When I read the horrible news this morning about the murder of Shabaz Bhatti, a Pakistani Catholic politician, I was prompted to mention here some dreams I have been having this past year. I suppose you could classify them as nightmares, though they all seem to have the same underlying message of hope and confidence in the face of danger. By way of examples, let me describe two recent dreams that have had me pondering their meaning ever since. Both are part of a confluence of other, similar dreams that all seem to lead me to the same point, though along different paths and through different scenarios and images.
In the first dream, I had been captured and was being held by a mob of furiously angry Muslim men. Their appearance — bearded, armed, wearing Kaffiyehs — was identical to the images we’ve all become accustomed to seeing on the television news reports about “Jihadists” who use violence and terror to achieve their goals.
In this dream, my captors were screaming at me, punching and kicking me, pointing at me and demanding that I renounce Jesus Christ and convert to Islam. In my mind’s eye, what is most vivid about this dream was the sheer fury with which they threatened to slay me if I would not abandon Christ.
Several of them brandished long knives and swords. It was obvious that I had only two choices: convert or die. In my dream, my heart racing and my mind engulfed with fear and panic, I was thinking, “So this is how I will die? They will cut off my head for being Catholic?” And I knew the answer to both questions was “yes.” The only alternative would be to deny Christ. If I didn’t do that immediately, it was clear to me, they would grab me by the hair, pull my head back, cut my throat, and then cut off my head.
It was “now or never.” “Do or die.” “Apostatize and live, or stand firm and suffer the consequences.” I can’t adequately describe here the intense fear of death that I felt in this dream.
And that’s when I woke up. Heart pounding and gradually realizing that I was home and safe and that it was all a bad dream, I was left with a burning question in my mind and heart: “If it had been real, not a dream, what would I have done?”
I told myself then, as I tell myself now, that I would have stood firm and remained faithful to Christ even unto death. I hope and pray that I am never tested in that way, but I know how weak I am and how it is only the grace of God that could give me the strength and courage to accept death rather than renounce the truth. This is true of all the martyrs. And what this dream impressed upon me is twofold: First, that although such a terrible ordeal is not likely for me, given where I live, it is still a possibility for me, given the times in which I live. Second, I know that if that supreme sacrifice “death rather than apostasy” were ever required of me, without the grace of God to strengthen me, I would likely fail the test. So I pray, pray, pray every day (and I would ask all of you, in your kindness, to pray for me, too) that the Lord would always keep me close to him, and supply those things that I lack should a test like the one in my dream ever overtake me.
The second dream was also dramatic and frightening, but in a different way and with a different though related message. In this dream, I and my family had run down to the basement of our home to take shelter from a raging hurricane-tornado-superstorm. As we huddled in the dark, praying that we would survive this direct hit on our house, we could hear the tremendous din of destruction just above our heads. After what in the dream seemed to be several minutes, the brief but extremely violent storm passed, and we emerged from our basement. What I saw in this dream was utter devastation in every direction. Our house had been literally destroyed down to the foundation. Nothing, no house, no tree, nothing, had withstood the annihilating force of the storm. Except for one thing.
I looked down at the ground and there at my feet was my Bible — front cover facing up, all pages perfectly intact, entirely untouched — as if it had been protected by a steel vault during the storm. As I stared down at my Bible, a single, clear, and certain message entered my mind: If the worst comes, whether it be political upheaval, social unrest, natural disasters, war, natural disasters, or some other catastrophe we might suffer through, all that will remain is our faith in God. That’s it. Everything else in this life may be utterly extirpated and razed down to the foundations but, for those who love God, what cannot be removed is His Truth and His love for us.
St. Paul said, “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written, ‘For thy sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.’ No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:35-39).
The second clear and unambiguous message I felt in my heart when I awoke from this dream is this: If storms of persecution or societal upheaval come our way, and I do believe that they very well may, those who love God and have been building their house on the rock will not be swept away. And what’s more, it was impressed upon me very deeply that, as Catholics, we must know why we believe what we believe about Jesus Christ and His Church. For the time will likely come when those who don’t know why they believe what they believe will not be able to stand firm when real opposition comes. When the storm breaks, those who don’t clearly know why they believe what they believe will simply cease to believe.
Jesus said, “Every one then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house upon the rock; and the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat upon that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock. And every one who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house upon the sand; and the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell; and great was the fall of it” (Matthew 7:24-27).