THE BOHEMIAN WIDOW WHO SAW THE DEAD
A few examples of the doubtless many “discreet”, inconspicuous apparitions of poor souls that do not get wider publicity (or remain virtually unknown) can be found in the memoirs of a modest German parish priest, Hermann Wagner. Wagner survived the Nazi years despite doing his duty as a priest amid many dangers.’ It was in his parish in Flanitze (Bohemia, now the Czech Republic) that a humble widow confided to him that she was visited by souls from Purgatory. The souls had requested her to tell the priest about Purgatory in order for him to promote the devotion to them.
Ruth (pseudonym) was in her 50s at the time she got her first apparition. Her husband had died eight years before. Her only son had been killed during the German invasion of Poland. She had a small farmstead with two cows, usually a calf, and some pigs, and had to do all the work alone. She went almost daily to holy Mass, mostly in the company of children from the village. She was viewed as a quiet and pious person who did a lot of good. No one except this one parish priest ever knew of the coming of the poor souls to her.
The first was her departed husband. He had often been impatient during his bout with cancer and had reproached God.
One evening, Ruth heard a voice. [That happened] almost every evening, over a long time, when she came in from the stable. Then she suddenly recognizes the voice of her husband. But she isn’t quite sure. Then she kneels down and just prays the Rosary for the poor souls. She recommends her husband in particular. Yes, she thinks, he was often rather impatient; is that perhaps the reason he must still do penance?
A few evenings later, she sees a nebulous apparition, right in the middle of the room. She takes holy water and prays, “O Lord, give him eternal rest!” It makes her very upset. She wants to call the woman next door—is already on her way to the door. Then she sees her husband. He speaks quietly: “Don’t be afraid, Ruth! It’s me. I may come here to ask your help. Pray three chaplets each day. And don’t tell anybody. They wouldn’t speak well of it!” Then he is gone.
Every day she prays three chaplets. Each time she adds, “Good God, forgive my husband his impatience when he suffered!” After some weeks, her husband stands again in the middle of the room. He looks well. He is friendly and beautiful. She recalls how he was as a young man. He says nothing. He only looks at her so grateful and full of love. Then she asks him, “How are you, Jacob?” He answers clearly and quietly, “I’m fine. I may come home soon. I thank you, Ruth! I thank you so much!” He looks at her really so sweet and thankful. Actually, like he never did in his life. Then he was always in a hurry. He never had time to say “thank you.”
Ruth says she would like to give him a hand and embrace him. He makes a gesture of refusal and says, ‘Later, Ruth. One day it shall be wonderful. Now I am allowed to tell you only one thing: there are others who also want to come to you. They have permission; God gave it to them. You can help them. Don’t reject them! And don’t be afraid! Never be afraid!” And gone he is! He never appeared again. She thinks he must already be in Heaven.
But no poor souls appear to her for a period of time. Then her only son, Jacob, is killed on the battlefield in Poland, and she begins to pray for them fervently. Now she prays very much for the poor souls, and always asks them how it is with her Jacob. She thinks the poor souls hear that, when she asks it so simply. For a long time, no answer.
Then unexpectedly, one afternoon when she is cleaning the room, an old woman appears. She looks very old and very wrinkled, ugly and frightening, like a gypsy. At first Ruth doesn’t think it might be a poor soul. The woman doesn’t say a word.
Then Ruth takes a closer look at her. My God, she thinks, if she were not so ugly, she almost looks like my old grandma, on my mother’s side. Her name was Johanna, Grandma Johanna, dead so long already. Ruth asks, “Who are you then? I don’t know who you are!” There the old woman answers4 with a strange, eerie voice, “You do know me!” Ruth says, “If it were possible, I would say you are Grandma Johanna. But. . .“ The old woman, still fixed to the door, replied, “Yes, that’s me. Your grandma.
Ruth is not particularly frightened. Her husband had told her she shouldn’t be, when others would come. So she asks, “Well, dear grandma, tell me what I can do for you?” The old woman says, “You can do a lot for me. Pray every day a chaplet specially for me. And be really good for the poor. And when someone needs help.” And vanished is the apparition at the door.
Ruth remembers that this grandmother was always very hard on others, that she had often scolded people, and that she hadn’t liked praying either. Now Ruth prays every day another chaplet, and she goes to church every day, though it is not always easy, because, after all, she has to work in the stable. But she does it out of love for the poor souls. And it is never “No” to the poor or when someone needs help.
A few months later, Grandma Johanna appears again, this time not looking nearly as wrinkled or ugly. She even smiles.
Ruth asks, “Dear grandma, how are you now? You look fine.” Grandma nods smilingly: “I thank you, sweet Ruth! You have helped me very much. At first my way up was so terribly long and so full of stones that I almost despaired. Now it is not far anymore. I thank you, Ruth!” Already turned around halfivay to go away, she looks back once more to Ruth, smiling, “You have always asked how it is with your son Jacob. You need not worry about him. This one is already altogether on high. He was lying a whole night in a shell crater, severely wounded. Then he called upon Jesus, if he might put his wounds in the wounds of Jesus. That way he died. His guardian angel was permitted to bring him up straight away. His death was a death of sacrifice, taking part of the sacrifice of Jesus. Dying is beautiful if you love Jesus.” Ruth gets tears in her eyes at this good news. “Grandma, thank you so much for telling me this!” She wants to go to her grandmother, to shake hands with her, gratefully. But grandma keeps her at bay, lovingly: “You need not worry about me any more. But others will come. Don’t be afraid!” Gone is she, never to appear again.
Eight days later, Ruth is feeding the pigs when she becomes suddenly aware of a man sitting at a table near her.
He is not old, but his looks are hard and embittered. He looks like a dangerous criminal, Ruth thinks. But this time she knows at once that he is a poor soul. And immediately she asks, “What do you want, then?” Then comes croaking out, as from a suffocated throat, “Help, help I need!” Ruth: “How can I help you?” Answer: “Be good, be good for people! Also for the cattle! Be good, think good, speak good, do good! Be good and give me whatever good you do!” He is gone. Ruth cannot remember ever seeing him in her life. He must be a complete stranger.
He needs the sacrifice of being good, Ruth believes, probably because he has been hard in his life and gave no love. Meanwhile, other souls are coming, too. They have their requests, all of them— still more prayers, still more sacrifices. She eats nothing but potatoes and sour milk. All the rest she gives away.7 When she thinks she cannot do more, she notices that the poor souls accommodate her. No more of them are allowed to come than she can cope with.
She is very good, also, to the animals in the stable, and the effect is that the animals cling to her very much. She has a little calf of three months already, in perfect good health and attached to her. She considers keeping the calf and doing away with one of the older cows. Then she is visited by a far relative who admires the calf and expresses a need for it. Ruth thinks of the man with the hard face who appeared to her. She asks, “Do you want it, the calf?” He says that, at the moment, he cannot pay for it, but later, when things are going better. Ruth waves it aside: “It will be all right. Just take it with you!” The relative is overjoyed. He cannot thank her enough. But the little calf is gone. Will he ever pay for it? Is not important, she thinks. It is a good work, like the poor soul had demanded.
In the evening, just as Ruth rises after praying the Rosary, there he sits again at the table. He is not hard and embittered anymore. Rather, he looks like a good-natured and benevolent man. Ruth asks him, “Now, good man, are you satisfied with my goodness?” He rises and bows: “You helped me a lot with your good deed. All hard slugs have fallen from my heart.8 Now I can already happily look upward. Up there, there is only love. Now my way isn’t hopeless any more.9 I thank you!” The seat where he was seated is empty. He never comes back.
Some souls expressed in their mode of appearance the sins they had to do penance for, as well as the nature of the penance—not unlike the young friar who appeared to Padre Plo. A young mother, with a face weathered and rugged from crying, appeared while looking desperately for her five children. She had neglected their religious education and now had to suffer from the terrible feeling that they were “lost” for eternity by her fault. Ruth gave satisfaction to God in her place by taking extra pains to give religious instruction to the children of the village. Appearing again after two months, the relieved woman declared that she was allowed to see her children from afar—curiously, they were still living on earth—and needed not be afraid of “losing” them anymore.
This humble seer had received much insight in the ways of Purgatory. “Most poor souls are never allowed to make themselves known by appearing to someone,” she noted. “In particular not the poorest poor souls.” Also Ruth amrmed that a certain category of poor souls do penance in such a terrible darkness and desolation that they believe they are lost forever. If such a soul were to appear, it would be unendurable; if a human being were to see their real condition, he would die. She also learned that many proud souls go to Hell. If they are saved, their Purgatory is enkindled by the humility and the love of Christ. Initially, the humility of Christ works in them as an ineffable blaze of fire “that burns and burns until in the end all pride has melted away.” (Thus Ruth explains the fire of Purgatory as Catherine of Genoa did.) The living can help these proud souls by offering up humiliations for them. Ruth resembles St. Catherine and St. Faustina in her warnings to the living:
Many are heading straight on for purgatory. They live until their last hour, even though they are seriously ill, even on their deathbed, as if everything is all right. Exclusively directed to the earthly, they don’t think at all about calling upon the mercy of God. Although by doing so they would be spared at least a severe purgatory For God is infinitely merciful for all who call upon Him and trust Him.
According to Ruth—who stands here again in a strong, age-old tradition—no one is as grateful as the poor souls. She emphasizes the involvement of the guardian angels in the fate of the holy soul, in general, and in rewarding its helper, in particular. Poor souls can help us even if they are still in Purgatory. “They may help us through their guardian angels.’° They are allowed to help us often so effectively that all of us can in fact notice it. We just should pay attention to it.”
As for herself, according to Father Wagner, she need not be afraid of anything since she helps the poor souls. The guardian angels of the poor souls take care of everything. Just one example: [One day] she goes to church early in the morning, with a couple of kids. Two little boys and a little girl are still too young for that and may stay at home, in the room. As it is cold, she gives a blanket to the little girl, to wrap herself in. She has poked up the stove. As it often happens with little children, the two boys climb on the table, go hanging on the kerosene lamp above it and pull the lamp down. The lamp breaks. The kerosene is spreading on the floor. The lamp was already out, but the girl had installed herself so close to the stove that her blanket got singed. The girl throws the red-hot blanket away, onto the floor. The kerosene flows to within a few centimeters from the red-hot blanket. That is how Ruth finds the children in the room when she comes home from the church. Immediately she throws the red-hot blanket out in the snow and straightens everything up. She knows that the holy angels of the poor souls have preserved the house from a fatal fire. She thanks them.
Poor souls told Ruth that they are often present around their living family members and beloved without getting their help, sometimes for years.” She transmits their complaints:
You in the world have no inkling of what we have to suffer! Being abandoned and forgotten by those who have been nearest to us in the world: that is most bitter. Sometimes they stand at the tombs of our decayed bodies and don’t pray for us at all. They act as if we don’t exist any more. God’s justice commands us to be silent. But we stand at the door of their houses, of our former dwellings, and wait. We stand there and wait. Days, years. We wait for them to give us a small sign of their love by prayer and sacrifices. But we stay there in vain. We cry in vain for love. For help! Tell them through the priest. Love should not die at death. We are still alive and we are hungry for love! For your love!