On May 3, 2005, U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Robert Bartlett was in a vehicle travelling down a road just outside of Baghdad when it was hit by a remotely activated roadside explosive. Shortly afterward, Sgt. Bartlett was at an aid station awaiting a helicopter. He was suffering from head injuries that would later require more than 40 surgeries, a collapsed lung and severe internal bleeding. That was when he died—the first time. He was resuscitated, only to die a second and a third time before eventually surviving. It was during the time after his second death episode that he found himself kneeling on a marble-like landing. In front of him, everything was black, white and gray. Directly in front of him were stairs that led down into a pool. In the pool were pillars. To his immediate right and his immediate left were two pillars that had fallen over, about half of the way up. The rest of the pillars were lying in the pool. As he gazed out, there was nothing around, forever. It was like two places at once, very far away and very close up.
As soon as he looked at the pool, he saw a drip coming from nowhere and coming from everywhere, It was dripping into the pool. He subsequently realized that these drips were the Blood of Christ, raining down, for his sins and the sins of all men.
He also realized that the first two fallen pillars represented his unholiness. He had only in the last couple of years begun going to Mass, but had not made his First Confession, nor had he experienced Confirmation. He understood that when we receive Christ, we are His temple. We are the cup in which we receive Him. To keep the inside of the cup clean, to keep our soul clean, we must go to confession. Sgt. Bartlett had not done that, and, as he told me himself later, had not done a good job of caring for his temple up to that time.
As he looked to his left, Sgt. Bartlett then saw a creature in the form of a dragon, with claws and a tail. It was perched on a pillar, but then leapt down and began clawing at him. He sensed how evil the devil is, how incapable of love he is, incapable of compassion, incapable of mercy. The edge of Hell was near. The pool was in fact the beginning of Purgatory. This place near both of them was where people choose one way or the other. He was scared, like a child, and begged God to take him out of there. Then, suddenly, he was out, and felt an all-enveloping Love come over him. He was now in the presence of God.
Sgt. Bartlett subsequently returned to this life, with a willingness to tell this story to all who will listen. He now understands Reconciliation and Holy Communion in the light of the direct and penetratingly powerful experience he once had. It is Our Lord whom we receive. It is Our Lord.