Ours is a strange existence.
We’re material beings living in a material world, full of physical laws and scientific constants. Experience teaches us that it is better to be an empiricist than not — at least if we want to understand things. “Trust but verify” is a maxim that is universally applicable.
We have bodies that do things that bodies do. We eat, we drink, we sleep, we move. For a fulfilling life, we require somewhat more abstract things like socialization, love, art, music, and beauty. Parts of us, too, are abstract. We have conscious, sentient minds. We have souls. We have being and awareness at a level unknown to any other creature in the physical universe, and we do not truly know where these deeper, higher-level aspects of our being reside.
We are also, as a species, overwhelmingly inclined to a numinous impulse. We have always, as a people, sought out the divine. Primitive cultures are never atheistic — only modern man exercising his technical dominance of the world has attained true confidence in the meaninglessness of existence. Collectively, we have a sense that there is a higher purpose to things, an organizing principle. The uncaused cause. The unmoved mover. We have, over our long and storied history, anthropomorphized aspects of nature, and we have woven these bits together with our general search for meaning and created a pantheon of gods. We used to assign gods to aspects of nature, be it Thor and his mastery of thunder and lightning, Poseidon and the sea, Venus and fertility, Shiva and destruction, or Doumu and the heavens. One god, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, has risen above the rest to dominate the theological belief of the vast majority of mankind, through religious expression in Judaism or Christianity, or even, in a less direct way, through Islam.
But it is nevertheless the great irony of human existence that few of us have ever had a tangible, sensate experience of the God we are called to love, obey, and worship. And yet we persist; we believe he is there, although most of us will never see him, do not hear his voice, and do not feel in a perceivable way his consoling and fatherly embrace. We believe it so much, in fact, that countless men, women, and even children, have been willing to die for a God whose face they have never laid eyes upon, living in a heaven they’ve scarcely heard described.
It’s really remarkable when you stop to think about it.
But if religion helps us to grapple with the unknown and uncover the deeper truths of existence, it also has a habit of creating rules that shape and dictate the boundaries of human experience: commandments, prescriptions, proscriptions, precepts, and laws. Over the course of time, our doctrines and dogmas create for us a metaphysical worldview. Catholicism in particular seems to have an answer many things beyond the reach of our mortal coil. We tend to act as though even when it comes to the invisible realm, there are formulas by which to grasp the workings of beings and powers beyond our comprehension. From the story of the battle of the angels in heaven found in the Book of Revelation to the detailed treatise on the nature of angels found in the work of St. Thomas Aquinas to the extremely specific eschatological understanding of Catholicism in general, we have a mental landscape filled with parameters and ideas about a world that is (for most of us, anyway) entirely unseen.
So what do we do, then, when the things we think we know come into collision with things we experience, but can’t explain? How do we deal with our encounters, limited though they may be, with the “spooky stuff”?
In the summer of 1999, I worked as a groundskeeper and general assistant at my local parish. The pastor there at the time (we’ll call him “Father Jay,” may he rest in peace) and I had become friendly, and he knew I was saving up for my semester abroad. Instead of the $7 an hour I was making at the pizza place I’d worked at the previous summer, he offered me $9 an hour to come and work for him. To sweeten the deal, he offered to pay me — in cash — the money that would be taken out in taxes, under the table. (Thinking back on this, I’m willing to bet that extra cash came out of his personal account. That’s just the kind of guy he was.) I spent countless hours that summer racing around the sizable parish grounds on the lawn tractor, singing along to Heart or Journey or U2 as the music was pumped into my noise-cancelling headphones from my cutting-edge, skip-resistant CD player. I trimmed hedges and hauled branches. I painted railings and doors. I helped out with computer and admin stuff. And I went out to a lot of lunches and breakfasts, because Father and I just enjoyed hanging out and shooting the breeze.
One particularly warm day in July, I hopped off the tractor to head in for a glass of water. As I opened the rectory door, I noticed a woman sitting in Father’s office, just to the left of the front door as you walked in, out of the corner of my eye. Her back was to me. Her head was lowered. Father looked up at me as I passed, and something about the entire scene felt…wrong.
I stopped when I heard him call out to me.
“Oh Stephen!” he said, in a firm but pleasant tone.
“Yes, Father,” said I.
“Can you please get me the crucifix and the holy water that’s in the living room?”
