Yes or No

Reading about demonic possession is enough to scare you away from ever using a ouija board.  In fact, I’ve never played with one; growing up my strict religion would’ve prevented it in any case, and already as a child I’d been warned of the dangers.  During my research for Nightmares with the Bible, I’ve been reading quite a bit about ouija.  Originally a species of divination, the ouija, or spirit board, became popular during the growth of Spiritualism.  Spiritualism is a religion based on the idea that the dead still communicate with the living, ensuring believers that life continues beyond death.  It still exists, but not with the numbers that it boasted in the early days.  Among the solemn admonitions of Ed and Lorraine Warren (about whom I’ve posted much in recent months) was that ouija boards opened doorways for demonic entities.  Some of their stories are quite scary.

Image credit: Mijail0711, via Wikimedia Commons

Whatever else you can say about America, a fact beyond dispute is that if something can make a buck it will be marketed and sold.  So it was with ouija boards in the 1970s.  I remember seeing them on the shelf with other games at local department stores.  Even then I knew they weren’t a toy and I wondered how anyone could be promoting them for general consumption.  At Grove City College—that bastion of undergraduate conservatism—stories circulated about how students (usually coeds) were attacked in their locked rooms after playing with ouija boards.  This is, I was later to learn, a staple of collegiate urban legends.  At the time, however, I took it very seriously.  

Thus it’s strange when I find out that others my age were more curious about them.  Recently at a party with friends around Valentine’s Day, the question naturally came up of how some of us met our spouses.  One of the women mentioned that before she’d met or even heard of her future husband (who has an unusual surname) a ouija board spelled out his name.  She later met and married him, not on the board’s recommendation, but she remembered that years before she’d been given a hint.  Now these friends are not cheats and liars—they’re not even Republicans.  They’re people we trust.  On our drive home that night my wife mentioned she’d used a ouija board once, with friends, back in her high school years.  She asked the name of her spouse (long before we met) and came up with Sam.  I’m no Sam, but when we first met in grad school I was still going by my stepfather’s surname and my initials were S-A-M.  Coincidence?  Probably.  My future wife did not pursue me; indeed, it was the other way around.  Even so, there in the dark on the nighttime highway I felt a familiar frisson from childhood concerning a form of divination that seems to know more than it should.

Now Hiring?

In keeping with my recent theme of jobs you never knew you could have, I recently read a story a friend sent me from The Vintage News.  The story concerns a spiritual counselor who is planning to marry a ghost.  I didn’t know that spiritual counselor was an available job.  You see, I had taken enough psychology courses in college that I could’ve had it as a minor, but I didn’t declare it.  At the time I was destined, or so I thought, for a career in ministry and psychology seemed a good subject to assist with that.  Also, I naturally tend to try to figure out what motivates people.  Like most career options, not having a science background prevented me from pursuing psychology as a fall-back career.  But spiritual counselor?

The woman in the story lives in the United Kingdom.  Here in the United States, where unhappy people seek any opportunity they can find to sue someone, having a job as a spiritual counselor probably involves ordination.  Even if you’re ordained, as I learned from long years both attending and teaching in seminaries, you always refer those who come to you to a licensed psychologist.  Clergy can easily be sued for providing bad advice.  That’s why the counselor part of this job seems so odd to me.  That, and the woman the story features is only 27.  I suppose that’s time enough to finish a doctorate, for the truly ambitious, but apparently she doesn’t have a terminal degree.  Just a post-terminal lover.

Also, I learned that spectrophilia is a condition with a name.  The idea of intimacy with spirits is nothing new, of course.  The ancient idea of incubi and succubi reflect this concept, and a number of the stories in the Ed and Lorraine Warren oeuvre include sexual attacks by demons or ghosts.  What’s different here is that the young woman wants to marry a spirit she can’t see.  Unlike most such reputed cases of spectrophilia, she claims spirits are superior to physical lovers.  Despite the oddities that make such a story newsworthy (in a sense) a potentially important point could emerge from all of this.  Love is not a physical phenomenon.  We all know it when we feel it.  I suspect that other such feelings, like finding the perfect job that matches your skills and interests, are likewise intangible.  The problem is finding out that such jobs even exist.

Straining Credulity

Ed and Lorraine Warren aren’t easy to figure out.  I realize that for someone who holds an actual doctorate from a bona fide, internationally recognized research university this might be something strange to say.  That’s because the standard academic response is simple dismissal.  Ed, at least, was known to have stretched the truth from time to time, but that’s not the same as never having reported weird things that actually happened.  This is why I’ve long advocated academics at least looking at the evidence—rare though it may be—before the simple hand-waving dismissal.  Part of the problem is that the Warrens’ books were written by credulous followers who don’t question things nearly enough.  Ghost Tracks, by Cheryl A. Wicks, may be the last of this strange genre of hortatory, biographical accounts “by” the Warrens written while Ed was still alive.

