In the new book, Of Men and Mary: How Six Men Won the Greatest Battle of Their Lives, the story of Fr. Rick Wendell is one that reads like a sci-fi action adventure story, but is somehow true. Most Catholics learn in catechism class, or at some point along their journey of faith, that there is a heaven and there is a hell, that Jesus raised people from the dead, and that when we die, we will experience a personal judgment and know exactly how our soul stands in the eyes of God. But Fr. Rick is one of the few people who has lived all of these realities in his own flesh.
When Rick was a child, his mother said her main work of the day was keeping her son alive. Little Rick was hell bent on crashing through any limits that life imposed on him. By age sixteen, his thrill-seeking stunts, such as jumping off of freight trains and performing flying bicycle stunts — not with a decked-out mountain bike, but a Schwinn with a banana seat — had put him in surgery twelve times. In school, Rick excelled at everything academic and extra-curricular. He was truly a Renaissance kid in a good sense, but his personal morals flew all over the map. Catholicism was a family given, but his 1970s Catholic-high-school faith formation was dangerously thin and punctured with holes. “God loves you,” he was told. “You’ll figure it out.”
Into his twenties, Rick continued to live full on, top speed — ready to risk his very life for the next thrill. Dabbling in cocaine, he showed up in places within the drug trade where no one should go and met with people no one should see. Still successful at everything he tried, he ended up running a construction company and lived in water-front property decorated with a big boat and a string of cars and motorcycles. Finally, after strumming many strings of girlfriends, he decided he would marry his trophy girl — the prettiest and wealthiest one of them all.
One day at age thirty, Rick was hit with a large railroad nail that gouged his cheek during a construction accident. His mother drove him to the hospital where he had stitches in his cheek. The anesthesia from the stitches causes his body to go into anaphylactic shock, and he collapsed walking through the doors of a grocery store to find his mother. A few minutes later, he was dead. The last thing Rick remembers is being in the back of an ambulance, observing the frantic scene around him. Then he went through the picture, so to speak. This is where human words fail in describing what happened to him. Rick went from observing the scene to passing through to the other side of it — into blackness, nothingness. And then he found himself in the midst of a beautiful light …
“Intuitively, I understood that I was in the presence of God. I didn’t simply think this, I knew this, beyond and before any question I’d ever had. I knew that God is. God is the most obvious thing there could possibly be. I also knew instantaneously that one human lifespan is but a blink within that reality, and yet this life that each person is given by God is profoundly important. What we do with it is critical, as if life were a test, but not one that we pass or fail, a test of who we are. . .
The most profound part of my experience, by far, was knowing that God is Love. Never had I realized that I could be loved like that—with a love so perfect, so pure, so intense, so marvelous that nothing else mattered. . .
I was in the presence of a love so intense that I didn’t care about anything else. . . There was no need for anything else. This Love was absolutely fulfilling in every way, a love that I had always looked for but never found, a love one would never want to be separated from. I was created to love and to be loved because God is Love. This fundamental truth is written into every human heart. Everyone knows what it feels like not to have that place fulfilled, and we will try and fill it with anything that even masquerades as love but isn’t. But there is a place in our hearts, a throne, really, that only this Love can fulfill. I never comprehended such a perfect love until I was immersed in it. In God’s presence, I wanted only to be loved by him and to love him in return. (From Chapter 2 of Of Men and Mary)
Rick’s encounter with God occurred while he lay clinically dead in the hospital for over two and a half hours, without a functioning brain, without his own heartbeat or breathing. When Rick was then pulled out of the light, his arm shot up of the gurney, as the hospital staff and his family standing around his body witnessed a corpse come alive. Not only was he alive, but perfectly healthy.
What Rick didn’t know was that his merciful encounter with God was just that — mercy. Had Rick did without being brought back to life, he wouldn’t have ever witnessed the light of God — ever.
At dawn on the Lord’s Day, my third day in the hospital, I had a mystical experience, a dream that was not a dream. In it, I relived the experience of dying. My body began to writhe in intense mental and spiritual anguish as I felt the loss of my life. Horrified, I received the spiritual and true knowledge that if I had gone to judgment, my life was forfeit. Instead of experiencing union with God in the way that I had, I would have received an eternal sentence: banishment! For years, I had scared myself “to death” by doing extreme sports, but nothing I’d ever experienced remotely came close to my reaction. A paralyzing terror ripped through my being, causing my heart rate to skyrocket and my blood pressure to shoot up. It was a fear like I’d never known. For a fleeting moment, I experienced the complete abandonment and separation from God and others, without the hope of ever being reunited. I was going to be cast out, without parole, into a lonely, solitary torment forever because through my thoughts, words, and actions, I chose hell without consciously knowing that I had. I would not wish this experience on my worst enemy.
None of us think that we’re that bad. We assume that there is always someone worse than we are, that perhaps that other person might deserve hell. Or we think that no one deserves hell. Many of us are taught to believe that God so loves the world, or at least me, that he would never send anyone, or at least not me, to hell. Or perhaps we believe that hell does not exist. We are wrong. At our own personal judgment, which none of us can escape, we will know full-well where we are lacking and what destiny suits our soul. (From Chapter 2 of Of Men and Mary)
Rick’s fleeting experiences of heaven and hell are a warning and a hope for all of us. The afterlife is not something that happens to us just when we die. Right now, in this very moment, our soul is standing in eternity. We are communing with heaven, hell, or purgatory at all times. To put off thinking of our eternal destination until the end of our life is a grave error. Eternity is now, and now is eternity. Let us live according to where we wish to be.
In our particular judgement when we come before Truth and Love himself and receive an entire life review, we will know exactly where we stand before God and where we deserve to go. Some people have already experienced something similar, an illumination of their conscience, while still in the flesh. In a very brief period of earthly time, they see a life-review of their sins, and when it is over, they are never the same. Rick Wendell also had such an experience …
Should you wish to read Fr. Rick Wendell’s remarkable story of conversion, along with the stories of five others: a convicted murder, a gentle lamb who lost everything, a man caught in illicit sexual relationships, a football player tackled by the Blessed Mother, and a married man whose marriage was as good as dead, it can be found in the book, Of Men and Mary: How Six Men Won the Greatest Battle of Their Lives, available through www.QueenofPeaceMedia.com/of-men-and-mary and Amazon.com.
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Copyright 2019 Christine Watkins