St. Boniface on the Soul After Death

St. Boniface, Apostle to the Germans ca. 680-755
I thank God that now I can the more fully meet thy wishes, because but lately I spoke with this brother myself, when he came back here from abroad; he set forth to me in his own words the marvellous spectacle which he beheld when rapt in spirit beyond the body.He said that, amidst the pain of a sharp sickness he had been freed from the weight of the flesh. It was much as though one seeing and awake had his eyes veiled by a thick covering; this being suddenly taken away, everything would be clear which before had been invisible, hidden and unknown. In like fashion when the covering of this mortal flesh had been thrown aside, before his gaze lay gathered the universe, so that in a single view he beheld all lands and peoples and seas. As he quitted the body, angels of such dazzling brightness that he could scarcely look upon them for their splendour, bore him up. With sweet and harmonious voices they were singing, “O Lord, rebuke me not in Thy wrath: neither chasten me in Thy hot displeasure.” “They raised me,” said he, “high into the air, and circling the world I beheld a blazing fire, the mighty flame soaring terribly aloft, as though to grasp the whole mechanism of the world in its embrace, had not the holy angel calmed it with the sign of Christ’s holy cross. When he had made the sign of the cross before the threatening flame, it gradually retired. By its terrible heat I was sorely tried, while my eyes were burned, and my sight was shattered by the brightness of the gleaming spirits until an angel, splendid to behold, touched my head with a protecting hand, and brought me safe from harm in the flames.

He added that during the time while he was out of the body, such a multitude of souls leaving the body had gathered where he was as to exceed what he had thought before to be the numbers of the whole human race. An innumerable band of evil spirits and a bright choir of heavenly angles had also assembled; and there was the greatest dispute between the demons and the angels over the souls leaving the body, for the demons were accusing the dead and making heavy the burden of their sins, while the angels were excusing them and lightening their load.

He had himself heard all his own sins, which he had committed since his youth, and had neglected to confess or forgotten, and some acts which he had scarcely thought sinful, cry out against him, each with its own voice, and make the most dreadful accusations. Each vice came forwards in its own person to speak; “I am thy cupidity, wherewith thou didst often desire what was unlawful and contrary to the commandments of God.” And another: “I am thy vainglory, wherewith thou didst boastfully exalt thyself above thy fellows.” And another: “I am falsehood, wherewith thou didst sin through lying.” And another: “I am the idle word, which thou spakest to no purpose.” And another: “I am the sight, which thou didst abuse in looking at unlawful things.” And another: “I am the contumacy and disobedience, wherewith thou wert disobedient to thy spiritual superiors.” And another: “I am the torpor and laziness shown in neglect of holy studies.” And another: “I am the wandering thought and useless care with which thou didst concern thyself overmuch, either within the church or without it.” And another: “I am the sleepiness oppressed by which thou didst arise late to confess thyself to God.” And another: “I am the unprofitable journey.” And another: “I am neglect and carelessness, which made thee indifferent to the study of the divine word.” And the rest were like to these.

Everything which he did during the days of his life in the flesh and neglected to confess, and much which he had not known to be sinful, cried out bitterly against him. And the wicked spirits, joining in the accusations and bearing hard testimony, kept calling up the places and occasions of his wicked deeds, and confirmed with their cries what his sins said. He saw there too a man whom he had wounded before he had become a monk, and who was still in this life, brought to give testimony of his guilt. The bloody and open wound and the blood itself cried out with its own voice, and imputed to him the crime of shedding blood. When his sins were thus reckoned and heaped up, the old enemies declared, that as a guilty sinner he should come beyond a doubt under their sway and jurisdiction.

“Against them in excuse for me,” said he, “cried out the poor virtues of the soul, such as I, wretched one, had unworthily and imperfectly practised. One of them said: ‘I am the obedience which he showed to his spiritual superiors.’ Another: ‘I am the fasting with which he chastised his body when warring against carnal desires.’ Another: ‘I am the sincere prayer which he poured out in the sight of God.’ ‘I am the kindly aid which he mercifully rendered to the sick.’ ‘I am the psalm which he sang to God in satisfaction for an idle speech.’ And so each virtue, excusing me, cried out against the rival sin in my defence. And the bright angelic spirits magnified and confirmed the virtues, and spoke in my behalf. Indeed, all these virtues were much increased and seemed much greater and more excellent than could have been practised worthily by any strength of mine.”

He told, too, how he had seen, as it were, in the depths of this earth many fiery pits, belching forth terrible flames, and as the awful blaze burst forth, the souls of miserable men, under the form of birds, flew through the flames lamenting and bemoaning, with human cries, their deserts and their present punishment. They rested, hanging for a little time on the edges of the pits, and then screaming, fell into the depths. One of the angels said, “This moment of rest shows that the Almighty God means to grant these souls on the Day of Judgment to come, relief from punishment and eternal rest.”

But under these pits in the lowest depths, in deepest hell, he heard the awful weeping and wailing of sorrowful souls, terrible, beyond the power of words to describe. And the angel said, “The lamentations and weeping which you hear in the depths come from those souls to whom the mercy of God will never come. But everlasting flame will torture them without end.” He saw, too, a place of marvellous beauty, in which a glorious multitude of beauteous men rejoiced with exceeding joy; and they invited him to come and share their happiness, if it were permitted him. There came thence a fragrance of surpassing sweetness, because it was the gathering of the blessed in their bliss. And this place, the holy angels told him, was the renowned paradise of God. He beheld also a river of fiery pitch, boiling and blazing, wonderful and terrible to behold. Across it a beam was set for a bridge, to which the holy and glorious souls hastened as they left the assembly, eager to cross to the other bank. And some crossed with certain step. But others slipped from the beam and fell into the hellish stream. Of these some were entirely immersed, while others were only partially covered, it might be to the knees, or to the waist, or merely to the ankles. And yet each one of those who fell climbed from the river upon the other bank brighter and more beautiful than he was before he had fallen into the river of pitch. And one of the blessed angels said of the souls who fell: “These are the souls who, after the end of their mortal lives, had a few trivial faults not entirely washed away, and needed bountiful castigation from a merciful God, that they might be worthily offered unto Him.” Beyond the river he saw, shining with a great splendour, walls of astounding length and height immeasurable. And the holy angels said; “This is the holy and renowned city, the heavenly Jerusalem, in which these holy souls will find joy for ever.” He said that these souls and the walls of the glorious city to which they hurried after crossing the river, were resplendent with such a flood of dazzling light, that the pupils of his eyes were shaken by the exceeding splendour, and he could no longer look upon them. (Letter XIII, To the holy virgin and dear lady Eadburga)