Saint and founder of the Society of St. Francis De Sales, known as the Salesians. John Bosco was known as the “Dreaming Saint” because of his frequent lucid dreams, more like out-of-body travels, in which he encountered angels, Jesus, Mary, and other religious figures and journeyed to heaven and Hell. His visit to hell was particularly detailed, and he used this and other lucid dream experiences to teach his students religious lessons. At the request of Pope Pius IX, he kept detailed records of his dreams.
Bosco was born in Becchi, Piedmont, Italy, to a peasant farmer family. His father died when he was two, and he was raised by his mother. He had his first lucid dream when he was about nine years old, in which a man, possibly Jesus, and a woman, possibly Mary, revealed his life purpose and destiny. He dedicated himself to his spiritual work with great and unwavering seriousness. His lucid dreaming increased in frequency as he grew older. At age 16, he began studying for the priesthood and was ordained on June 5, 1841, at age 26. He went to Turin and enrolled at the Convitto Ecclesiastico, a theological college that trained young priests for the pastoral life. He began a Sunday catechism for poor boys and soon was taking in and housing them. He constructed a church, placing it under the patronage of his favorite saint, Francis de Sales. By 1856, he had 150 resident boys, plus four workshops and some 500 children in oratories. This became the Society of St. Francis de Sales in 1859. John died on January 31, 1888, and was canonized in 1934 by Pope Pius XI. The Salesians work around the world.
John’s unusual dream life attracted the interest of Pope Pius IX, who instructed him to record his dreams. More than 150 of John’s unusual dreams were collected and recorded by his followers. Many of the dreams were prophetic and concerned his boys and the Salesian order. Other dreams were in harmony with his religious training and beliefs, couched in symbols of his religious life, and concerned the need to follow Catholic doctrine in order to attain salvation.
John’s lucid dreams were quite long and involved much specific detail. Unlike most ordinary dreams, they were logical and followed a complete story line from beginning to end. He was usually accompanied by a guide figure, either an angel, St. Francis de Sales, St. Dominic Savio, or a mysterious man he referred to as “the man with the cap.” The dreams seemed more like real experiences than dreams. His sensory impressions were so strong that sometimes he would clap his hands or touch himself in the dream to try to ascertain whether he was dreaming or was awake. This is a technique used today by lucid dreamers to verify that their experience is real. Sometimes physical phenomena followed him out of the dream and into waking consciousness. He would awaken exhausted. In one dramatic dream where he was shown the horrors of hell, the putrid smell of evil remained after he awakened. This bleed-through between worlds is characteristic of shamanic journeys and belongs to Carl G. Jung’s “psychoid unconscious,” a level in the unconscious that is not accessible to consciousness, but that has properties in common with the physical world.
Visit to Hell
Among the many dreams recorded by John, one of his longest and most vivid concerns a frightfully realistic visit to the bowels of hell. John is accompanied by “the man with the cap.” John sometimes protested in his dream and tried to resist the guide, but he could not put off whatever business was intended for him in the night. As with all of John’s lucid dreams, this one follows a religious theme, conforms to Catholic doctrine, and provides John with guidance and instructions for running his oratory program for boys. The visit to hell took place over two nights:
No sooner had I fallen asleep than I dreamed that I saw a most loathsome toad, huge as an ox, enter my room and squat at the foot of my bed. I stared breathlessly as its legs, body and head swelled and grew more and more repugnant; its green body, fiery eyes, red-lined mouth and throat, and small bony ears presented a terrifying sight. Staring wildly, I kept muttering to myself: “But a toad has no ears.” I also noticed two horns jutting from its snout and two greenish wings sprouting from its sides. Its legs looked like those of a lion, and its long tail ended in a forked tip.
At the moment, I seemed not a bit afraid; but when that monster began edging closer to me, opening its huge, tooth-studded jaws, I really became terribly frightened. I thought it was a Demon from Hell, because it looked like one. I made the Sign of the Cross, but nothing happened. I rang the bell, but no one responded. I shouted, but in vain. The monster would not retreat. “What do you want of me, you ugly devil?” I asked. As if in answer, it just crept forward, ears fully stretched out and pointing upward. Then, resting its front paws on the top of the bedstead and raising itself on its hind legs, it paused momentarily, looked at me and crawled forward on by bed until its snout was close to my face. I felt such revulsion that I tried to jump out of bed, but just then the monster opened its jaws wide. I wanted to defend myself and shove the monster back, but it was so hideous that, even in my predicament, I did not dare to touch it. I screamed and frenziedly reached behind me for the small holy water font, but I only hit the wall. Meanwhile, the monstrous toad had managed to mouth my head, so that half of my body was inside its foul jaws. “In the name of God,” I shouted, “why are you doing this to me?” At these words, the toad drew back and let my head free. Again, I made the Sign of the Cross, and since I had now dipped my hand in the holy water font, I flung a few drops of water at the monster. With a frightening shriek it fell backward and vanished, while a mysterious voice from on high clearly said: “Why don’t you tell them?”
I turned in that direction and saw a distinguished person standing by my bed. Feeling guilty about my silence, I asked: “What should I tell my boys?” “What you have seen and heard in your last dreams and what you have wanted to know and what you shall have revealed to you tomorrow night!” He then vanished. 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 of the night [“the man with the cap.”] 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 now 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.” I complied and followed him. “Where are you taking me?” I asked.
“Never mind. You’ll see.”
