Digging Well

Having spent a good bit of the past week in waiting rooms in Ithaca, I fell to reading Tompkins Weekly, the free local community paper.  If you’ve spent any time on this blog you’re no doubt aware that I have an interest in the weird and unusual.  Although I got teased rather mercilessly for this as a kid, thanks to The X-Files such interest has become somewhat mainstream.  In any case, after fumbling with the crossword and finishing the sudoku, I read an article about dowsing.  Now Tompkins County is the home of both Cornell University and Ithaca College, so I was a little surprised in finding such a topic addressed at all.  What’s more, the usual ridicule expected with anything even approaching the paranormal was lacking.

Dowsing is the practice of finding water, or other underground resources, by using a crotched stick or dowsing rods.  A larger version of the quantum “spooky action at a distance,” dowsing is said to produce an effect on the twig or rods that will point to the hidden source.  Like ESP it is decried by mainstream science yet used by some governments when other methods fail.  As an example of “folk wisdom” dowsing occupies a similar, if less conventional, space to religion.  Scientism has taught us not to trust the invisible.  Scientists, however, are well aware that we can’t see everything.  We slide a finger around our collar, however, when something “unscientific” seems to work.  As the dowsers explain, however, there is a kind of science to what they do.  Problem is it doesn’t work for everyone.  Only some people can do it.

Now I’m not a credulous person.  I spent many years and even more dollars learning how to be a critical thinker.  Skepticism, however, leads me to ask how we know that dowsing can’t possibly work.  Have we discovered all there is to know in this infinite but expanding universe?  With finite minds it seems highly unlikely.  Duke and Princeton Universities once studied parapsychology in an academic setting, and the University of Virginia has left some related areas open to investigation.  The real problem is that we’ve been taught to laugh at anything we’re told to.  The US Navy, for instance, has recently revealed that it takes UFO reports seriously (unlike Project Bluebook).  We’ve been laughing so long it’s difficult to take even the military at face value.   Does dowsing work?  It’s difficult to say without all the facts.  Of course, I’ve been sitting in a waiting room, pondering what we don’t understand.

Mother of Stone

One thing we all have in common is mothers.  Whether it’s the mysteries of biology or something more spiritual than that, the connection lasts forever.  The thought occurred to me yesterday as we visited Columcille, one of those places that reflects a vision for a piece of land that transforms the ordinary into sacred.  Columcille Megalith Park is inspired by the standing stones of Celtic lands.  Open to the public for a suggested donation, the park consists of a stone circle and several menhirs (megaliths) arranged along paths through the woods.  Recognized by the Nature Conservancy as a sacred space and outdoor sanctuary, it draws thousands of visitors of all faiths with both recreational and religious rationales.  Throughout the park we found evidence of spiritual interaction with nature left on or near the stones.  But what has this to do with mothers?

One of the areas in the park is the Sacred Women’s Site.  As we lingered there yesterday, I reflected on the sacred nature of all women, and mothers.  That’s not to suggest that motherhood is for all women, but rather that our society has been slow to catch up with the idea that women show us the way.  Men have “had charge” for millennia now and look at where we are; cooperative ventures and peacekeeping efforts crumble as world leaders encourage the resurgence of exceptionalism.  We’d rather have an inveterate liar lead the nation than a politically able woman.  Britain wants to pick up its marbles and let the European Union disintegrate.  We seem to have forgotten that just a century ago a world war ended.  We need sacred spaces like Columcille.  We need to remember the sacred women.

One takeaway from our brief visit was that although there was also a grove for sacred men, that of the women was more peaceful.  The idea of standing stones making a site sacred goes back at least to the Bible.  Stone circles are found from ancient Israel to the far-flung Orkney Islands of Scotland.  Standing among them, whether modern like Columcille or ancient like the Ring of Brodgar, or yes, the more famous Stonehenge, there is a sense of sacred purpose.  Miles from Stonehenge stands Avebury, a town built around another stone circle.  There the megaliths were divided between female and male stones, with both required to make the ring complete.  Such places require a tremendous amount of work.  When they’re constructed, however, they give us places to think of mothers and the mystery of life.

