Home/Rod Dreher/How To See A Ghost

How To See A Ghost

From Patricia Pearson’s Opening Heaven’s Door:

A couple of years ago, I walked along the cliff edge of the Adriatic Sea, along a trail that the great German poet Rainer Maria Rilke once paced a hundred years ago. In a letter penned above these limestone rocks, he wrote: “This is in the end the only kind of courage that is required of us: the courage to face the strangest, most unusual, most inexplicable experiences that can meet us. The fact that people have in this sense been cowardly has done infinite harm to life; the experiences that are called “apparitions,” the whole so-called “spirit world,” death, all these Things that are so closely related to us, have through our daily defensiveness been so entirely pushed out of life that the sense with which we might have been able to grasp them have atrophied.”

Yes, they have. Of course they have.

Yesterday I was out in town and ran into a couple of friends, as one does in a small town. Somehow we started talking about ghosts. They live in an old house, and mentioned a couple of spectral experiences they had had at their place. Two more friends joined us, and they contributed several ghost stories of their own from their old house — and another story about a recently deceased family member who has manifested audibly a couple of times to two members of their family, separately. It wasn’t until I was back home that I thought about how perfectly normal those conversations were. These were ordinary people, not New Agers or religious enthusiasts. But they pay attention to what’s around them, and too many of us know too many people who have had these experiences to easily dismiss them. We live a lot closer to the dead here in south Louisiana, I think.

I’ve been meaning to write for a couple of weeks now about Rupert Ross’s book Dancing With A Ghost, which the reader Thursday gave me when we had dinner in New Orleans not long ago. Ross is a Canadian lawyer who worked for years with Native American communities, as a Crown Attorney. He didn’t understand their mentality or their ways, and frequently drew wrong conclusions from the way they behaved. It was only when he began trying to understand how the “Aboriginals” see reality that he grasped how truly deep and complex their ways are. (I blogged something about this here.) Ross makes it very clear that he’s not viewing the Natives as “noble savages,” or anything like that. Their lives, he writes, are “brutal, frequently tragic,” and they should not be romanticized. But they ought to be taken seriously, he says, because they see things that we do not, and to which we would be wise to attend.

It’s impossible for me to say everything I want to about Ross’s great book — which is hard to find, alas, but here are a few from Alibris — but here are a couple of important points. One, Ross says that a lot of what may seem like clairvoyance or woo-woo gifts to us may simply be a cultivated sensitivity to the natural world by people who have since time immemorial lived in it, and needed to be open to this information to survive. Ross writes about the time he served as a fishing guide for tourists to the Canadian north, and how after a while, he learned to trust his intuition about weather conditions. He mentions one memorable case in which it looked to his clients like he had ESP, guessing that the weather was going to turn very bad, and soon, despite the clear skies. Ross followed his gut instinct, despite the evidence — and he turned out to have been correct. Because he was right, his own life and the lives of his clients may have been saved. His point is that living out on the lake and in the wilderness for so long taught him to be intuitive, and to “read” the natural world by instinct. Here’s more, about the reverence the Natives have for their elders:

They were revered not only for what they had done in the past but for what they could still do in the present. Even when their powers of observation began to fail, they possessed two things younger people lacked: a reservoir of experience (or, in the predictive enterprise, of memory-images), and sophisticated skills in pattern-thought which others were developing. Because of those skills and attributes, older people remained of inestimable value long after their physical powers had deteriorated. Their stories of days gone by were not just wistful reminiscences; they were mines of information which would, without question, be of value at some time in the future. AFter all, the world which their children and grandchildren would inherit would be precisely the same world they had survived. No technological revolutions would make their skills redundant and no massive construction projects would change the face of the landscape to make their memories of it irrelevant. What they had seen — and survived — in the past could well come again, and only they had the storehouse of knowledge to help the group anticipate and prepare. As long as their minds remained sharp, the older people became, with each passing day, even more valuable to the practical survival concerns of the group. It is little wonder that they were held in such high esteem.

More Ross:

It is also my suspicion that the very pronounced emphasis that Native people place upon the notion of seeking and receiving guidance, upon possessing “gifts” of prediction, flow from this kind of thought process. As I have said, a person’s conclusions are not perceived, even by that person, as products of his own making. Instead, it is understood that they are somehow visited upon him. The sense of being an architect of one’s conclusions is replaced by a sense of having merely made oneself open to receive them.

Here is a fascinating ontological fact Ross observed:

We whites have an idea of a river, and when we think of praying to a river we have something — one thing — in our mind’s eye. If, however, the river is known as a felt thing, then in fact it will be known in terms of everything it can make us feel, see, taste, hear and smell. It will be perceived as being made up of all those things which can be sensed about it, all of which will show remarkable change from day to day, season to season, and year to year. People who canoe understand that each river is in fact a multitude of rivers; even the same short stretch is subject to surprising change. The sensed aspects of the river which combine and re-combine to show a constantly changing face are perceived not as characteristics of a river, but as spirits within and of the river. Some would be more predominant (powerful) than others, and lesser ones might appear and disappear in an instant, but all of them are always there, always active, always alive. They can be perceived through human senses, no matter how fleeting their appearance, and it is understood that they will always show themselves again at some future time. This is how I understand what is meant when Native people speak of the spirits of the river.

