Let’s begin with a little something to get you in the mood.
It’s alright, folks. That was taken from (would you believe?) a 1940 Walt Disney movie: “Fantasia”. The music “Night on Bald Mountain” was composed by Russian Modest Petrovich Mussorgsky (1839-1891), inspired by a short story by Nicholas Gogol. Here’s how it was described:
“Bald Mountain is a real mountain in Slovenia, Mount Triglav, where it was said the ‘supernatural’ dwelt as well as the ‘Black God’ Chernabog. Here, on Walpurgis Night [May 30], the creatures of evil were said to gather to worship their master. Under his spell, they danced furiously, until the coming of dawn and the sounds of church bells, sent the infernal army slinking back into their abodes of darkness.”
Wow. Walt Disney?! (Well, the wicked witch in Snow White terrified my wife when she was a little girl.)
Lest we leave a bad impression of Slovenia: I have lately discovered that this small country (the same size and population of my little corner of southeast Wisconsin) produces superb music of many kinds. I think their Gymnasija Kranj Youth Symphony Orchestra equals and sometimes excels the best adult symphony orchestras in the world. When I see all these bright talented young people producing such gorgeous music, it makes me feel there is hope for the world.
Here’s a sample:
1: Tchaikovsky’s “Romeo and Juliet Overture”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ifDIbcLT9_U
2: Dvorak’s “New World Symphony”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O_tPb4JFgmw
or 3: Slovenia Philharmonic Choir: Samuel Barber’s “Agnus Dei”: https://youtu.be/4AcR7lUM-iE
And now I’ve entirely lost my train of thought, and you’re no longer properly terrified.
Keep reading. Maybe you will be.
I’m told some folks worry that Hallowe’en is a pagan festival. No. It has Christian origins. We can tell that from the title: “All Hallow’s Even”, the Eve of Western Christian All Hallows’ (All Saints’) Day which is on November 1.
In northwest Europe when Christianity was just taking hold, by coincidence the night of October 31 was also the pagan Celts’ celebration of “Samhain”, when they believed the spirits of the dead returned to earth.
Well, this is kind of a spooky time of year here in the northern climes, as summer dies and the leaves fall and blow about, and the dark nights grow ever longer.
So the Christians took Samhain and “appropriated” it, making it a time when people should be in church, not out cavorting with the spirits. They then made November 2 into “All Souls’ Day”, when Masses were offered for the departed. Clever, eh?
In some places on Hallowe’en people would go from house to house collecting food, for the benefit of the needy. Here you can see the seeds of today’s Hallowe’en practices, when kids collect candy for themselves, for the benefit of their dentists!
For more details read: https://www.history.com/topics/halloween
To summarize the story: Hallowe’en was a pagan celebration, which was turned into a Christian celebration – and now in America it has become a secular celebration. Where I live, Hallowe’en decorations and lawn displays are becoming almost as common as Christmas ones. But what does today’s Hallowe’en have to do with the Saints? Nothing.
I’m fine with Hallowe’en. It’s a lot of fun, so long as people don’t get into the Dark Side and “re-paganize” it and get into seances and magic and ouija boards and the like. If we want to talk about “uncanny” things, American culture has this uncanny ability to take Christian holidays and make them secular: Christmas is now all about Santa Claus; likewise with Easter and the Easter bunny, All Hallow’s Eve and Trick or Treat.
Now let’s move on towards the genuinely uncanny:
V. From Ghosties and Ghoulies and Long-leggety Beasties and things that go Bump in the night: R. Good Lord, deliver us.
That’s said to be from an old Scottish Litany (though perhaps it isn’t).
Never mind. Don’t tell me you have never been scared in the dark or startled by things that inexplicably go bump in the night. I certainly have.
I was closing the church alone one dark late autumn night. All the lights were off. I should explain that we at Saint Nicholas, Cedarburg, had just purchased a 19th Century Lutheran church. In time it gained a safe holy Orthodox feel, but on that night we had been there for less than a year, and in the dark I started wondering if maybe any ghosts of dead Lutherans might still be around. So…as I was closing a swinging door that led into the church, a voice about a foot away from me said “Hi, Bill”, and I nearly jumped out of my clerical collar. What was it? The hinges of the door. Nothing uncanny. No ghost.
Four real ghost stories
Inexplicable things do exist – UFOs for one thing (thus far). As Shakespeare’s Hamlet said, “There are more things in Heaven and Earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”
People all over the world have long told stories about people who were there when nobody was there, footsteps and voices when there was nobody around. That sort of thing.
Now, personally I have never seen a ghost, nor do I plan to.