Skepticism is very important.  But so is listening to people.  What I find compelling is that similar weirdness—frequently dismissed out of hand—has been recorded throughout the length and breadth of history and across the entire globe.  The problem is that many of these things fall outside current scientific means of testing.  While perhaps not widely known, very reputable universities quietly explore these possibilities with actual science.  Part of the problem of the Warrens, as well as various other “ghost hunters” is that they use scientific equipment and think that makes them scientists.  It doesn’t.  Science requires deep engagement and many years of strenuous study.  And yes, skepticism has to be part of it.  The thing the Warrens have to offer is that they realize(d) that when science does engage the supernatural interesting things emerge.

Sensationalism, however, is the slave of capitalism.  Books sell better when they make extraordinary claims and declare they’re based on true events.  Trying to make a living investigating the paranormal led the Warrens, it seems, to tip the balance a little too far in the way of credulity.  Some of the stories in Ghost Tracks are more believable than others.  Some are just plain frustrating.  Ed’s interview with George Lutz (of Amityville fame), for example, is full of dropped balls.  A good question receives an intriguing answer only to have the subject immediately switched by the interviewer.  Even just a little skepticism and a follow-up question would have done scads to improve the believability of the story.  This is something a scientist would have known.  Someone as smart as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, although his Sherlock Holmes generally found  ratiocination led to physical explanations, believed in the supernatural.  If only his Holmes might’ve been brought to this discussion we might possibly have learned something.

Hearing Nature’s Voice

Silence is a rare treat.  I enjoy music and witty repartee just as much as the next guy, but silence is revelatory.  At home and in hotels I sleep to the sound of a white noise generator.  You can’t predict the sounds of neighbors, and my hours are askew from those of the rest of the world.  Here at the lake, things are different.  I awake early, hoping to catch the sun as it trips over the mountain tops across the way, lighting successive peaks before it reaches the near horizon.  It is utterly still.  Perhaps it’s the interference of humans in the habitat, but crepuscular animals seldom wander past.  The stillness is divine.  For some the lake means loud jet skis and buzzing motorboats.  I come here seeking silence.

Our daily lives lack peace.  Even when things are good there are always more things to be done.  We cram as much as possible into days impossibly short, giving at least eight out of every twenty-four to those who deign to pay us for our efforts.  Sleep is troubled and interrupted.  There are noises in the night.  You can’t hear your soul.  As the first rays seep into the valleys across the lake the birds begin to greet it.  Their conversation may interrupt the silence, but it doesn’t break it.  Silence is finding one’s place in nature.  Taking time to be still.  To listen.

Thirty years ago I first came to the lake.  My wife had been coming here for years already before that.  There have been many changes even in my short time here.  I can, however, hear eternity in the silence, for forever is a whisper, not a shout.  As I watch the morning mist arise, skate, and dance over the surface of the water as still as the very mountains that cradle it, I strain my ears to catch any sound.  The twirling wraiths are as silent as they are ephemeral.  They spin away the last minutes before the whine of an early morning fisherman’s boat begins its sleepy journey to the deep water in the middle of the lake, herald of other daylight noises to come.  I will await tomorrow’s unction of silence, and although the baptism may be secular it’s redemptive after all.  Nature knows far more about the human soul than any measurements might reveal.  You only have to listen to hear it.

Real Dreaming

I keep odd hours. Although we don’t live far from New York City, as the pigeon flies, public transit sets the schedule for my day. (I’m merely writing as a representative here, since I know others keep my hours as well.) Since I’m usually waking up around 3 a.m., I have to go to bed pretty early. One night recently I turned in around 8:00 p.m. and fell into a fitful sleep. When I awoke three hours later, it was as if my gray matter were a thunderhead. Ideas, worries, and memories flashing like lightning. Concerned, I watched the clock since I knew it was a work day. When three rolled around with no more sleep I hoped it would be like one of those rare days of interrupted rest when my conscious mind does just fine. Would it function that way on just three hours of sleep?

This incident brought home to me once again the mystery of consciousness. I had a meeting in New York I couldn’t miss that day, but by mid-morning (in real-people time) I was seeing things that weren’t there—an almost Trumpian dissociation from reality. Then I’d snap back to awareness and realize my mind was drifting off to steal some of the sleep it refused during the hours of darkness. Using the usual tricks I stayed awake for the workday and even for the bus ride home, with only brief momentary lapses where what had been reality had stopped making sense. Consciousness, it seems, functions best with a well-rested brain. A good night’s sleep put me back to normal the next day.

