Friday, November 14, 2014

Ghosts, Time and Sanctity

Looking in the mirror, it would have been nice to have my own reflection looking back at me. Then again, I would have settled for anything that was still alive and still had a face.(My entry for the two-sentence horror story.)

Halloween has passed. I really don't like what Halloween has become, just as I really don't like what Christmas has become, following the cultural forgetting of Advent and the recent social obligation of commerce and transaction which now makes the season up.

But Halloween...

Halloween should be another remarkable time of year, like Christmas. If you think about it, the timing of Christian festivals occurs at the same time that old pagan festivals occur for the very reason that the Church wanted to supplant pagan festivals. Yet, however wrong the pagan religion was, it does tap into our humanity. We encounter Spring, Summer, Autumn (Fall, for my transatlantic chums) and Winter naturally, and it is this nature that the pagans recognized and built up their festivals.

As the nights draw in, the darkness falls, the trees wither and lose leaves and animalkind prepares for hibernation, the human soul sees the termination of life and reflects on its own mortality. Old friends are remembered, happier times fondly recalled against the backdrop of the darkening skies. Is it any wonder that a sense of the proximity of the world of the living and the land of the dead should develop? The pagans had their harvest festivals subsumed by the Church who used the time to remember all the saints and all the souls. Of course, the Christians did demonise the pagan religion and the practitioners were viewed with much suspicion which led eventually to the witch hunts and witch trials. Hence Halloween received its associations with the occult.

I will admit to being greatly interested in the paranormal or supernatural. I wish to be clear though. This does not mean that I go in for any dangerous practices such as divining or clairvoyance, which are strictly prohibited by my religion for the health of my soul. A good ghost story for me breaks down the concrete structures of the manmade world around me and brings me back to that time when men had some deference to nature and its seasons. The stories of M.R. James point me to the world that, for all my empirical and rational understanding, I could not understand. There is something deeply disturbing about the fact that there is a beautiful world of an organic nature that can confound mankind's understanding.

I listen carefully to people who tell me that they have seen a ghost. Their stories are powerful and a true expression of their encounter with reality. Whether they experience what they have interpreted that they have experienced is another matter. Many ghosts can be explained away by natural and unusual effects such as a coincidental instance of paradolia, or by the effect of subsonic waves, or by the terrifying occurrences of sleep paralysis. What isn't explained away though is the effect that this has on the subject of this occurrence. David Hume declares with some force that extraordinary claims require extraordinary explanations. Of course, he also says that the relationship between causes and effect is suspect. For Hume, a one-off occurrence in front of even one witness could never be true, because it lacks a verifiable explanation. A drunkard who sees a flying pink elephant would never be believed, even if the said beast actually had existed for that brief moment of time with him the only witness. We could never rule it out, but we could, legitimately, rule it highly unlikely. However, probability is not actuality.

A person's ghost story is a story of bafflement. It is a story of standing on the precipice of knowledge looking at the abyss below, peering into the darkness and fearing that, perhaps, we might fall. Of course, one must be careful. St Peter reminds us to be sober and vigilant because our enemy the Devil walketh about like a roaring lion seeking for someone to devour. There are beings out there in the darkness between our understanding and our belief that pull us from God if we let them. We can see a ghost, yes, but if we believe it to be the soul of one of our dear departed, then we must be very careful lest the vision draw us from God's truth and into the clutches of one who would have us despair. Only that which points to the living God can ever be truly edifying. If it points us away, then we must turn our backs on it with a vade me retro!

Much of the horror genre these days is unpleasant in the extreme and hopeless. Modern Horror does seem to want to destroy mankind utterly, and that requires much care. These thoughts come from human minds, and human minds are dark places indeed. However, their darkness cannot be known without light. Something must be light in the human mind for there to be darkness. The benefit of Horror must come from passing between one and the other. The best Horror movies and ghost stories allow us to see the darkness in the human mind within the dark seasons and dark places of untameable Nature and invite us to recall that there must be light in order to see anything at all. They challenge us to step out of our comfortable mindset into the disquiet of our own impotence without ever leaving our armchair.

What, however, does this have to do with the saints? Why all this darkness at Allsaintstide?

It is simple. The saints are human beings just like us. Yet, just as the ghost story gives us a vehicle from passing between light and darkness, their lives have finally passed into the Light of Tabor, the undiluted light of God Himself. No more will they fear, nor be in pain, nor suffer at the hands of others, for they are like God for they see Him as He is! We continue to wrestle with darkness within and without. Our lives can be too comfortable in the twilight and we must remember that twilight precedes night or day. Our lives move in both directions. The saints do not, they have fought their fight and won their race. Yet they do not remember their lives as a good ghost story. They see everything by God's light for what it really is, and are thankful for every second of living.

So, if the sheets on the bed opposite you start twitching tonight and, slowly, inexorably with many a rustle and a flick, rise forming themselves into a creature draped in sheet from head to foot before advancing on you flailing blindly with what passes for hands, remember that frightening though this be, it is the perception of the gulf between humanity and God that has become just that little bit smaller. Then turn on the Light.

No comments: