Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Ghosts, Part I

"We're Catholic; we don't believe in ghosts."

We've all heard it.  We might have even said it.  As Catholics, we do focus rather a lot on the minutia of the Four Last Things, insisting on categorizing and defining everything about them we possibly can.  Consequently, while we certainly believe in the existence of disembodied spirits, we like to think they are all neatly organized into their various compartments, Heaven, Hell and Purgatory.  But are they?

We know that demons "prowl about the world seeking the ruin of souls," in the words of the prayer to St. Michael the Archangel.  I remember a question raised in our theology class about the nature of Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory, namely whether they were physical places with boundaries outside this world or instead simply different states of being -- within the beatific vision, permanently deprived of the beatific vision, and temporarily deprived of the beatific vision.  I'm not qualified to make any conclusion and hope to do more research on the topic.  More on that later.

When someone today says, "My house is haunted," it sounds a little sketchy to those of us who have been conditioned to dismiss ghost stories.  But all he's really saying is that there is a spirit of some description loose in his home, which isn't so far-fetched.  Our friends and neighbors on the secular side of the fence are simply observing things the Church has recognized all along.

If you ask your average ghost hunter or paranormal enthusiast to describe different kinds of hauntings, you'll likely be told they come in two varieties, intelligent and residual.  Those of the intelligent variety are either benign or malignant.  For now we'll just consider the malignant ones, which are certainly the most urgent cases, and also the ones most thoroughly addressed in Catholic tradition.

Demons are most often responsible for malignant "hauntings."  Quite possibly they are always responsible.  There is apparently still a great deal of debate among exorcists and theologians as to whether damned souls can participate in demonic activities such as possessions and infestations.  The evidence would suggest that they can, but that evidence generally comes from the mouth of a victim of possession during exorcism, rendering it essentially useless.  The Devil is a liar, after all.

(I'm assuming, of course, that we all believe in Satan.  Contrary to popular belief, he was not suddenly done to death in the 1960s by the advances of modern science.)

The Devil acts in the world in a number of ways, ordinarily by temptation to sin, experienced on a daily basis by every human being since the dawn of time.  He also engages in a number of extraordinary activities which, like all things Catholic, have sophisticated names.

  • "Infestation" refers to demonic activity associated with places or things.  Catholics are more likely to give credence to a haunted house if it is instead called a case of demonic infestation.  The classic symptoms include everything on a ghost hunter's list: footsteps, bangs, voices, growls, cold spots, objects being moved or thrown, the feeling of being watched, strange smells and odors, power outages and surges, moving doors and windows.  Pets often respond negatively to a demonic presence in the home.
  • "Oppression" refers to any physical action or harm done by a demon, including beatings, scratches, pushing people out of bed or down stairs.  Many saints have experienced this.  Demonic oppression can also include the sabotage of the victim's work, health, or relationships.  The Book of Job in the Old Testament is a prime example.
  • "Obsession" is a kind of super-temptation, a mental attack which takes the form of an unnatural fixation or obsession, hence the name.  Italian exorcist Father Francesco Bamonte, quoted by Matt Baglio, says, "Some are thoughts and impulses that urge people to harm others; some make people think that only a pact with Satan can get them out of their troubles or bring them success; some are thoughts to profane the Eucharist; others are thoughts to drive one to suicide."  Obsession can also cause nightmares.
  • "Possession."  This is the one everybody knows about.  It's more common than most people think, but the rarest kind of extraordinary demonic activity.  I'll devote a whole post to this topic later.

With this background, those paranormal reality shows start to make more sense.  Don't laugh; it can be quite telling to see what the uncatechized have to say about the phenomena they witness.  My recent favorite is The Haunted by Animal Planet, a series of biographical sketches of families and their pets and the hauntings they encountered.  Once you get past all the sound effects and the sensational editing, at least half of them seem to be describing textbook cases of demonic infestation, oppression and obsession.  Some episodes include legitimate house blessings and exorcisms performed by Fr. Bob Bailey of St. Maria Goretti Parish in Pawtucket, Rhode Island.  Fr. Bob has apparently become the go-to priest for the mainstream paranormal scene, allegedly with the permission of his bishop.  

A generalized profile of an infested house is as follows.  There is usually an initial cause of the infestation, some involvement in the occult or hardened habitual sin.  This may predate the family currently in residence.  Many people describe an oppressive atmosphere in the home.  Small, inexplicable things happen: instruments play, doors open and close, objects move, pictures fall from the walls.  Pets become skittish, stressed, fearful, aggressive or overly protective.  Dogs fixate and bark at nothing.  Members of the family may see shadows or hear noises at night.  Some may have chronic nightmares.  There may be inexplicable temperature fluctuations.  In extreme cases, people claim to hear voices or see large black shapes, usually with red eyes, in the closet or in corners of the room or at the foot of the bed.  Members of the family may become severely depressed, have obsessive thoughts of suicide, or even attempt suicide.  Their condition may improve, however, when they are removed from the house.  The relationship between family members often becomes strained; disproportionate fights and arguments occur regularly for little or no reason.  This also can improve when the family leaves the house.  In cases in which the infestation predates the family in residence, some research into the history of the home may reveal other suicides.  Any one of these things might be explained away, but taken together they generally spell trouble.

If this sounds like your house, or a friend's house, schedule a house blessing as soon as possible.  Not just the holy water blessing, but the salt-throwing kind.  Father Amorth strongly recommends having blessed and/or exorcised water, olive oil and salt on hand in the home at all times.

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