Nor is it just “things” which, because they can be sensorily known, have spirit within them. People can also feel (or taste or hear, etc.) the properties of things. Those properties are things-in-themselves, felt things, alive things. They are the powers which reside within things, possessing a life of their own, powers which the wise and skilled can call upon or, if seen as threatening, do battle with.

Finally, this passage:

To return to the conviction that there were two planes of existence, each interactive with the other: it seems clear that such a conviction could not help but lead, ultimately, to certain other kinds of conclusions.

If, for instance, it is possible for a man to “walk” through the spiritual (that is, the imaged) plane, then he could not deny the possibility that others would be able to do the same. The dimension of each person which did this visiting thus ought to be able to encounter the corresponding dimension of others; suddenly the possibility of interaction with others on that plane becomes real. Further, there would be no reason to conclude that such interaction could only be of a positive sort; it would therefore seem prudent to adopt a stance of vigilance even in thought, lest offence be given on the other plane. Ridding yourself of all negative thoughts would be considered essential, if only to avoid antagonizing the spiritual dimension of others. Because people were vulnerable on two planes, extreme circumspection was a central requirement.

Many other kinds of conclusions and practices appear logical once there is belief in an interactive spiritual plane. Reverence for (and perhaps fear of) ancestors becomes reasonable, for death on the physical plane does not mean ceasing to exist on the other. Fasting, vision pits and the seeking of protective Naming-Spirits are seen as reasonable precautions. Dreams themselves take on a different significance, being seen not as the products of one’s subconscious but as signals that are being channelled through it; why would dreams not be the logical way for inhabitants of the spiritual plane to communicate?

Ross, who doesn’t seem to be a religious man, speculates that we of European descent lost these intuitive skills — that is, the awareness and sensibility that hunter-gatherer peoples retained — after we developed agriculture, and later, technology. “Insulating ourselves increasingly from the natural world, we stopped knowing it by feeling it, and it stopped having the same vibrancy for us,” he writes. “Since we had no compelling practical need to visit a spiritual plane of existence, it gradually ceased to exist as a prominent factor in daily life.”

To reiterate, Ross doesn’t claim that the Native way of seeing the world is better in every respect. It should be obvious, in fact, why it is extremely ill-adapted to the modern world. But the converse is also untrue: that our way of processing reality is true in every respect. As Ross writes, “A gulf began to separate the two sorts of reasoners, the two sorts of perceivers. Neither could see it, for each believed the other thought the way he did, the way he assumed all people do.” Ross doesn’t believe in the spirit world of the Natives, but his time studying them convinced him that they were tapped in to some essential wisdom that our way of seeing the world blinds us to, even as it allows us to see things that Natives can’t see.

Now, I have more questions than answers, which is why I quote Ross at such length — to open this up for discussion — and offer so little here. I do believe, as Thursday has often said here, that we in the West have so blunted our spiritual perception and intuitive capacities that we simply cannot see what is really there, in many cases. Faith, broadly speaking, becomes a prerequisite for seeing. If you believe that the spirits of the dead survive the demise of the body, then you should not be surprised to see evidence of that. If you do not believe this is possible, your mind may well filter out evidence that contradicts your belief. Follow that Ross link I provided at the top of the quotes, and look at this thing I wrote about Jeff Kripal’s work, for more on this, and also this post. As that latter post indicates, there are things in this realm that challenge almost everybody’s preferred worldview, certainly my own.

I should make it perfectly clear that I don’t subscribe to the pagan, animistic metaphysic Ross describes, but that it’s interesting to me to observe how much this overall outlook tracks with Orthodox Christianity and its belief in panentheism, which teaches that God is immanent in all creation. I have had trouble articulating to my Western Christian friends why Orthodoxy is so different from their way of experiencing life in Christ, but believe it or not, this focus on intuition is so consonant with what I’ve experienced. As an Orthodox reader wrote in another thread this morning, Orthodoxy is an intuitive religion, and religion of experiencing God, and the numinous; it is not, primarily, a religion of ideas. This is a difficult thing to isolate within oneself, much less to convey, but it speaks to the fundamentally different stance that Orthodox Christians have towards their faith and to the world than Western Christians do. I don’t want to make too much of this, because far more unites us than divides us. But it does seem to me that there is a fundamental unity of experience within Orthodoxy that is much harder to perceive in Western Christianity. It has been a revelation to me to read Dante’s Paradiso, because it reads so, well, Orthodox. The kind of harmony that I’ve found in Orthodoxy also seems to have existed in medieval Catholicism.

I could be wrong, but I’m guessing that the Cartesian mind-body split was a perceptual Rubicon that Western civilization passed, one that cut it off in some fundamental way from the spiritual, perceptual, and psychological experience of the rest of humankind. Rilke is right: “our daily defensiveness” has exiled from our lives “the sense with which we might have been able to grasp them have atrophied.”

But again, I have more questions than answers here, so I’ll open the comments up for discussion. I’m eager to hear what you have to say. If all this sounds like superstitious mumbo-jumbo to you, kindly refrain from commenting. This thread is not for you.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

leave a comment