Reflecting back over that previous 24 hours, I thought how surreal they’d felt. Not to put too fine a point on it, but they were like an altered state of consciousness. Religions, some claim, began because of such altered states. They are strange and powerful. And fairly universal—almost everyone experiences them from time to time, whether by sleep deprivation, controlled substance use, or prayer and meditation. Even knowing the cause (going to bed with a lot on your mind when you have to wake early, for example) doesn’t change just how real the experience feels. This is one of the reasons that rationality doesn’t explain all of experience. In the same brain there are Jekyll and Hyde aspects to consciousness, interchanging with each other every few hours. As the movie Inception underscored, you don’t remember how you entered the dream. You’re just there. And when that world intrudes on the conscious, rationally ordered territory of wakefulness, the questions can become quite religious. Unless, of course, I’m still dreaming.

Russian Along

Living at Nashotah House—if you haven’t been, trust me—makes one curious about Rasputin. While on the faculty there, his name was used as a common slur. When Brian Moynahan’s Rasputin: The Saint Who Sinned came out in 1997 my wife and I bought it and read it together. Two decades on the details had become fuzzy and, having read about Aimee Semple McPherson and her faith healing reminded me of the famous Russian scallawag. For all his personal faults, Rasputin did seem to have genuine healing abilities. He was more shaman than orthodox, to be sure, and Siberia was the home of shamanism as well as Rasputin. For those who don’t know the story, in pre-Revolution Russia Grigory Rasputin rose from a Siberian peasant family to the most trusted advisor to the Empress of Russia, Alexandra Romanov. Her weak-willed husband, Nicholas, also gave credence to the mystic, despite the latter’s well known drunkenness and womanizing.

The fascinating aspect of Moynahan’s treatment is that it brings out the saintly side of this figure who’s grown such a notorious reputation. That’s not to whitewash his extreme lifestyle, but it is to acknowledge that he was far more complex than many critics make him out to be. He seems to have been sincere in his faith, and perhaps a little mentally imbalanced. He was kind to the poor, and charitable. He wasn’t a bigot, a sin quite common in his day. He was a working class mystic who took advantage of being inebriated with power. His influence over Alexandra was so strong that he could appoint Prime Ministers even in the midst of a world war. This is a fascinating personality.

Reading the book at this point in history, however, proved strangely unsettling. Many of us wonder how a rational, fairly educated and prosperous nation could tolerate the buffoons who inhabit Washington, DC. Daily we see insanity—with no exaggeration—on the level of the throes Tsarist Russia, or even of Rome under Caligula. Instead of taking steps to right the course, the Russian, excuse me, I mean Republican, Party does any and everything in its power to keep the illusion of normalcy alive. Even while foreign ministers of his own party tell the European powers to ignore their own president, American Rasputins just can’t survive without their daily power fix. The sad thing about that last sentence is that after writing it I felt as if I were somehow being unfair to Rasputin. And I lived at Nashotah House long enough to know what I’m talking about.

Heal and Farewell

What could Aimee Semple McPherson have in common with the devious Russian monk Rasputin? Apart from being contemporaries for a couple decades, they were both faith healers. Well documented cases exist for both of them, and the medical profession has started to come around to the idea that belief can, and does, heal. The stories of Sister Aimee’s healings, witnessed by thousands, make me fear being thought gullible just for bringing it up. That doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. Cases exist even today where healing inexplicably takes place before scientific eyes. Often it occurs in response to religious stimulus. We may have proof that it happens, but we tend not to believe. This is a curious state of affairs. We trust in reason to the point that it may prevent us from being healed by faith.

Some object, of course, to the theological element. It’s pretty tricky to believe God has healed you if you don’t believe in God. The thing about faith healing, though, is that it seems to work no matter the religion of the person healed. This, it would seem, suggests we should be applying our rational minds to understanding belief. Instead we use it to find new ways to make money or to build smarter weapons to kill one another more efficiently. The more we come to understand the physical world around us, the less we know. As our research institutions take on the shape of the businesses that increasingly fund them, interest in this phenomenon shrinks. Medicine, in all its forms, is big money. Living in central New Jersey you can’t help but notice the palatial campuses of the pharmaceutical companies, nor ignore the mansions on the hill they have built. If only we could believe.

Faith healing was this aspect of her ministry that propelled Sister Aimee to fame. She constantly underplayed it, not wanting to be considered a healer of bodies so much as a healer of souls. Rasputin, of course, had political motives. Both lived—not so long ago—when faith was taken very seriously. Judging from the posturing around the least religious president in decades, whatever faith is left has been sorely effaced. Maybe it’s our minds that have the capacity to heal, but even that well seems to have been drained with the leaky bucket of rhetoric. History can teach us so much, if we’re willing to invest in it. How does faith healing work? I have no idea. Nor, it seems, does anybody else. So it will remain until it becomes commodified.