Disembodied spirits exist, but do they have the power to manifest themselves in an ephemeral way to living human beings?
My sister must have been eight or nine years old when she reported the strange sighting. We lived among the rolling hills of Southeastern Pennsylvania. The area was steeped in history, and the local lore was that years ago there was a resort in the hills above our home, and during colonial times wealthy people from Philadelphia would take refuge from the summer heat in the lodges among the lakes in these hills.
This gave some context to my sister’s experience. She claimed to have seen a young boy in colonial garb— breeches with knee socks, a white shirt with full sleeves and long-ish hair with a three cornered dark blue hat. He was running merrily along the back of our house with a small dog trotting beside him. She watched the boy out of her bedroom window as he ran up into the woods and disappeared. It was daylight. She had not been dreaming, and like Lucy in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, she was a truthful child—not given to dreams or fantastic stories.
She was curious about her vision, but not afraid. She concluded that she had seen a ghost. Was it a ghost? Do ghosts exist?
In this article on my blog, theologian and writer Paul Thigpen discusses the question at length. First he defines his terms. A ghost would be a disembodied human being. Do ghosts exist? Christians must conclude that they do since we believe in our continuing existence after our physical bodies perish.
Disembodied spirits exist, but do they have the power to manifest themselves in an ephemeral way to living human beings? Thigpen acknowledges that accounts of appearances of disembodied humans are virtually universal in human experience. In every culture down through history people have claimed to have seen or heard ghosts.
There are accounts in Scripture of ghostly appearances, but they are slim. In 1Samuel the prophet Samuel is summoned up by the witch of Endor to speak with King Saul and Judas Maccabeus had a vision of the deceased high priest Onias. The apparitions of Moses and Elijah at the Transfiguration could be ghost-like appearances. However, some would contend that these are in the same category as apparitions of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Her apparitions cannot be classified as ghostly because her body was assumed into heaven. Elijah was assumed into heaven in a fiery chariot and Jewish tradition asserts that Moses too, was assumed into heaven.
Thigpen collects evidence for ghosts from the saints, recounting several stories of paranormal visitations from such august figures as St Gregory the Great, St. Augustine and St John Bosco.
Students of the occult would insist that disembodied humans can be summoned up through seances or other necromantic practices. C.S.Lewis observes somewhere that what strikes him about the utterances from the other side is how banal they are. The seers do not recount profound messages from the departed loved ones. Instead they deliver (at best) trite bromides or bland re-assurances about their continued existence. “You mustn’t cry. Uncle Philpot is here and he is happy and still loves a cigar and brandy every night.” Are seances real? Does the Ouija work? There are enough de-bunkers of occultism to pull the rug out from most conjured up ghostly encounters.
Nevertheless, people continue to report such encounters on a regular basis. When I was an Anglican priest I had one widow who told me that her dear departed husband came into the living room spot on ten o clock each night carrying a cup of cocoa “Just like he always did…and sits in that chair right there, but then when I talk to him he vanishes.”
As a priest one is called out on a regular, if not frequent basis to deal with unquiet spirits of one kind or another. It might be a home where children are “seeing strange people” or a room where bumps in the night are heard.
In one instance I discerned a “dark area” in a room of a house that wouldn’t sell. I had been asked to bless the house to lift whatever it was that was causing potential buyers to leave as soon as possible. The owners confirmed that in the “dark area” a suicide had occurred. We blessed the house and prayed for the poor soul who had taken his own life and the house sold for the asking price the next week.
It would seem therefore, that there are indeed such things as ghosts—disembodied, unquiet spirits who remain linked to this physical realm. They may have died violently or unexpectedly. They may have been psychically retained by loved ones who can’t let them go. They may be stuck in the physical realm because of some inordinate attachment to a place, a person or a pleasure.
What then, (or who) did my little sister see? My own opinion is that she witnessed not a ghost, but a slip in time. Paranormal experts speculate that some psychically aware individuals —often young girls—perceive a kind of video loop of an event in the past. How this oddity works or whether it is anything more than a speculation no one knows.
Finally, those who ponder the accounts of ghostly experiences must also allow for the deceptions of the devil. Satan and his minions love to wear masks. They are masters of disguise. Demonologists affirm that the demons will sometimes manifest themselves as departed souls, and this is why all necromancy is forbidden, because, when hoping to summon up Great Aunt Bertha you may instead be visited by Behemoth.
Fr Dwight Longenecker’s latest book, The Secret of the Bethlehem Shepherds is published by Sophia Institute Press in November.
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