momentarily opened. "Let's go in," the guide said to me.
I pulled back in horror.
"Come," my guide insisted. "You'll learn much."
We entered that narrow, horrible corridor and whizzed through it at lightning speed. Threatening inscriptions shone eerily over all the inner gateways. The last one opened into a vast, grim courtyard with a large, unbelievably forbidding entrance at the far end.
"From here on," he said, "no one may have a helpful companion, a comforting friend, a loving heart, a compassionate glance or a benevolent word. All that is gone forever. Do you just want to see, or would you rather experience these things yourself?"
"I only want to see!" I answered.
"Then come with me," my friend added, and taking me in tow, he stepped through that gate into a corridor at whose far end stood an observation platform, closed by a huge, single crystal pane reaching from the pavement to the ceiling. As soon as I crossed its threshold, I felt an indescribable terror and dared not take another step. Ahead of me, I could see something like an immense cave that gradually disappeared into recesses sunk far into the bowels of the mountains. They were all ablaze, but theirs was not an earthly fire with leaping tongues of flames. The entire cave — walls, ceiling, floor, iron, stones, wood and coal — everything was a glowing white at temperatures of thousands of degrees. Yet, the fire did not incinerate, did not consume. I simply can't find words to describe the cavern's horror.
I was staring around me in bewilderment when another boy dashed out of a gate. Seemingly unaware of anything else, he emitted a most shrill scream, like one who is about to fall into a cauldron of liquid bronze and plummeted into the center of the cave. Instantly, he too became incandescent and perfectly motionless, while the echo of his dying wail lingered for an instant more.
Terribly frightened, I stared at him for a while. He seemed to be one of my Oratory boys. "Isn't he so-and-so?" I asked my guide.
"Yes," was the answer.
"Why is he so still, so incandescent?"
"You chose to see," he replied. "Be satisfied with that. Just keep looking."
As I looked again, another boy came hurtling down into the cave at breakneck speed. He, too, was from the Oratory.
More frightened than ever, I asked my guide, "When these boys come dashing into this cave, don't they know where they are going?"
"They surely do. They have been warned a thousand times, but they still choose to rush into the fire because they do not detest sin and are loath to forsake it. Furthermore, they despise and reject God's incessant, merciful invitations to do penance. Thus provoked, Divine Justice harries them, hounds them and goads them on so that they cannot halt until they reach this place."
"Oh, how miserable these unfortunate boys must feel knowing they no longer have any hope," I exclaimed.
"If you really want to know their innermost frenzy and fury, go a little closer," my guide remarked.
I took a few steps forward and saw that many of those poor wretches were savagely striking at each other like mad dogs. Others were clawing their own faces and hands, tearing their own flesh and spitefully throwing it about. Just then, the entire ceiling of the cave became as transparent as crystal and revealed a patch of Heaven and their radiant companions safe for all eternity.
The poor wretches, fuming and panting with envy, burned with rage because they had once ridiculed the just. "The wicked shall see and shall be angry. He shall gnash his teeth and pine away." (Ps. 111:10)
"Why do I hear no sound?" I asked my guide.
"Go closer!" he advised.
Pressing my ear to the crystal window, I heard screams and sobs, blasphemies and imprecations against the saints. It was a tumult of voices and cries, shrill and confused.
"Such are the mournful chants which shall echo here throughout eternity. But their shouts, their efforts and their cries are all in vain. "All evils will fall upon them." (cf. Job. 20:22)
"Here, time is no more. Here is only eternity."
While I viewed the condition of many of my boys in utter terror, a thought suddenly struck me. "How can these boys be damned?" I asked. "Last night they were still alive at the Oratory!"
"The boys you see here," he answered, "are all dead to God's grace. Were they to die now or persist in their evil ways, they would be damned. But we are wasting time. Let us go on."
He led me away, and we went down through a corridor into a lower cavern, at whose entrance I read, "Their worm shall not die, and their fire shall not be quenched." (Is. 66:24)
In this lower cavern, I again saw those Oratory boys who had fallen into the fiery furnace. I drew closer to them and noticed that they were all covered with worms and vermin which gnawed at their vitals, hearts, eyes, hands, legs and entire bodies so ferociously as to defy description. Helpless and motionless, they were prey to every kind of torment. Hoping I might be able to speak with them or hear something from them, I drew even closer, but no one spoke or even looked at me. I then asked my guide why, and he explained that the damned are totally deprived of freedom. Each must fully endure his own punishment, with absolutely no reprieve whatsoever.
Here, one could see how atrocious was the remorse of those who had been pupils in our schools. What a torment was theirs to remember each unforgiven sin and its just punishment, the countless, even extraordinary means they had to mend their ways, persevere in virtue and earn paradise, and their lack of response to the many favors promised and bestowed by the Virgin Mary. What a torture to think that they could have been saved so easily, yet now they are irredeemably lost, and to remember the many good resolutions made and never kept. Hell is indeed paved with good intentions!
