In the famous novel A Christmas Carol, the main character Ebenezer Scrooge is visited one night by three spirits that eventually lead him to having a spiritual conversion of sorts.
What few people know is that the author of that book, Charles Dickens, claimed to have had a nighttime spiritual encounter of his own.
And who was the supernatural visitor? It just might been the Blessed Virgin Mary.
[See also: Edgar Allen Poe’s Forgotten Hymn to Our Lady]
[See also: The Amazing Deathbed Conversion of Oscar Wilde]
Dickens was no fan of Catholicism (or evangelical Protestantism, for that matter), seeing only hypocrisy and a lack of faithfulness to the true teachings of Christ.
But that didn’t mean he wasn’t religious himself. It’s not clear whether he adhered more closely to Unitarianism or Anglicanism, but there’s a story that when his son was getting ready to leave on a trip to Australia, he gifted him a copy of the New Testament, saying “it is the best book that ever was, or will be, known in the world.”
He also wrote a note to his son saying he wanted to “most solemnly impress upon [him] the truth and beauty of the Christian Religion, as it came from Christ Himself.” He continued: “Never abandon the wholesome practice of saying your own private prayers, night and morning. I have never abandoned it myself, and I know the comfort of it.”
Then, one dark night in 1844, he had a strange supernatural experience.
In the midst of his sleep, he says he was visited by some sort of spirit. The spirit had the form of a woman and was draped in blue as, in his own words, “the Madonna might in a picture by Raphael.” He didn’t recognize the person, and the figure said nothing, but simply looked at him with deep compassion.
Cut to the heart, he started to implore the spirit to leave him some evidence of her appearance to him. When she gave no answer, he asked a much bolder question, “What is the true religion?”
The figure remained silent still, so he started to offer possible answers. First he asked if one’s religion really mattered as long one lived a good life. Still no answer. Then, despite his disdain for all things Catholic, he asked, “perhaps the Roman Catholic is the best? Perhaps it makes one think of God oftener, and believe in him more steadily?”
Finally the woman answered: “For you it is the best!’ Suddenly, she vanished, and he awoke with tears streaming down his face.
So who was the woman?
At least publicly, Dickens speculated that the woman was his aunt Mary Hogarth, who had died seven years earlier and to whom he had been close. But in his own recounting of the vision, the woman “bore no resemblance to any one I have known except in stature.” So that doesn’t seem to make much sense.
The fact the woman didn’t identify herself makes it harder to determine her identity with certainty. But several details from the story – her blue clothes, look of compassion, and insistence he become Roman Catholic – make it seem fairly likely that, if this was indeed a real vision and not just something of his imagination, he was visited by none other than the Blessed Virgin Mary.
Here’s the account as he wrote it in a letter to his biographer:
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… 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… It was so full of compassion and sorrow for me… that it cut me to the heart; and I said, sobbing, ‘Oh! give me some token that you have really visited me!…’
‘Answer me one… 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.