Saint John Bosco (1816-1888), the founder of the Salesians, was an Italian priest who dedicated his life to educate boys. He was a miracle worker, a healer, a tireless worker, and a spiritual father to poor boys. Throughout his life, he had many profound mystical dreams which helped to direct his steps, and some of which also gave prophetic meanings to the future of the Church. Here is one of these dreams, that he related to his boys on Sunday, May 3, 1868. As we will see at the very end, this dream was not simply the fruit of his imagination, but a vision of reality, a grace that God has given him to enable us to better understand the Last Things, and the reality of hell:
by Saint John Bosco
I went to bed and fell asleep. Immediately the same person of the night before appeared at my bedside. (Don Bosco often called him "the man with the cap".) "Get up and follow me!" he said.
We took the road. It was beautiful, wide, and neatly paved. « The way of sinners is smooth stones, and at their end is Hell and darkness and pain. » (Eccl. 21:11)... 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...
As we were continuing on our way, flanked by banks of roses and other flowers, I became aware that the Oratory boys (the pupils of the school run by St. John Bosco) 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. "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 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 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 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 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... 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, 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, to St. Aloysius, and to other Saints. By these means, quite a few boys were able to free themselves or evade capture.
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: "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.) "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... 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... 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...
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. For a third time, I tried to jot down the name of that unfortunate lad, but the guide again 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 lads were sucked into that endless corridor amid a long-drawn, fading, internal echo, and then the portals clanged shut again. At intervals, many other lads came tumbling down after them... Each of them bore the name of his sin on his forehead... 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 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."
"Then let me jot down their names so that I may warn them and put them back on the path to Heaven."
"Do you really believe that some of them would reform if you were to warn them? Then and there your warning might impress them, but soon they will forget it, just a dream, and they will do worse then. Realizing they have been unmasked, will receive the Sacraments, but this will be neither spontaneous nor meritorious; others will go to Confession because of a momentary fear of Hell, but will still be attached to sin."
"Then is there no way to save these unfortunate lads? Please, tell me what I can do for them."
"They have superiors; let them obey them. They have rules; let them observe them. They have the Sacraments; let them receive them."
Just then a new group of boys came hurtling down, and the portals momentarily opened. "Let's go in," the guide said to me. 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 threshhold, 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 aglowing 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. "For in Topheth there has been prepared beforehand a pit deep and wide with straw and wood in plenty. The breath of Yahwah, 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.
Terribly frightened, I stared briefly 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. Besides,'Everyone shall be salted with fire; every victim shall be salted.'" (Mark 9:48)
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."
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!
"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, saying for instance that they had committed such sins two or three times, when it was four or five. 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 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 seems 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. A generic warning will suffice. 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 love, 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."
When he was done, I was deeply moved. "May I mention all these things to my boys?" I asked, looking him straight in the eye. "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."
"Anything else?" "Warn them against idleness. Because of idleness, David fell into sin. 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 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 stringing, 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.