One night in 1844, the year after he published A Christmas Carol, a 32-year-old Charles Dickens seemingly encountered a visitor from beyond while vacationing in Venice, Italy. Within this dream or vision, Dickens thought himself speaking to his dearly-beloved sister-in-law, Mary Hogarth, who had died in 1837, yet he also observed that the spirit “bore no resemblance to any one I have known.” Dickens recorded this experience soon afterward in a letter to a friend:
“Let me tell you of a curious dream I had, last Monday night; and of the fragments of reality I can collect, which helped to make it up. [I] had laid awake nearly all that night…. [W]hen I fell asleep and dreamed this dream. Observe that throughout I was as real, animated, and full of passion as [the English actor William Macready] in the last scene of Macbeth.
In an indistinct place, which was quite sublime in its indistinctness I was visited by a Spirit. I could not make out the face, nor do I recollect that I desired to do so. It wore a blue drapery, as the Madonna might in a picture by Raphael; and bore no resemblance to any one I have known except in stature. I think (but I am not sure) that I recognized the voice. Anyway, I knew it was poor Mary’s spirit. I was not at all afraid, but in a great delight, so that I wept very much, and stretching out my arms to it called it “Dear.”
At this, I thought it recoiled; and I felt immediately, that not being of my gross nature, I ought not to have addressed it so familiarly. “Forgive me!” I said. “We poor living creatures are only able to express ourselves by looks and words. I have used the word most natural to our affections; and you know my heart.” It was so full of compassion and sorrow for me—which I knew spiritually, for, as I have said, I didn’t perceive its emotions by its face—that it cut me to the heart; and I said, sobbing, “Oh! give me some token that you have really visited me!”
“Form a wish,” it said. I thought, reasoning with myself: ‘If I form a selfish wish, it will vanish.’ So I hastily discarded such hopes and anxieties of my own as came into my mind, and said, “Mrs. Hogarth is surrounded with great distresses (observe, I never thought of saying ‘your mother‘ as to a mortal creature) will you extricate her?” “Yes.” “And her extrication is to be a certainty to me that this has really happened?” “Yes.”
“But answer me one other question!” I said, in an agony of entreaty lest it should leave me. “What is the True religion?” As it paused a moment without replying, I said—Good God in such an agony of haste, lest it should go away! “You think, as I do, that the Form of religion does not so greatly matter, if we try to do good? or,” I said, observing that it still hesitated, and was moved with the greatest compassion for me, “perhaps the Roman Catholic is the best? Perhaps it makes one think of God oftener, and believe in him more steadily?” “For you,” said the Spirit, full of such heavenly tenderness for me, that I felt as if my heart would break; “for you, it is the best!” Then I awoke, with the tears running down my face, and myself in exactly the condition of the dream. It was just dawn.
I called up [my wife] Kate, and repeated it three or four times over, that I might not unconsciously make it plainer or stronger afterwards. It was exactly this. Free from all hurry, nonsense, or confusion, whatever.”
One’s Catholic imagination wonders if this tender, compassionate, glorious “Mary” who visited Charles Dickens that night was actually the Blessed Virgin. Like Our Lady of Lourdes responded to Bernadette’s initial requests for her name with a silent smile, this visitor holds back at first to finally reveal a climactic answer. Whether this was a true vision or merely a dream we cannot say, but this visitor’s answer to his religious question does not disqualify our Blessed Mother: the glorious woman told him, “For you, [the Catholic religion] is the best!”
Would this statement imply that Catholicism would not be the best religion for some? Dickens himself held that the form of one’s religion did not greatly matter if someone tried to do good, and his strong distaste for formal religion had drawn him to Unitarianism. If our Mother Mary, who knew Charles through and through, wished to lead him into full communion with the Catholic Church, she would speak truth to him in the way which he could best receive it. Indeed, for him the Catholic faith truly would be best, but he may have balked-outright at her teaching that it is best for everyone. If his was a vision of the Blessed Virgin sent from God, the plan was to bring him into the fullness of the truth over time, as we often see God patiently doing with others.
Charles Dickens never did become a Catholic during his lifetime, but after 1847 (three years after this experience) he began attending the Anglican church near his home and prayed each morning and night. A year before his death, he wrote in his 1869 last will and testament, “I commit my soul to the mercy of God through our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ….” Today his body lies buried in Poets’ Corner of Westminster Abbey.