Wednesday, May 8, 2019

"We Do Not Know the Rules"

"Did I ever tell you about the haunted house I sold?"

"No, you did not."

"[Rad Trad], let me tell you about that house."

My friend, and the realtor who sold me my home, lit up his pipe and I touched fire to the end of a Romeo y Julieta Wide Churchill.

"It was a log cabin in the woods, quite remote from anyone in Tyler, nearby. I would leave a key between the horizontal timbers for showings and they continued that instead of getting a key-hiding rock, except whenever they did it, the key always fell the moment they got in their car. Every single time."

"Really?" I was getting a sweet cedar note, a signature Romeo flavor. Thus far, nothing interesting.

"Really! I did not think that was too interesting, but then they told me 'The garage door also opens whenever we pull in the driveway. There is no electronic opener! It's entirely mechanical!' I thought, 'Alright, but perhaps someone is pulling a trick on you.' "

About an inch in, I remembered why the Wide Churchill was so very different from the regular Churchill. Whereas the latter has a sweet, subtle flavor, the former, with the same blend in a wider ring gauge, is slightly spicy, fuller in body. It is amazing how different one tobacco blend tastes in two formats, much like drinking a delicate Burgundian wine from a deep Bordeaux glass or a wide Pinot Noir glass.

"So, I asked them, 'Is anything else different?' They told me, 'Just that books fall off shelves at random times of day'....

"'Oh, is that it?'

"'Yes,' she told my friend, 'and we could deal with it if not for the kitchen cabinets slamming all night.' "

My cigar fell out of my mouth and ashed in my lap.

There is no such thing as a ghost, dear reader, or so I was taught to believe as a child. And how I did discount the supernatural as a precociously reasonable child! And yet, these things do in fact happen.

In no first hand experience of a "ghost" have I ever heard that such a spirit was malicious. My oldest friend, who I knew since the age of six, grew up in a house built in 1860; around 2007, her much younger sister began to see a pale, blue man wearing a long coat and a top hat, but he never had anything to say. She saw this figure consistently for a year. After psychological exams proved she was not insane and a county inspection confirmed that there was no gas leak, the family warily consulted the local priest, the friendly Father Bob, who knew nothing about possession other than that this was not it. Father Bob blessed their home and left it as was.

Ghosts, so wrongly named by our Protestant literary ancestors, are not malevolent beings. The wicked die and suffer forever, unless Christ, somehow, permits them to test Mankind as He permits the demons to do so. There is precious little writing of "ghosts" and "spirits" in Christian culture before the Reformation, but there is plenty to be seen of the appearance of souls. One of the more famous accounts is that of a figure wreathed in flames appearing to Saint Lutgardis of Belgium in 1216, declaring that he was Pope Innocent and that he was doomed to suffer for six centuries on account of his short-comings as Vicar of Saint Peter. The saint documented the apparition and some short time later received a letter than Innocent III had died the very day she saw the fiery figure.

To our Catholic minds, what pre-Modern culture called "ghosts", we might well call "Holy Souls", those who belong to God finally but not yet in fact. There are many traditions and fables around "ghosts" and many firmer theological speculations about those in Purgatory, being purified of their inability to obey the commandments of God in this life, but two things are clear:

  1. that these things do, absolutely, happen... and....
  2. that, in the words of Montague Rhodes James, "we do not know the rules"


  1. This is a topic which has always piqued my curiosity. One heard quite a few stories from relatives in the old country, which I have always wondered how one squares with Catholic teaching. There is apparently very little written systematically on this topic, no?

    1. It is something with very little theological writing, just cultural stories. I do think that it is interesting that "ghost" stories are fairly recent and that most supernatural appearances, to prior generations, were received either as manifestations of demonic possession or a soul in need of prayers (of which there are many examples). It would seem that "ghost" stories, to my poor mind, are a sign of a loss of sense of the supernatural within the natural world, where these things happen and are normal if uncommon.