My blood ran cold. I knew. I just knew.
“Yes. I’ll be right back,” I said.
The woman, sitting there in his office in her blue satin jacket, whose face I could not (and did not want to) see, was evidently demonically possessed.
It was a long time ago, and it’s all a bit of a blur in my memory, but I remember the feeling of terror. I remember kneeling there, in the hall, praying as he sought to quell whatever preternatural beast was animating this poor woman from rural Pennsylvania. On this particular occasion, it didn’t take long to get things under control. But, I came to learn, this was a recurring issue. Father was not, I found out, a duly-authorized exorcist. Those have become exceedingly rare. But he had been given provisional faculties by the bishop — with no training whatsoever — to do what he needed to do in the case of this woman, who had been raised in a coven of some kind, and had long manifested these behaviors. His interest in dealing with such things had begun when he was an associate pastor in a larger town, and the police had come knocking on the door of the rectory looking for help with some Satanic murders. He had told them he didn’t know much about it, but he was willing to learn, and to help. And that path had led him, eventually, to the weirdest thing I’ve ever walked in on.
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In another session with the same woman a short time later, she manifested much more strongly. This time I was there by invitation — as a witness, and as a possible aid if things got out of hand. I remember entering the parish, the overhead lights off, the afternoon sunshine filtering through the stained glass windows, casting long shadows all around. She was there, in the first pew, a rosary in hand. Her long, stringy black hair hung limply around her head, once again presenting that classic horror movie scene: what looks like a person just a few feet ahead of you, whose face you can’t see, and you know, you just know, that when they turn around, that face is going to be horrifying somehow. When Father entered the building and approached her, she didn’t turn around; but she transitioned almost instantly from serenity to naked hostility, growling and blaspheming, tearing her rosary to pieces and flinging the beads. He confronted her with prayer and sacramentals; she recoiled from his sprinkled holy water with a hiss. At times, she spoke what sounded like an ancient, foreign language, in a voice so guttural it would have been uncomfortable to fake. The battle raged for well over an hour before she could finally be subdued. I was left at the end feeling fearful…and full of questions.
I didn’t have a good night’s rest for a month. I’d wake up repeatedly, afraid, mumbling prayers in my sleep.
It became a theme that summer. Even when Father wasn’t working with her, she was sending him wicked greeting cards in the mail full of curses and spell-related materials, or leaving growling, feral voicemails on his answering machine. He was a big man — fairly tall and very round — and though he had no patience for fools, he generally carried himself with an unflappable and mildly amused disposition. But when her messages and letters would arrive, he would respond with actual jollity.
“Oh, that’s very nice,” he’d chuckle, as she snarled curses at him from the machine speaker. He’d smile sadly and shake his head as he hit the “delete” button, or filed the latest hair-filled greeting card in the trash. I was struck by his attitude at the time; I would have been disturbed if I were the target of this creature’s ire, but he couldn’t care less. It occurred to me that this approach was probably essential to the job.
He told me a story, too, about how at one parish he’d worked at, his secretary came to him in terror, saying that there was an ephemeral figure of a strange priest sitting in the living room reading the newspaper. When they returned together, the figure was gone. Father had the idea to look through the diocesan centenary book with the secretary to see if the priest’s photo was there. It was. He had died many years before, and had been assigned to that parish. Father offered a Mass for the repose of his soul, and he was never seen again.
“The Catholic doctrine of the particular judgment,” reads the Catholic Encyclopedia, “is this: that immediately after death the eternal destiny of each separated soul is decided by the just judgment of God.”
How does a Catholic who believes this doctrine explain what that secretary saw? Or what about a girl I dated who, having been helped by Father Jay to be freed of her own demons, remained extremely sensitive to the spiritual world? She, too, would see ghosts sometimes on the side of the road if we were out at night. We’d return the next day to the same area, only to notice a small cross on the side of the highway we hadn’t seen.
Sometimes, being the empiricist I am, I’d test her. She had a habit of shuddering involuntarily when we passed by a “creepy” house. So I’d ensure that the next time I drove by that same house, I’d have her distracted with conversation, ensuring that she was looking at me and keeping her back turned to what was out her window. Without fail, even if she were in mid sentence, she would shudder the moment the house in question passed by behind her, like she’d suddenly gotten an icy chill up her spine. She could see demons sometimes, she told me, crawling around on people, or even inside of them. Sometimes, she could even smell them — a smell that was associated in her mind with this or that sin. We had some intense moments during that year after her conversion, with me sometimes having to rush her to an adoration chapel to provide some relief. At times, the things she perceived were so strong they made her physically ill.
