Friday, October 29, 2010


I don't know about you, but I was raised with certain expectations. Causes and effects. If you work hard, you'll be rewarded and successful. Honesty is always the best policy. Love always wins out over hate. The bad guys never win, crime doesn't pay. Etc., etc. You know the drill.

So what really happens? Sometimes these things are true, but just as often (if not more often) they are not. Hard work is rewarded with more work and no more pay, while those who don't work seem to reap more rewards. Bullshit and manipulation mean more than honesty if you want to get ahead. Love? What is that? And as for crime--well, refer back to the second item in this list.

This is a rare election year in the United States. I'm used to choosing between bad and worse. I'm not used to choosing between craven cowardice and bat-shit insanity. Outside of politics, human civility seems to be at an all-time low, and forget economics--the more you try to pay debts, the more companies try to milk you for more money, as though you're being penalized for trying to pay.

There's a lot that doesn't match up with everything I've learned. When I'm under a lot of stress, I find I have no patience for the disrespectful and clueless behaviors of others. And it seems to be getting worse, not better. After an evening thinking about this, I realized where the problem lies. It lies in "shoulds".

If you revisit the first sentence of this posting, you'll see a lot of "shoulds". This is the way the world "should" operate. Well, back up a second--in whose worldview? Well, mine obviously, and perhaps my family's, and perhaps the community I grew up in. I think if you ask most people, they will agree with many of those mentioned tenets. But their interpretation of them will be very different, depending on their worldview. And that's only the tip of the iceberg.

One of the things usually taught in a liberal arts education is some kind of philosophy course--something in logic, and perhaps also ethics. There is a myth that reason and logic are the critical ideals, that humans use these tools to make the best decisions. Even if that is true--well, it isn't true. I'm not suggesting that logic and reason should be discarded--they are hugely important, especially when trying to make decisions that affect many people with different worldviews. What I'm saying is that logic and reason do not make the world go round.

Humans are complex creatures; our psychology is baffling. I'm not even including religion in this, as I think it's more of a scapegoat than the real problem. Religion is a means of negotiating the unknown. It is true that doctrines and dogmas handed down by religious authorities can lead to certain unconscious myths and expectations--a whole lot of "shoulds". But religion is hardly the only culprit. Our society, popular culture, our communities, our family's values, and our own perceptions, as well as what's inherited from the collective unconscious, all make up the crazy mix that is our psychology (pun intended).

If you look first at individuals--we all are programmed, or program ourselves, with certain "myths". We accept certain things "a priori"--it's "the way things are". When someone does something outside of that purview, we scramble to make sense of the event--whether we reject the event and the person through our judgement, or try to find logical reasons for the event. Ironically, our mind doesn't work logically, but we always try to deal with unexpected events logically, or at least interpret them in terms of our internal myths.

To take a very simple example--say that you pass a co-worker every day and say "good morning" in the hallway. Then, for about 2 weeks, that person doesn't speak to you or make eye contact with you. The first thing you do is wonder if you've offended that person, you go over every possible encounter and conversation, you may ask others about them. If you can't come up with a reason, or you contrive one (you think perhaps they were offended by a comment you made, even though they never said anything), then you become defensive against that person. They are so terribly selfish and unwilling to understand you, aren't they? You're just misunderstood. Then--you find out that had a life-changing event--a spouse left them in an unhappy divorce, a parent died, or something else happened, which now puts their behavior in context. It's not about you, it's about what they're going through. And thus I've demonstrated a peculiarity of human psychology--we think everything that happens around us is because of us.

Fear is another good example. How many times have we been afraid of things when there's absolutely no good reason? And then put all these factors into groups--I've written in the past about group psychology and herd mentality. Then add a media that writes about and interprets the culture based on their own criteria (usually, what can be hyped to make a good story), and what have you got? Well, it's not a rational and logical humanity, whatever it is.

I think this is why detachment is considered to be such a value in meditation. Detachment is not cold and selfish, at least not in this sense. Detachment allows you to stand back and watch life as though you are watching a movie. When you really look at it, you may be able to see how absurd it is. But a lot of people equate this with not caring. I remember writing a poem about my impressions of others, how I interpreted the "vibes" I felt while riding the subway at rush hour. One woman who read my poem gave me a lot of attitude for "judging these people and not thinking it applies to you, too." She missed the point entirely. One has to look at things as though they're not happening to them once in awhile. Your impressions of the outside are the first step. How you fit in is the next step.

I don't wish to suggest that certain kinds of behavior are justified. But you will go crazy if you believe that the world is a rational place. Maybe it should be. But it isn't.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

My Own Ghost Stories

At 6:30, it is already dark. It's no wonder I keep going to bed early--I'm convinced that it's later than it is. Daylight Savings will not happen until November 7, so it will continue to be dark when I leave for work, and shortly after I get home. Any extra daylight won't last long.

Halloween is less than 2 weeks away. So far, I've listed ghostly children's and young adult books, ghostly TV shows and documentaries, and Victorian ghost stories. Tonight I thought it might be nice to tell some real ghost stories. And I haven't read these in books; these are my own.

