A co-worker one day raised the subject of premonitions: awareness of situations before one can possibly know of them in the nor mal way. it seems that these are common phenomena, particularly among women, notably mothers. and the subject made me think of my late grandmother.
My paternal grandmother had premonitions and similar experiences from time to time. The most memorable was in relation to my father. When dad was at university in Toronto, she was living in northern Ontario. Widowhood had made her a single mother from the time he was small. She supported my father by teaching school and with the help of a network of relatives clustered on farms in the Ottawa Valley. One night she had a dream that made her very anxious. She dreamed that my father was playing with wreaths of flowers. He was dropping rings of floral arrangements onto a river and watching them float away. The problem was that they were unambiguously funeral wreaths. It was similar to the Japanese Buddhist tradition of saying farewell to a loved one.
Understandably, in her anxiety, she phoned my father. He replied cheerfully, "Hi, Mum. I was just going to call you. I have a summer job working as an assistant at the Dovercourt Funeral Parlour."
Even after Nan, as we called her, had a debilitating stroke that left her profoundly cognitively disabled for the last seven years of her life, I don't think her perceptions were dimmed. When we visited her at the nursing home (my father dropped by for a quick visit every day, providing a salutary example for his children), she often picked up on tension or problems that were in the air. She was agitated at those times, such as when my mother was diagnosed with terminal cancer or when one of us was experiencing difficulties in a relationship.
There came the day in the early 1990s when I visited her and she seemed very weak. I figured the end might be imminent. That night I had a dream in which she was heading off somewhere—I think she was getting into her old blue convertible. She was restored to lucidity and told me she loved me. She died that night.
Her premonitions did not appear to be connected to any particular is holiness in her. My grandmother was definitely a good lady—at turns playful and disciplined, affectionate and demanding—about the right mix for a schoolteacher. The tough years of single motherhood were repaid in a retirement that included a second marriage before widowhood intervened again. This was followed by world travel with other retirees, mostly teachers. She enjoyed playing bridge and was actually engaged in a game when she had the major stroke. She could also be easily offended, sometimes held grudges and occasionally expressed bigoted opinions in the areas of ethnicity and religion. I do not doubt that the years of dementia stripped all of that away and that she was indeed radiant with love on her final journey.
If she was an ordinary good grandmother and not a wonder-worker, neither was Nan's perceptiveness linked to the occult—to mediums, channelling or the seeking of psychic powers—which the Church, and all profound traditions such as Tibetan Buddhism condemn as being extremely spiritually dangerous. No. It simply was. She didn't look for it or use it to try to predict things or to gain power. It just happened.
Furthermore, such perceptions are not infallible—particularly in the sense of interpreting the insight. The dream about my father playing with funeral wreaths had nothing to do with any real danger.
It ended up being strangely humorous. As at least one spiritual writer has noted in relation to private revelations, the initial perception is always filtered through the subjective impressions and prejudices of the perceiver. There can be no substitute for reflecting and thinking things through—for regular use of the scriptures, for investigating situations and for making use of one's normal faculties and good sense.
Nor are such phenomena to be confused with spirituality—a word that is itself partly corrupted by misuse. Real spiritual growth is distinct from such signs and is pre-eminently a growth in faith, of trust in God. Often it occurs in the most humdrum, non-spectacular context. The Incarnation notwithstanding, God is in a way too big to be "perceived" or "felt" or contained. Spiritual experience is often a "non-experience."
These mysterious events, however, are a kind of sign. They certainly undermine materialistic secularism. They are a part of our universe, and materialism doesn't fit the facts. A world in which they occur is more consistent with Padre Pio and Lourdes than with Richard Dawkins and genetic determinism.
This mystery is woven through our materiality, frailty, and mortality. It is not an escape from them. Nan occasionally experienced it in a particularly gifted way; she was also subject to the brain breakdown that some use as proof that we are nothing but a bundle of chemicals following physical laws. The two realities coexist in a kind of hypostatic union. We don't know how.
When I walk through the part of North York where Nan lived and did her various activities, I can sometimes perceive the atmosphere of her life and remain in some way her grandson. This is particularly true in the ravines and in neighbourhoods of post-war bungalows on quiet afternoons. But it is even true to some extent in the rebuilt areas where giant custom-built homes have replaced the original crop. On these streets, the scent of history is diluted and has some sense of poignancy, of loss. And the city goes on in its interminable rush of commerce, planning and promotion, in forgetfulness of all the innumerable presences in its midst.