"And now," he added, "you too must enter that cavern."
"Oh, no!" I objected in terror. "Before going to hell, one has to be judged. I have not been judged yet, and so I will not go to hell!"
"Listen," he said, "what would you rather do: visit hell and save your boys or stay outside and leave them in agony?"
For a moment, I was struck speechless. "Of course, I love my boys and wish to save them all," I replied, "but isn't there some other way out?" "Yes, there is a way," he went on, "provided you do all you can."
I breathed more easily and instantly said to myself, "I don't mind staying if I can rescue these beloved sons of mine from such torments."
"Come inside then," my friend went on, "and see how our good, almighty God lovingly provides a thousand means for guiding your boys to penance and saving them from everlasting death."
Taking my hand, he led me into the cave. As I stepped in, I found myself suddenly transported into a magnificent hall whose curtained glass doors concealed more entrances.
Above one of them, I read this inscription: The Sixth Commandment. Pointing to it, my guide exclaimed, "Transgressions of this commandment caused the eternal ruin of many boys."
"Didn't they go to confession?"
"They did, but they either omitted or insufficiently confessed the sins against the beautiful virtue of purity. Other boys may have fallen into that sin, but once in their childhood and through shame, never confessed it or did so insufficiently. Others were not truly sorry or sincere in their resolve to avoid it in the future. There were even some who, rather than examine their conscience, spent their time trying to figure out how best to deceive their confessor. Anyone dying in this frame of mind chooses to be among the damned, and so he is doomed for all eternity. Only those who die truly repentant shall be eternally happy. Now, do you want to see why our merciful God brought you here?" He lifted the curtain, and I saw a group of Oratory boys — all known to me — who were there because of this sin. Among them were some whose conduct seemed to be good.
"Now, you will surely let me take down their names so that I may warn them individually," I exclaimed.
"It won't be necessary!"
"Then what do you suggest I tell them?"
"Always preach against immodesty. Bear in mind that even if you did admonish them individually, they would promise but not always in earnest. For a firm resolution, one needs God's grace, which will not be denied to your boys if they pray. God manifests His power, especially by being merciful and forgiving. On your part, pray and make sacrifices. As for the boys, let them listen to your admonitions and consult their conscience. It will tell them what to do."
"May I mention all these things to my boys?"
"Yes, you may tell them whatever you remember."
"What advice shall I give them to safeguard them from such a tragedy?"
"Keep telling them that by obeying God, the Church, their parents and their superiors, even in little things, they will be saved. Warn them against idleness. Tell them to keep busy at all times because the devil will not then have a chance to tempt them."
I bowed my head and promised. Faint with dismay, I could only mutter, "Thanks for having been so good to me. Now, please lead me out of here."
"All right, then, come with me." Encouragingly, he took my hand and held me up because I could hardly stand on my feet. Leaving that hall, in no time at all, we retraced our steps through that horrible courtyard and the long corridor. But as soon as we stepped across the last bronze portal, he turned to me and said, "Now that you have seen what others suffer, you too must experience a touch of hell."
"No, no!" I cried in terror.
He insisted, but I kept refusing.
"Do not be afraid," he told me; "just try it. Touch this wall."
I could not muster enough courage and tried to get away, but he held me back. "Try it," he insisted. Gripping my arm firmly, he pulled me to the wall. "Only one touch," he commanded, "so that you may say you have both seen and touched the walls of eternal suffering and that you may understand what the last wall must be like if the first is so unendurable. Look at this wall!"
I did so intently. It seemed incredibly thick. "There are a thousand walls between this and the real fire of hell," my guide continued. "A thousand walls encompass it, each a thousand measures thick and equally distant from the next one. Each measure is a thousand miles. This wall, therefore, is millions and millions of miles from Hell's real fire. It is just a remote rim of Hell itself."
When he said this, I instinctively pulled back, but he seized my hand, forced it open and pressed it against the first of the thousand walls. The sensation was so utterly excruciating that I leaped back with a scream and found myself sitting up in bed. My hand was stinging, and I kept rubbing it to ease the pain. When I got up this morning, I noticed that it was swollen. Having my hand pressed against the wall, though only in a dream, felt so real that, later, the skin of my palm peeled off.
Bear in mind that I have tried not to frighten you very much, and so I have not described these things in all their horror as I saw them and as they impressed me. We know that Our Lord always portrayed Hell in symbols because had He described it as it really is, we would not have understood Him. No mortal can comprehend these things. The Lord knows them, and He reveals them to whomever He wills.