John is led to a lifeless desert, vast in expanse. He and his guide trudge across it. A road appears, beautiful, wide, and neatly paved. Flowers and greenery grow along the sides. The road begins to slope downward. Suddenly, John notices that boys from the oratory are following him. Without warning, one by another falls to the ground and is dragged toward a drop in the distance, which slopes into a furnace. The guide explains that the boys fall because they are ensnared in traps—traps they have made themselves out of sin. The boys who are stricter in their religious observances are able to walk without becoming ensnared.
As they continue along the downward-sloping road, the scenery changes. The lush roses and flowers give way to hedges of thorns. The road becomes gutted and filled with boulders. Most of the boys leave to follow other paths.
The descent becomes so arduous that John falls repeatedly and finally he complains to the guide that he cannot go another step. The guide merely continues on. John realizes he has no choice but to follow. 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 which 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: Ubi non est redemption—“ 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: Discedite, maledicti, in ignem aeternum qui paratus est diabolo et angelis eius—“Depart from Me, you cursed into everlasting fire which was prepared for the devil and his angels” (Matt. 25:41). Omnis arbor quae non facit fructum bonum excidetur et in ignem mittetur—“ Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire” (Matt. 7:19). I tried to copy them into my notebook, but my guide restrained me: “There is no need. You have them all in Holy Scripture. You even have some of them inscribed in your porticoes.”
At such a sight I wanted to turn back and return to the Oratory. As a matter of fact, I did start back, but my guide ignored my attempt. After trudging through a steep, never-ending ravine, we again came to the foot of the precipice facing the first portal. Suddenly the guide turned to me. Upset and startled, he motioned to me to step aside. “Look!” he said.
John is startled to see one of his boys dashing down the road out of control. He has a wild look about him, and his arms windmill as though he’s trying to resist a great force. John wants to help him, but the guide restrains him. The boy is fleeing from God’s wrath. He tumbles into a ravine and hits a bronze portal at the bottom. 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.
Many more boys, screaming in terror, follow. They are all swallowed through the portal. Is there no way to save them? John asks. The guide replies that they have their rules and sacraments—let them observe them. The guide then instructs John to enter the portal, saying he will learn much. John shrinks back in horror. Then he realizes that he is in no danger, for he cannot be condemned to hell without being judged, and he has not yet been judged. John agrees to go forward.
We entered that narrow, horrible corridor and whizzed through it with 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. [John pauses to read various biblical verses about the certain tortures of hell for the wicked.] “From here on,” [the guide] 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, which 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 cannot find words to describe the cavern’s horror. Praeparata est enim ab heri Thopeth, a rege praeparata, profunda et dilatata. Nutrimenta eius, ignis et ligna multa; flatus Domini sicut torrens sulphuris succendens eam—“For in Topheth there has been prepared beforehand . . . a pit deep and wide with straw and wood in plenty. The breath of Yahweh, like a stream of brimstone, will set fire to it” (Is. 30:33). I was staring in bewilderment around me when a lad dashed out of a gate. Seemingly unaware of anything else, he emitted a most shrilling 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. . . . As I looked again, another boy came hurtling down into the cave at break-neck speed. He too was from the oratory. As he fell, so he remained. He too emitted one single heartrending shriek that blended with the last echo of the scream that had come from the youth who had preceded him. Other boys kept hurtling in the same way in increasing numbers, all screaming the same way and then all becoming equally motionless and incandescent. I noticed that the first seemed frozen to the spot, one hand and one foot raised into the air; the second boy seemed bent almost double to the floor. Others stood or hung in various other positions, balancing themselves on one foot or hand, sitting or lying on their backs or on their sides, standing or kneeling, hands clutching their hair. Briefly, the scene resembled a large statuary group of youngsters cast into ever more painful postures. Other lads hurtled into that same furnace. Some I knew; others were strangers to me. I then recalled what is written in the Bible to the effect that as one falls into Hell, so he shall forever remain. Lignum, in quocumque loco ceciderit, ibi erit—“Where the tree falls, there it shall lie” (Eccles. 13:3).
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 in 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. “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, blasphemes 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. Omnis dolor irruet super eos!— ‘All evil will fall upon them’ ” (Job 20:22). “Here time is no more. Here is only eternity.”. . . He led me away and we went down through a corridor into a lower cavern, at whose entrance I read: Vermis eorum non morietur, et ignis non extinguetur—“Their worm shall not die and their fire shall not be quenched” (Is. 66:24). Dabit Dominus omnipotens ignem et vermes in carnes eorum ut urantur et sentiant usque in sempiternum—“ He will give fire and worms into their flesh, that they may feel for ever” (Judith 16:21). 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 are irredeemably lost, and to remember the many good resolutions made and never kept. Hell is indeed paved with good intentions!
In the lower cavern, I again saw those Oratory boys who had fallen into the fiery furnace. Some are listening to me right now; others are former pupils or even strangers to me. 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 a prey to every kind of torment. Hoping I might be able to speak with them or to 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. “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.”
John and the guide then have a long conversation about what makes a good confession, and about the need to cultivate the virtues and obedience to the church. The guide tells John which boys are guilty of what crimes. He gives permission to John to discuss anything of the dream with the boys. John thanks him and asks to leave. 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 to so unendurable. Look at this wall!” I did 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. 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.
The dream so upset John that for several nights he had difficulty falling asleep. As vivid as his description is, John assured others that he gave them only a watereddown, abbreviated version of what really transpired in the dream. “Bear in mind that I have not tried 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,” he said. “We know that the 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.”
– Forty Dreams of St. John. Rockford, Ill.: TAN Books and Publishers, 1996.