When Charles Dickens Met the Blessed Virgin Mary

“Perhaps Roman Catholicism is the best? Perhaps it makes one think of God oftener, and believe in Him more steadily.”

Charles Dickens in 1867 or 1868.
Charles Dickens in 1867 or 1868. (photo: Jeremiah Gurney)

I’ve never been one for Dickens.

There! I’ve admitted it!

I feel more relieved than ashamed. Actually, I’m bewildered why anyone likes his writing. And now that I’ve outed myself as a philistine, I will however admit I enjoyed his A Christmas Carol. It’s a magnificent commentary on Victorian morals and the spirt of love and compassion that, all too often, lies dormant in our hearts. However, Dickens is pedantic and plodding and wordy and there’s room for only one author like that in my life and Charlie will have to go.

Oh! I forgot. He also didn’t like Catholics, as was the norm for the majority of English Protestants of the Victorian Era. Hatred, of course, is anti-Christian at any time but it’s somehow worse when it’s considered fashionable as it is today in some strange, unthinking climes.

Once, in 1845, while traveling through Switzerland he crossed a river, from a Catholic canton into a Protestant one, and couldn’t refrain his contempt when he wrote, “on the Protestant side, neatness; cheerfulness; industry; education; continual aspiration, at least, after better things” and “on the Catholic side, dirt, disease, ignorance, squalor, and misery.” He went on to say that he had “so constantly observed the like of this… that [he had] a sad misgiving that the religion of Ireland lies as deep at the root of all its sorrows… as English misgovernment and Tory villainy.”

Despite this, G. K. Chesterton claimed in his biography of Dickens that Dickens was at heart a Catholic.

As Chesterton pointed out in his biography on Dickens, the author was hostile to Catholicism and saw no worth in it whatsoever and thus was intentionally ignorant of it, having little, if any, understanding of how Protestantism came about. Chesterton wrote that Dickens “supposed the Middle Ages to have consisted of tournaments and torture-chambers, he supposed himself to be a brisk man of the manufacturing age, almost a Utilitarian. But for all that he defended the medieval feast which was going out against the Utilitarianism which was coming in. He could only see all that was bad in medievalism. But he fought for all that was good in it.”

To tell the truth, Dickens was a fan of neither Catholicism nor evangelical Protestantism but he still possessed religious feelings, showing sympathies toward both Unitarianism and Anglicanism. When his son set sail for Australia in 1868, he gave a copy of the New Testament to him, saying “it is the best book that ever was, or will be, known in the world.”

In a later note to his son, Dickens urged him to develop a prayer life, writing that he “most solemnly impress upon [him] the truth and beauty of the Christian Religion, as it came from Christ Himself.” He continued writing, “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.”

In Dickens’ defense, I hasten to add that he hated anti-Catholicism more than he hated the Catholic Church. He denounced the monstrous anti-Catholic riots of his era. In 1841, he wrote Barnaby Rudge, describing the hatred and foolishness common to that anti-Catholic period and those who fanned the flames of hatred against Catholics.

One would think it odd that I came out as a Dickens-hater in the Catholic press rather than a prestigious literary magazine but sometimes, there are stories that are breathtaking in their breadth, scope and profundity.

This is one of those stories.

Apparently, 174 years ago, according to the author himself, he received an apparition of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

How about that for a kick in the pants? Both for him and for us.

One night in 1844, a year after he published A Christmas Carol, while vacationing in Italy, Dickens woke to see an apparition at the foot of his bed―a woman dressed in blue. He wrote to his friend describing her as looking like “the Madonna might in a picture by Raphael.”

The spirit was silent but stared at him with an otherworldly love in her eyes.

Dickens later wrote to his biographer and friend John Forster (April 2, 1812 – Feb. 2, 1876), the following description of that fateful evening in the author’s own words:

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.

The author’s own words remind me of Scrooge frightened in his bed entreating the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Be to speak. Both passages are emotional and redolent in the details. The similarities are striking.

Was this a vision of the Blessed Virgin Mary, as many Catholics will naturally assume? When asked, Dickens presumed the spirit belonged to his wife’s sister, Mary Hogarth, who had died in 1837, and with whom he was very close. However, he was quick to add that the spirit “bore no resemblance to any one I have known.” This having been said, Dickens also added that that there was “a great altar in our bed-room” where Mass had been said regularly at an earlier time. In addition, Dickens also admitted that he had been “listening to the convent bells (which ring at intervals in the night), and so had thought, no doubt, of Roman Catholic services.”

Any Catholic, upon hearing Dickens’ account would immediately recognize the woman as the Blessed Virgin Mary. The blue clothes, a silent figure, a look of deep compassion and sorrow and her urging that he convert to Catholicism are all sure giveaways. The spirit was definitely the Blessed Virgin Mary.

I recall in A Christmas Carol, how Ebenezer Scrooge is visited by four ghosts―everyone always forgets about Jacob Marley, his former business partner. The three remaining ghosts, Christmas Past, Christmas Present and Christmas Yet to Come, help transform Scrooge into a kinder, gentler and more caring man by holding a mirror to his behavior.

Dickens, like Scrooge, came to drink deeply of the Milk of Human Kindness as a result of his encounter with Mary.

Perhaps, at this Christmastide, we should keep Dickens in mind and pray for our own spiritual conversion of heart and that of others around us.