“I believe… that those apparitions and ghosts of departed persons are not the wandering souls of men, but the unquiet walks of Devils, prompting and suggesting us unto mischief, blood and villainy, instilling and stealing into our hearts that the blessed spirits are not at rest in their graves but wander solicitous of the affairs of the world…” — Sir Thomas Browne
I found myself utterly alone in the basement of the building of a somewhat major university where I work. I have coined the smallish, poorly-lit room consisting of roughly 24 cubicles the “Catacombs.” The room is divided by a white, cinder block wall creating not necessarily two rooms as much as a room divided. So I sat there in this divided room, listening to a Mumford and Sons song and eating lukewarm, potato-cheese soup, and it occurred to me that the division of the two rooms is indicative of the division I so often have in my soul regarding sin and righteousness. It is also indicative of the division between me and the world, as I began penning this in the dungeon of the “Catacombs” and contemplated the un-dead. Yes, for I was working on a paper about the slow vanishing of ghost-lore in seventeenth-century philosophy (recently finished).
It’s true that ghosts were actually a rather big part of the Christian life up until probably the 19th-century. The modern Protestant has essentially made the probability of ghosts about as likely as the probability of Obamacare working. I don’t mean this as a judgment; I have my own beliefs about ghosts.¹ The history of this is fascinating to me, however, for as I said ghosts were a very prominent aspect of Christianity from the medieval period up until the Victorian Period.
As I was saying, the paper I was writing involved a bit of research which led me to a fascinating book on the decline of magic in Christianity after the Reformation aptly titled Religion and The Decline of Magic by a Keith Thomas. To the modern, the whole business can seem rather silly looking back on the different beliefs that were in vogue during the sixteenth and seventeenth-centuries, but we must not let our judgment be warped by what Lewis terms “chronological snobbery.” Simply because a less technologically savvy individual believes in a unicorn does not make the probably of a unicorn any less probable. Some might argue that the further away one is from Facebook, the more probable those beliefs become.
It is this exactly snobbery of the times that we have fallen into when it comes to such ghosts and otherworldly beasts. Faith by my definition is not a giddy feeling about God. It is a intellectual conviction that is more sure of the Cherubim’s existence than the chair in front of you. But our current society lacks faith to see what is not there. The irony of it all is that we spend a great deal of believing in things we do not see all the while insisting on empirical evidence for the truth of something. All of this in the end does nothing but make one very sad.
I believe that the Wife of Bath was on to something when she lamented that all the faeries were gone.
When good King Arthur ruled in ancient days
(A king that every Briton loves to praise)
This was a land brim-full of fairy folk.
The Elf-Queen and her courtiers joined and broke
Their elfin dance on many a green mead,
Or so was the opinion once, I read,
Hundreds of years ago, in days of yore.
But no one now sees fairies any more.
For now the saintly charity and prayer
Of holy friars seem to have purged the air;
They search the countryside through field and stream
As thick as motes that speckle a sun-beam,
Blessing the halls, the chambers, kitchens, bowers,
Cities and boroughs, castles, courts and towers,
Thorpes, barns and stables, outhouses and dairies,
And that’s the reason why there are no fairies.
Wherever there was wont to walk an elf
To-day there walks the holy friar himself
As evening falls or when the daylight springs,
Saying his matins and his holy things,
Walking his limit round from town to town.
Women can now go safely up and down
By every bush or under every tree;
There is no other incubus but he,
So there is really no one else to hurt you
And he will do no more than take your virtue. (Coghill’s Trans.)
But we should get down to business. The sad part of it all is not that there are no more fairies running around. It is that no one believes in the fairies that are running around. Tolkien was exactly right. All the hobbits run away because we bumble along the road noisily, and so we never see them. Now most Christians believe that thoughts originate from God, and it would be presumptuous in us if we believed hobbits solely belonged to Tolkien and not also to God. In fact, God himself knew what a hobbit was long before Tolkien did. If God knew about the concept of hobbits long before Tolkien, the result must be that it was God, not Tolkien who originated the idea of hobbits. Clearly, his Word is silent on the matter of hobbits, but this does not mean that the existence of hobbits is therefore outside the realm of possibility. For if God truly was the creator of the hobbit in theory only, it is very possible he could cause one to exist.
This foolish argument is somewhat complicated when we start discussing ghosts and other horrid objects. At the moment I can’t think of anything worthwhile to say on the topic. It seems to me that my logic in the paragraph above is certainly questionable when we begin discussing orcs. But then evil is nothing more than the absence of good, and as God cannot create anything evil, it is very possible for him to create something good which then relinquishes its good and becomes evil. This said, I have no idea what I am talking about.
In summation, it appears that I have said very little about ghosts in this post about ghosts. I suppose that with many things I began to talk about something only to find that in the end I would much rather discuss something else. In this sense what I really wanted to argue was for the existence of elves and lament the fact that no one believes me when I saw one last weekend.
¹It is certainly very likely that ghosts exist and appear, and I do not wish to put anything outside the realm of God’s power. But what they are and why they would appear is another matter. It seems unlikely that anyone who has died would appear without Purgatory, and seeing as how I do not believe in a real, physical Purgatory, I would generally side with the argument that dismissed them for this reason. However, this is not to say that if God so chose, he could not send someone back. He apparently sent Elijah back. The question would have to be, does he send people back, and as I just pointed out he most assuredly did send people back. Now, for the purpose of ghosts, that is another matter. Most of the visions people see could probably be attributed to demonic activity, for it is not beyond the realm of possibility that Satan uses these means to deceive people. (Joseph Smith saw a vision.) As for the “good” ghosts who possibly would return, I am not sure how often this actually happens. Then again, I live in America, and as a people, we generally don’t believe in much of anything here. So in short, I believe in the likely probability of ghosts, but find more comfort in God communicating to us through his Word.