My own experiences with “spooky” things is, I suppose, somewhat more extensive than most. But there’s always that part of you that remains a skeptic. I’ve never seen a ghost or a demon. I’ve only seen how others react to them. I’ve gotten chills that crawl up my spine in moments where I was pretty sure that something preternatural was afoot, but I’ve also had similar experiences when I would simply freak myself out by thinking about them. I had a priest tell me he had a brief message for me from the Blessed Virgin Mary once that seemed like it could have been real; on another occasion, he told me he had a message from Jesus that felt very wrong, and which he later conceded was likely the result of some sort of deception. Whenever I find myself exposed to such things, it’s impossible not to wonder if I’m being fooled, or fooling myself, or how to make sense of any of it.
But the fact remains: there are unseen things afoot. Many of us have had at least some experience with them. And they do not follow human rules.
What of other strange phenomena? Have you heard of Sky Trumpets? It’s a worldwide phenomenon that people have been recording and investigating for years (language warning in the first video):
What about the bizarre tales of strange things that happen in the woods, including staircases sitting in the middle of nowhere, miles from any home or dwelling. (I spent the better part of two days going down this rabbit hole last summer. It may or may not have any truth to it, but it certainly was fascinating.) Even if some of those seem far-fetched, there are a number of documented cases of people — often children — vanishing suddenly within or near the boundaries of large national parks.
There’s a rather strong and healthy fear among some folks in parts of Europe of the creatures we call “fairies.” (As I was writing this, the slight noise of something moving in my closet distracted me, but of course, there was nothing visibly amiss.) In Ireland, they don’t care for the term “fairy”; they call them Aes sídhe or daoine sídhe — “the people of the mounds,” or sometimes na daoine maithe — “the good people,” or na daoine beaga — “the little people.” In a recent podcast interview, New York Times columnist Ross Douthat talked about the possible relationship between these ideas and alleged alien abductions.
I tend to be quite impatient when I post declassified military videos of UFO/UAP encounters and people respond with some variation of, “I think they’re demons.” It makes zero sense that demons are manifesting physical technologies, showing up to be recorded on radar, infrared, and night vision while hazing US Naval ships and planes, or even more startlingly, interfering with the guidance systems at US Nuclear Missile sites.
But so-called alien abductions or other, harder to pin-down encounters? I think of these as entirely separate occurrences, which are much more likely, due to their often ephemeral and poorly-remembered circumstances, to have some preternatural or supernatural component. (I tried reading Whitley Streiber’s Communion when I was a teen, and I couldn’t finish it. Although I don’t remember a single detail of the book, I do remember it leaving me feeling an overwhelming sense of evil and dread.)
Which brings us back to Douthat. Allow me to excerpt his interview here:
Ross Douthat: Yeah, I want to tread carefully with the fairies because …
Susannah: I don’t want you to though, first of all …
Ross Douthat: You don’t want to speak – we want to call them “the Good People.” So, UFOs. My general view of all of these things is that when you have a persistent paranormal phenomenon that has lots of accounts associated with it, and you drill down into it you find X number of cases are dismissible, their frauds, hoaxes, and just mistakes. But when something is persistent, when it’s a persistent feature of human society, not just a temporary panic or a one-off thing, there’s usually some really hard to explain set of happenings close to the core of it, and that’s how I feel about near death experiences, it’s how I feel about demonic possession, it’s how I feel about ghosts. I’m a full spectrum supernaturalist in that sense and UFOs is a distinctive case because it is …
Peter: Are they supernatural?
Ross Douthat: Right. It has features in common with supernaturalism in that it’s a set of experiences that don’t seem amenable to normal forms of scientific inquiry, that involve people having sightings and encounters that they have to report on to others. But then it’s something that, because of what we know about space and the possibility of extraterrestrial life, the idea of things in the sky coming down to us seems more plausibly natural than a given supernatural happening.
Peter: I just can’t get enough of watching these Navy pilot videos, especially the latest batch.
