I spent most of last week in the Black Hills camping with my husband’s family. My mother-in-law’s brother is a priest, and he joined us around the campfire on our last night. It didn’t take long for the conversation to drift into paranormal territory — nearly everyone had a story about a ghost or a haunting to share, something they had experienced personally or that they’d heard of from friends and family.
I found myself wondering how my husband’s uncle would respond. I’ve come across Christians who believe anything paranormal is merely superstition, or equate it with witchcraft and the occult (the exception to this is belief in angels, which most Christians are able to do without shaking their other belief systems too much.) I’m still thinking about the insights offered by Father Tim that night — that there is a difference between “evil spirits”, what he considers fallen angels, and ghosts, which are the souls of the deceased. Regarding ghosts, he said, “If a ghost has been allowed to make an appearance, if you’ve seen one, and if you believe that God allows everything to happen for a reason, then that means you need to find the reason you’ve seen that, that you need to find a way to help that soul.”
He shared stories about hauntings he’d experienced and house blessings he’d done in response to them. And I found myself feeling appreciative of a priest who engages with questions without easy answers, and appreciative of a faith tradition that welcomes and engages with mystery, that thoughtfully tries to address situations that defy what we think we know about the world, even when the appropriate response to those situations isn’t lain out by our faith in an obvious way. I also found myself grateful to have a faith that offers rituals such as house blessings (Father Tim mentioned that about half the blessings he does are for non-Catholics), the belief in which is itself somewhat paranormal, a faith that offers responses to things that seemingly have no good response.
And yet, as engaged as I was in the conversation, I found myself holding back three contributions that I wanted to make.
I wanted to share the story about how my late aunt, a Sister of St Joseph, and her friend, another Sister, brought Holy Water and blessed my grandmother’s house when I moved into it in the fall of 2009. And how so many blessings, not the least of which was meeting my husband, crept into my life while I lived there.
I didn’t share the story because I feared I would be told the blessing was “invalid” because it had been done by Sisters instead of a priest, because it had been performed by women.
I wanted to share the story about how I used that same holy water to do a blessing ceremony with my wedding ring, which I bought used, to cleanse it of any past negativity that may have been attached to it.
But I didn’t share the story because I feared I’d be reprimanded for performing the blessing myself, without the necessary “credentials.”
And I wanted to ask him if he would stop by to bless our house, if he was ever in our city.
I didn’t make the request because I feared he would suggest that we simply ask a local priest to do it instead, which would require us to admit we don’t have a close relationship with any local priests. And even if we did, it would be more meaningful to me to have family do the blessing, just as I had family bless my previous home. All priests may be endowed with the same authority, but that authority is more meaningful to me from some priests than others. Regardless of official teaching, I don’t feel that “all priests are created equal” or that they are completely interchangeable, and I didn’t want my request to be met with that assumption.
So what I was ultimately left with was this sense of tension that persists within Catholicism, within a faith that has room for the unexplained, but that doesn’t have room for the “unofficial.” It’s okay to believe in ghosts, to put faith in something seemingly as magical or even superstitious as a house blessing, but it’s not okay to put those beliefs into practice if you don’t go through official channels. I know there is spiritual precedence for such rituals; the disciples were given the authority to drive out demons, for example. And yet, that belief has been passed down to us with a sense that we are not all given that gift as disciples; we must depend on a select few. We have a faith full of contradictions, in which we are allowed to engage deeply with the unexplained, but in which we feel afraid to speak up about our real experiences with blessings and encounters outside the “appropriate channels.”
For now, I often reconcile these tensions by keeping my mouth shut when I think opening it will make me too vulnerable. But I hope that someday I will find a better way.