The other day I was out in my sleepy south Louisiana river town, and ran into a friend. Somehow, we started talking about ghosts.
She told me about a couple of spectral situations she and her husband had dealt with in their old house, including on the night that the former owner died. As I told her about a dramatic ghostly visitation in my own family after my grandfather died, another friend joined us, and made our hair stand up with stories of paranormal occurrences in her family’s ancient two-story pile, where there had been a suicide, madness, and other traumatic occurrences before her family bought the place.
The thing is, this was a normal conversation where I live. True, people don’t talk about ghosts every day, but more people than you might expect have stories like this, and speak of them as if they were part of life. Which, if you ask me, they are.
In her new book Opening Heaven’s Door, journalist Patricia Pearson explores the world of the near-dying, and what their experiences have to tell us about the nature of reality. Among her findings: that just before death, an astonishing number of people (nearly 50 percent) report visitations, either in dreams or in person, from dead family members and friends. This happened to my late aunt, and happened to my sister, who died in 2011. I had no idea it was so common.
What’s going on here? It is not easy to fit this kind of thing into a Christian framework. After the eerie encounter with my grandfather’s ghost in 1994, I asked a wise old Catholic priest friend for his take on things. He confided that he had similar experiences while staying in a Scottish castle that he could neither deny nor explain theologically to his satisfaction.
“On some things, our theology just can’t say for sure,” he mused.
Rice University religion professor Jeffrey Kripal has long contended that our compulsion to explain the world leads us to dismiss data that disconfirm our preferred theories. In his view, both religious believers and secular rationalists deny the validity of ghosts and other forms of paranormal experience because these things don’t line up with the way they think the world is. Writes a frustrated Kripal, “Just how long can we go on like this until we admit that there is real data, and that we haven’t the slightest idea where to put it?”
As a Christian, I believe, of course, that the soul survives the death of the body. As for ghosts, I believe that in some cases, God allows the spirits of the dead to visit the living, and in other cases those spirits are unhappily bound to the earth in a kind of purgatorial state, from which they need the help of the living to respond to divine grace and be free to move on. But that’s just my theory. I have seen haunted houses, including my mom and dad’s place, freed of ghosts by Christian prayer, and that is the most important thing I need to know. My local friend, a Catholic, told me the ghost left her house after she told it to depart in the name of Jesus.
A friend from up North once asked me why south Louisiana seems to have so many ghosts, versus other parts of the country. My answer is that we have no more here than anybody else does, but we are more sensitive to their presence here, because we live so close to the dead, in our memories and in our common life. In other words, we see and hear ghosts because in our imagination, both individually and collectively, we are unusually open to the presence of the departed.
The skeptic would say, understandably, that this is an example of “confirmation bias” – seeing what one expects to see. They may be right. On the other hand, consider the experience of Rupert Ross, a retired Crown Attorney in Canada who worked with Native American tribes in his country. In his book “Dancing With A Ghost,” Ross writes about how difficult his legal work was until he began to understand the Native worldview – a worldview that included a belief in the abiding presence of the dead, and of spirits.
Was Ross converted to the animism of the Natives? No. But he did emerge more open-minded about the possibility that the Natives are in touch with a level of reality that eludes the rest of us – this, simply because they believe the veil between this life and the next is open, and because they have developed their natural intuition to a high degree.
Last weekend, my wife and I went to the wake of an elderly gentleman from a prominent local family. We learned that two days before his passing, his nurses found him talking to a woman who they couldn’t see.
After he died, the nurses told this story to the old man’s adult children. The name of the ghost was that of the old man’s long-dead wife. Folks here don’t try to explain that kind of thing away. They just take it in stride, and even draw comfort from it. There are more things under God’s heaven than we know. Life is not a problem to be solved, but a mystery to be lived.
Rod Dreher is author of The Little Way Of Ruthie Leming, which was recently published in paperback. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.