Mystic Connections

Those of us who find rationalism a bit too constricting sometimes find solace in mysticism.  My reading of late, which is mostly research for Nightmares with the Bible, frequently touches on mystics of the past.  This isn’t a new fascination.  All the way back in college, as a religion major, I mentioned to one of my professors that I found it appealing.  A frown settled across his academic face.  “Mysticism is dangerous,” he said.  He went on to explain that churches (he was Presbyterian, and I Methodist) had belief systems into which mystics—those who experience the divine directly—didn’t fit.  A direct experience of the divine could cast doubt on church doctrine and nothing, as you might guess, is more important to true believers than dogma.

That discussion at such an impressionable age set me aback.  Here as we enter (for the non-orthodox) the Triduum, or “Great Three Days” the faithful are hoping for some kind of divine experience, I expect.  Many of us will spend two-thirds of it working.  In any case, if nothing mystical happens why do we bother?  Mysticism is equally deplored by science since it suggests something that doesn’t fit into rationalism’s toy box.  A universe where the unexplained—and oh so subjective!—direct experience with naked reality threatens to undo all the neat columns and tidy formulas that describe the entirety of existence.  Conventional churches tend to agree because you never know what God might do if you open that box.

There are religions that welcome mysticism.  They recognize that human-built systems are only approximations—Platonic shadows, if you will, cast upon the cave wall.  Mystics are those who, temporarily unchained, dare to turn around and face the fire directly.  Who knows?  They might even catch a glimpse of the sun itself.  More conventional religions are run like businesses.  You come to a certain building at a certain time.  You perform prescribed actions on cue.  You place your money in this specific receptacle at this specific time.  Leave and forget it all until next week.  Our younger generations don’t find this engaging, just as they see through the lie of the inherent fairness of capitalism.  I can still see the frown of my theology professor.  The old systems are falling apart even as those not too weary after work will head to Maundy Thursday services for a slip of bread and a sip of wine.  The mystic, however, doesn’t know what might happen next.

Not-Quite-Normal Religion

I’ve been thinking about categories quite a lot lately.  In a world connected by the internet, it seems that traditional categories don’t stretch far enough.  For example, I recently read The Paranormal and Popular Culture: A Postmodern Religious Landscape, edited by Darryl Caterine and John W. Morehead.  Published by Routledge, this is an academic study.  It contains some things, however, that many academics would find challenging.  I can’t summarize the entire book here since there are twenty very different essays included, but I can say this is a book that makes you think about categories.  Even the word “paranormal” means different things to different people.  To my way of thinking it has to tip the hat to Rod Serling and that place where fiction and fact begin to overlap.

That’s appropriate for this book: there are articles about what people perceive as factual encounters with all kinds of creatures and events, as well as studies of the decidedly fictional beings like Batman and zombies.  Our categories, in the modern world, tend to be inviolable.  Even scientists who handle Heisenberg know, however, that we are now in the postmodern world (as the subtitle indicates) and true objectivity is beyond the reach of all.  None of us stands outside the box looking in.  We’re all in the middle of it, and we look around ourselves trying to figure out what is real.  Another problematic category that, reality.  We don’t even understand what consciousness is yet, and how can we hope to know what is really real?  We all have dreams and some take them more seriously than others.

Reading books like this with an open mind is a truly po-mo experience.  After finishing more than one piece I found myself having to put the book down for a while at least so I’d have a hand free to scratch my head.  You see, we’ve been taught to laugh at those who believe in the paranormal.  It has been the only acceptable way that rationalists can deal with that which flies in the face of the system.  The internet, however, has put those isolated, ridiculed individuals into a community and the advent of reality TV (and what can be more real than what we see on the tube?) erodes the laughter factor little by little.  Plumbers can find ghosts but scientists can’t.  The average person relates more to the plumber, I think.  It all comes down to categories.  Making sense of them can, and will, impact our views of reality.

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.