It’s inevitable. Every time I’m going to be away from my wife and daughters for a few days, whether it’s with a long car drive or flight, a moment of panic, anxiety, and longing takes hold. I miss them and worry immensely. Do they know how much I love them? Will they be OK? Did I tell them everything I needed? Did I hug them hard enough? Hold them long enough? I feel a similar pang when I think of my mother, who has dementia and lives in a nursing facility many states away where she is visited often and cared for by my sister. She can no longer communicate with me like she used to. Does she know how much I miss her? Did I spend enough time sitting with her during my last visit? Does she feel my love for her?
In our super-connected world, there are text messages and Facetime calls I can make to my wife and to my sister to tell them how I feel, but if you know this pain, there is very little that can assuage it in the moment. Besides, calling my wife every 10 minutes to relay a message to my daughters might help me, but doesn’t really help her.
A few years ago, I learned of a powerful and prayerful way to combat this anxiety. It comes from a letter that Saint Frances Xavier Cabrini, better known as Mother Cabrini, wrote to her postulants, novices, and fellow sisters while on a passenger ship from New York to Le Havre, France, on September 2, 1899. It was this same route that she had traveled in reverse only a decade earlier when she had first immigrated to the United States from Italy. The letter is reproduced in Pietro Di Donato’s extraordinary biography, Immigrant Saint: The Life of Mother Cabrini, published in 1960.
Mother Cabrini falls asleep soon after embarking from New York, and when she awakes, she writes this:
It was only then I realized that I was far away from the Sisters and felt the sorrow and separation from them. It seemed to me that I still had a word to say to one Sister, to give counsel to another, to suggest something to a third, but already the ocean had isolated me from everyone, while the rainy weather seemed to make me feel sadder. Reflecting upon my vocation as a Missionary, I remembered that I ought not to allow sadness to take hold of me. So I entered into the Heart of Jesus, where I saw all the Sisters, and though I could not speak to them, I asked the Sacred Heart to tell each of them what I had had forgotten, or what I had not time to say.
As Catholics, we are familiar with using prayer to speak to Jesus and the saints, and to petition for the safety and comfort of others. We also use prayer to speak with the souls of departed loved ones. But it had never occurred to me to use prayer to speak with loved ones here among us. It’s such a beautiful idea, and as I discovered, a remarkable and powerful form of prayerful meditation. I use it often now, whenever I need to quell my anxiety and worry (which happens frequently, unfortunately). I simply go into a prayerful and meditative state, imagine myself enveloped in the Sacred Heart of Jesus, and ask the Lord to relay a message to my daughters, my wife, my mother, or anyone for whom a text message fired off before putting my phone in airplane mode won’t suffice.
I don’t know if Mother Cabrini came up with this prayer technique, or if she learned it from someone else. The idea of communicating with others isn’t particularly unique in spiritual traditions. Paramahansa Yogananda wrote about one variation in his classic book Autobiography of a Yogi:
About eight-thirty on Wednesday morning, a telepathic message from Sri Yukteswar flashed insistently to my mind: “I am delayed; don’t meet the nine o’clock train.” I conveyed the latest instructions to Dijen, who was already dressed for departure. “You and your intuition!” My friend’s voice was edged in scorn. “I prefer to trust Master’s written word.” I shrugged my shoulders and seated myself with quiet finality. Muttering angrily, Dijen made for the door and closed it noisily behind him. . . .”
Yogananda was right; Yukteswar was late. Yogananda had perfected his inner “radio,” according to yogi Tyagi Jayadev in a blog post, “How to Transmit Thoughts and Feelings to Someone.” “Such subtle telepathic communication (sending/receiving thoughts or feelings or images) depends both on the sender and receiver,” writes Jayadev. On receiving, he notes that “Only very aware persons feel consciously. . . . The calmness of meditation helps us to become more receptive as it calms the chitta (feeling) in our heart.” Senders can perfect their process, too:
The receiving station of your inner “radio” is the heart. The sending station is the spiritual eye. So focus on your own spiritual eye and concentrate on the spiritual eye of the other. Then send a strong thought or feeling. The other will receive it either consciously or subconsciously. Use strong will. Thoughts are very gentle vibrations moving in the ether. Feelings are too. They can be consciously received and sent. Receiving requires receptivity, sending requires will-power.
Both Mother Cabrini and Yogananda seem to be trying to accomplish the same thing. While Yogananda might be using what’s called the spiritual or third eye or sixth chakra to achieve this communication, Cabrini is calling on Jesus to act as a facilitator. This is an approach very consistent with our belief as Catholics. Just as we believe in the communion of saints and in their ability to act as our intercessors, we also believe in our communion with each other, practiced every time we receive the Holy Eucharist. We’re connected in one body, so why wouldn’t we be able to communicate with each other through the Sacred Heart that gives life to that body? We believe, after all, in “one holy, catholic and apostolic church,” with the lower case “catholic,” meaning “universal” and “inclusive.”
It’s interesting that Cabrini doesn’t seem too concerned with whether or not her intended recipients receive her message. Nor do I when I practice it. For this is not the goal of the communication. It’s not meant, necessarily, to be telepathic. It’s meant to be prayerful, in much the same way that we offer up our intentions and pray for others. We believe that Jesus always hears those prayers. That’s the power and comfort of the exercise.
Meanwhile, should all this talk of communicating with others pique your interest in the methods that Yogananda and Jayadev describe, the Very Rev. Kevin Michael Quirk, JCD, former Judicial Vicar of the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston, says your exploration does not in any way conflict with Catholic teaching. In answering a diocesan question about the belief in telepathy in 2010, Fr. Quirk says that while he “cannot comment on other world religions and their doctrine regarding telepathy and other forms of extrasensory perception, nor the doctrine of other Christian denominations,” he would be happy “to say a few words based on Roman Catholic doctrine, based primarily on theological anthropology (that is, our understanding of human nature and humanity in light of humanity’s creation by God).”
Fr. Quirk continues by saying that the Roman Catholic Church teaches that God created human beings with natural gifts, including reason and self-reflection, but also—“by the promise of God the Father and through the incarnation of Jesus Christ”—the ability to receive supernatural gifts that are beyond or entirely above human nature. Among these supernatural gifts are grace, eternal life, and more.
And then there are “preternatural gifts,” which Fr. Quirk defines as “gifts which are outside of general human nature but available to some human beings and running parallel to human nature.” Among them are extrasensory perception, telekinesis, and telepathy. “When it comes to these gifts, the possessor should use them in accord with the same rules of morality that all persons most use,” Fr. Quirk states. “They should be used to improve one’s self or to help others or to praise God Almighty.”
With great power comes great responsibility, as Uncle Ben told a young Peter Parker in the early days of Spider-Man. Or as Jesus said in the Parable of the Faithful Servant (Luke 12:48), “From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded.” If you have the gift of telepathy, use it wisely. In the meantime, you always have Mother Cabrini’s method, which is also gift. And don’t forget the opportunity to hug and hold and tell those close to you how much you love them. Every chance you get. ♦
Joe Pagetta is a museum professional, arts writer, and personal essayist whose work has appeared in America, Ambassador Magazine (the National Italian American Foundation), Chapter 16, Wordpeace, Ovunque Siamo, and more. He has a B.A. from Saint Peter’s University and currently serves as the director of communications for the Tennessee State Museum in Nashville, Tennessee. He is working on a book for Vanderbilt University Press on Fr. James Aloysius Orengo and the early Catholic Church in Middle Tennessee. More at JoePagetta.com.