Ross Douthat: Their very human reactions to these things are really striking. Of course, there’s no reason I think from a Christian perspective that we shouldn’t be able to imagine extraterrestrial life, we would have similar questions as the ones we were talking about before related to the fall and redemption and everything else with these species, and when you have Christian science fiction, whether it’s Madeleine L’Engle or C. S. Lewis, there’s often a sense of like, some planets are fallen and some aren’t. There’s a lot of interesting theological questions that would be raised, you could imagine these being basically the equivalent of drones that are dispatched, they’re crafts sent out to observe other civilizations from a distance. If you’re trying to fit alien behavior into some normal human motivational framework, I think you would need to say something like that, or they could be supernatural.
The UFO believers, most of the serious ones draw the line of the supernatural, but I don’t. There are really interesting parallels between descriptions of UFOs, UFO encounters, especially UFO abductions and stories associated with abductions by the Good People, supernatural beings that are neither angels nor demons over the course of pre-modern human history. That’s just a really interesting continuity and if you think it’s all folklore, if you think none of it’s real, then that makes sense, maybe there’s like some union archetype of abductions that get interpreted as aliens in the space age, and as other creatures, the secret Commonwealth in more supernaturally inclined ages, that totally could be, or they could be similar because they’re the same beings who like to mess with us. I don’t think you can rule out the possibility of a zone of the supernatural realm that messes with human beings without being demonic in the way we understand that term.
So what does he mean by this? A little further on, the conversation turns back to the “Good People”:
Peter: We get back to what the soul is made out of almost, out of curiosity, what are some of the parallels between the old fairy accounts and the UFO sightings?
Susannah: Don’t say “fairy.”
Peter: I said “fairy.”
Ross Douthat: Yeah. Don’t say it, show respect.
Peter: OK: “Those older sightings and the new ones.”
Ross Douthat: There’s a book called Passport to Magonia, that was written by a guy who was an early UFO obsessive who later decided … I think his theory was multi-interdimensional travel, so it wasn’t classic mythological folklore accounts, it was again, this zone of science-fiction-meets-the-supernatural. This is the other thing I’ll say, you want to be hesitant with this stuff. One, because you can become an insane conspiracy theorist or a W. B. Yeats figure who’s seeing the Good People everywhere. But two, Christians are not really supposed to traffic in certain forms of supernaturalism that might be real, like divination, fortune telling, if you could tell the future, Christians would still not be supposed to do it. I’m actually a little hesitant, I read Passport to Magonia while writing that column that you mentioned, and when I was done with it I was both fascinated and also felt like I maybe shouldn’t …
Peter:… shouldn’t go too much farther into this.
Ross Douthat: Again, especially with abductions, people wander off in the woods and there’re lights and the elfin look is not that different from some of the portraits of aliens, there’s something called a fairy blast that appears in folklore, that has some similarities to things with UFOs, there’s also the sense of trickery, there’s some UFO encounters where people are like, “That UFO it almost looked fake.” Again, if they are like US military, there’s a whole plausible theory where the army basically invented UFOs in order to have an excuse to test top secret equipment, and then if anyone saw it they’d be like, “Oh, it’s crazy people talking about UFOs.” Maybe that’s true, and if that’s true, it wouldn’t be surprising that some of these encounters have this weird fakery quality to them. The sense that sometimes the aliens are putting on a show for the rubes is something that shows up in seventeenth-century stuff too, which itself super weird.
Despite my experiences with those afflicted by demons, I couldn’t take an oath to tell you the truth and say I believe in any of the others: ghosts, fairies, aliens, bigfoot, or the rest. I don’t have enough evidence to reach a conclusion one way or another. But I can tell you that I believe something is happening that is outside the normal bounds of human experience. Something that leaves a real, lasting impression on people. Something that is worth trying to understand.
There are undoubtedly countless other mysteries along these lines that fall somewhere outside of the comforts of neat theological explanation. Mysteries I haven’t even touched on here. In the interest of not making an already-long post even longer, I’ve decided not to try to find and include them.
But I’m sure you have stories of your own. Things you’ve seen, heard, or experienced that you can’t make sense of. Or stories that others have told you that, for some reason, strike you as not just possible, but plausible.
With the Pentagon UFO report expected to be made public tomorrow, perhaps we’ll have a few more clues about one of the big mysteries. One of the, as Douthat calls it, “persistent paranormal phenomenon that has lots of accounts associated with it.”
Until then, I look forward to your stories in the comments.