However, I can tell you four stories which I know second-hand, from sources I trust. Only one of them was truly frightening. I’ll have another story towards the end of the Post.
1 When I was still Episcopalian, the father of a woman in my parish had just died. Some days later his wife looked up and there stood her husband, who said “Barb, are you alright?” She answered “Yes, Jim, I’m alright.” And he was gone. She wondered if she were losing her mind. Next day a woman in the place where she worked said to her: “Barb, I don’t know if I should tell you this or not… Yesterday I looked up, and there stood your husband. He said ‘Is Barb alright?’ I answered, ‘Yes, Jim, she’s alright.’ And he was gone.” That is a true story.
2 This was reported by J.B. Philips, an English Bible translator, who had known C.S. Lewis, though not well. Lewis had recently died – on November 22, 1963, which was why his death was scarcely noticed. Phillips was having a particularly difficult time in his life. He looked up one evening and there sat C.S. Lewis across from him, looking hale and hearty as he once had. Lewis gave some advice to help him, and then he was gone. Phillips said this happened twice. Here is the full account: https://randalrauser.com/2014/06/j-b-phillips-and-the-ghost-of-c-s-lewis/
3 Steven Runciman, noted historian, scholar, author *, worldwide traveler and lecturer (and closet-Orthodox, I think), had this experience in Thailand: “…I wandered into a neighboring gallery. While I stood at one end of the room there came in the other end a lady dressed in clothes which at that time only the poorer classes wore… I assumed that she was a Museum attendant deliberately in that old fashioned style. She came so near to me that I could see that her clothes were of the best silk, mushroom-coloured and royal blue. Then, as I was looking at her, she suddenly was no longer there. It was, to say the least, disconcerting… I asked the Director if the Museum was haunted. All these old palaces were haunted, he replied. I said rather smugly that I had just seen the ghost. Someone sees one here every day was his answer.” Steven Runciman, “A Travelers’s Alphabet:” Thailand, page 160
- A few of Runciman’s classic books: Byzantine Civilization, A History of the Crusades (Volumes 1, 2, 3), The Eastern Schism, The Fall of Constantinople, The Great Church in Captivity, The Last Byzantine Renaissance, Orthodox Churches and the Secular State, Mistra: Byzantine Capitol of the Peloponnesse.
4 This story comes from John Sanidopoulos, author of the excellent Blog: “Orthodox Christianity Then and Now”, which I have recommended to you from time to time: the story of a summer camp cabin, which had a “presence” which at night got into their bunks next to them. All three in the cabin independently had the same experience. It will be more exciting for you to hear it from him directly: https://www.johnsanidopoulos.com/2012/10/true-ghost-story-2-exorcism-of-haunted.html
What are we Orthodox to make of ghosts and the like?
Are they “real”? Here we need to learn from C.S. Lewis (I can’t remember which book) when he said: The question is never whether something is real. The question is: a real what? All things are real. A ghost may be a real spirit. Or it may be a real delusion. Or it may be a real misperception. Did J.B. Phillips have a real dream or a real visitor? It becomes more difficult to explain away when two or more people have the same experience. But whatever it is, it’s a real “something”. Only then we can we know how to think about it.
The Orthodox Church certainly believes in spirits: whether angels or demons or possibly spirits of the dead.
Here is the article from Orthodox Wiki about Exorcism: https://orthodoxwiki.org/Exorcism#Prayer_by_a_Priest_for_a_Home_Troubled_by_Evil_Spirits
We believe in angels and demons because they are described in the Holy Scriptures, and chiefly because our Lord Jesus Christ taught plainly about them and spent a great deal of His ministry casting out demons. Some say He was only pretending to cast out demons, because people believed in such things in those days, but now we know better. So… Our Lord and God Jesus Christ was faking it? Or perhaps He Who created the universe and all that is in it got it wrong? I don’t think so!
In the Orthodox Church the priest pronounces prayers of Exorcism over catechumens before Baptism, even when babies are being Baptized. Here is a portion of one of the Exorcisms:
“…I charge you by God, Who revealed the Tree of Life, and arrayed in ranks the Cherubim and the flaming sword which turns all ways to guard it: be under ban. For I charge you by Him who walked upon the surface of the sea as if it were dry land, and laid under His ban the tempests of the winds; Whose glance dries up the deep, and Whose command makes the mountains melt away. The same now, through us, puts you under ban. Fear, begone and depart from this creature, and return not again…”
Why ever would we be driving the devil out of an innocent newborn baby? Not because infants are guilty of acts of sin. Rather because all of us, simply by being born, enter into and become part of this world which is “off the mark”, inhabited by demons, tainted by evil – for Satan is the “Prince of this world”. * John 12:31 In Holy Baptism God rescues people from this mortal sinful life, and grants them New Birth into Eternal Life, makes them citizens of Heaven, a Land beyond this World.
- If you have any doubt that a fearsome power of evil is at work in this world, corrupting and destroying all good things… just watch the news.
Both the Holy Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church provide prayers for exorcism. With Roman Catholics, only certain priests are trained at length and appointed by their bishops to be Diocesan Exorcists. Like in the old movie The Exorcist? I guess maybe, some times. Here is an interesting article on that subject:: https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2018/12/catholic-exorcisms-on-the-rise/573943/
Here’s the account of a Ukrainian Catholic priest who performs a daily exorcism aimed at Vladimir Putin! in the belief that he must be possessed. (Amen, say I.) See: https://catholicreview.org/ukrainian-catholic-priest-begins-exorcism-ritual-aimed-at-putin/
However, in the Orthodox tradition, any old priest or bishop may do the exorcising. Why the difference, I can’t tell you. However, I can imagine situations when I would quickly pull back and call in a priest holier and more experienced than myself.
Here are some long and very powerful prayers of Exorcism provided by my patron Saint Basil the Great: https://orthodoxwiki.org/Exorcism#Prayer_by_a_Priest_for_a_Home_Troubled_by_Evil_Spirits
When I was pastor, I was called upon to exorcise several places where people believed something uncanny was taking place. I used some short prayers for exorcism from the Euchologion (Priest’s Handbook of Prayers), sprinkled holy water, and if appropriate prayed for the release of the soul who perhaps was trapped there. That seemed possibly to be the case in one instance, as follows:
The folks in the coffee house where we went after weekday Matins had heard footsteps on the stairs, and a couple of times someone who wasn’t there had been seen sitting at the foot of the stairway. They shared the basement and the “ghost” with the store next door. When I asked the owner of the store where the spirits were, he said “Here. They walk right through here, through the middle of the store.” He said he had called his wife in a panic one evening to tell her “All the hangers at this end of the rack are swinging wildly back and forth, while the hangers at the other end are perfectly still.” For that exorcism, I was glad to have several people accompanying me!
How to explain these phenomena? It could be demons, evil spirits. Some have suggested “poltergeists”, mischievous spirits which somehow are neither in Heaven nor in hell. It could be the souls of people who have died but, for some reason, cannot let loose of this world. That is the suggestion Saint Macrina offered to her brother Saint Gregory of Nyssa:
” I think too that this view of the matter harmonizes to a certain extent with the aseertion made by some persons that around their graves shadowy phantoms of the departed are often seen. If this is really so, an inordinate attachment of that particular soul to the life in the flesh is proved to have existed, causing it to be unwilling, even when expelled from the flesh, to fly clean away and to admit the complete change of its solidity into the impalpable; it remains near the frame even after the dissolution of the frame, and though now outside it, hovers regretfully over the place where its material is and continues to haunt it.” Saint Macrina, quoted by Saint Gregory of Nyssa in “On the Soul and the Resurrection”
Who knows? I don’t.
So what was the point of this meandering Blogpost?
1 Well, for one thing I just like to tell ghost stores at Hallowe’en – but only so long as I don’t see any!
2 To remind us that we are not alone. We are surrounded by an unseen world: the Lord God, of course, who by definition is everywhere, and also our saints when we need them. But also both good spirits and evil spirits, angels and demons. We have help at hand when we need it. What? You thought you did all that good on your own? No. Your guardian angel or someone from on high gently led you into it. What? You thought you got into all that trouble on your own? No. Someone (or something?) from the Dark Side pushed you into it, and you forgot to get help from the Good Side. “Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil prowls about like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour.” I Peter 5:8
3 So that we will never get confused about our “priorities”, so to speak. Of course we must resist evil, but we must also always remember that even the most wicked people in this world are not our ultimate enemy; they are also victims of Satan and his minions, whoever they are. Even the worst liars in this world have been caught in the web thrown by that one who has “no truth in him, …for he is a liar and the father of lies”. John 8:44 “For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places.“ Ephesians 6:12
4 If you’re afflicted with long-leggety beasties, call your local zoo. Probably the giraffes have escaped.
5 Should you think you have a ghostly problem (which is most extremely unlikely, mind you – probably it’s just the wind or something): Don’t just sit there quivering. Don’t call in the Ghostbusters. Call in the priest!
Next Week: What the movie didn’t cover: Stories about Saint Nektarios after his death
Week after Next: Can it be? It’s time to talk about Advent and The Advent Fast.