I should start by noting that I am not the type that sees ghosts, no matter how badly I may want to do so. In fact, I have never "seen" a ghost--I have only been aware of them in other ways. One's ability to see ghosts has a lot to do with one's psychological barriers. A person who is a good subject for hypnosis is also a likely candidate for experiencing ghosts and other such phenomena. They are what you call "open" or "receptive". I tend to like being in control of myself, and I'm not very good at being receptive at all. I'm quite paranoid about leaving the psychic doors "wide open". However, with meditation and other practices, I've at least increased my sensitivity.

So, without further ado:

Story 1: I once lived in a house in Raven Rock, NJ with my then-husband. Raven Rock has always had an interesting vibe to it--the black, rocky cliffs seem to be bursting with some kind of earth energy. I lived in a house on top of those rocks; it was a rental, and we had another couple who lived on the other side of the house. On two occasions that I can remember, I woke up around 5:00 in the morning to the sound of heavy footsteps on the stairs. We had cats, but this was not the sound of kitty feet--not unless kitties were wearing combat boots. My husband woke up and heard it as well. He said, "Oh shit, I think we have a burglar." He grabbed a heavy object and went carefully out into the hall, towards the stairs. Of course, no one was there. The second time this happened, he had the same reaction. "Oh, just forget it and go back to sleep," I told him. "It's only the ghost." Indeed, the second time--there also was no one there.

There is another part to this story, contributed by our neighbors at the time. My neighbors had a very strange dog--it was part beagle, part basset hound, and part yellow labrador. The dog had a number of toys, one of which was a rooster toy that made a "cock-a-doodle-do" sound when it was squeezed. The dog had ripped the side of this toy, and the stuffing was coming out, so my neighbor put the toy on top of their fridge, so that she could mend it later. Several months went by, and she'd forgotten about it. One night, she awoke to a "cock-a-doodle-do" sound. It was about 2:30 in the morning. She was confused at first about the sound, but then remembered that it was the sound of the dog toy. Then she became more aware and realized that her husband and the dog were both in bed with her, sleeping. "Oh forget it," she thought, and turned over to go back to sleep. Then she heard the sound again. "Okay, now this isn't funny," she thought, and got out of bed. Taking the dog with her, she made her way down the winding staircase, towards the kitchen. At the bottom of the stairs, the dog froze and began to growl. "Oh no, we have a burglar," she thought. She quickly snapped on the lights. No one was there. The dog toy was still on top of the fridge.

We laughed about it when we discussed our stories, but I noticed that when her husband was away on contracting jobs, she always asked us to come over and stay up with her for awhile. It made her quite nervous to be alone. A friend of theirs who was psychic claimed that he sensed the spirit of a young boy--about 8-years-old. Not malevolent, just playful. Whether that was the case or not, I don't know, but it certainly seemed to fit.

Story 2: I was in Ottawa, Canada, for a conference. I could not resist going on "Le Marche Hantee", the Haunted Walk of Ottawa (forgive my lack of diacritics). I went on the traditional walk around the city, and one of the stops was the Bytown Museum (Le Musee By). There were stories of hauntings in the gift shop, and people had reported experiences in the upper rooms as well. The head of the group that ran the haunted walks was afraid to be in there by himself after dark, and anyone who had to lock up usually fled the premises as quickly as possible. Intrigued, I decided to visit the museum the next day after sessions, not expecting too much because it was daytime. I entered through the gift shop area, and started to walk around the museum, starting from the first floor. Towards the back of the room behind the gift shop, there is a mannequin wearing a soldier's uniform behind glass in a little alcove. Behind that exhibition is a spiral staircase that leads to nowhere--it is simply bolted into the stone wall. As I walked into the alcove, the hair on the back of my neck stood up, and I felt tingles going up and down my spine. For me, that's always been the indicator that something is--well, potentially paranormal. Suddenly I heard footsteps ringing on the spiral staircase, as though someone was coming down the stairs. As I turned around, the footsteps stopped. No one was there. Really, no living person could have been there--not unless they had been standing on the stairs when I got there, and they most definitely would have been seen.

I had a similar sensation in the Castillo de San Marcos in St. Augustine, Florida. I was visiting St. Augustine with my family at the time of my niece's high school graduation. We paid a visit to the old fort, and as I walked into one of the old prison rooms, I had the same sensation, along with a striking cold feeling in the Florida heat. At that time, I did not see or hear anything, I just had the sensation.

Story 3: I blogged about my visit to the Red Mill in Clinton, NJ. I've visited there a number of times, but this was the time I went on a special event ghost hunt with Dustin Pari, Kris Williams, and Bruce Tango, all known from the Ghost Hunters TV show. Nothing happened for me while I was at the Mill, but when I went home, I had a curious thing happen the next day. While I was writing my blog post on the event, I heard a loud banging on the wall behind me--like a knock. I think the room even shook a little.  There is nothing that should have made that sound--it was not a heating pipe, nor any of the other familiar old-house sounds. One of the cat's toys, a cow that makes a mechanical "mooing" sound, suddenly jumped out of the cat's toy basket and went off.  My cat responded by jumping onto the sofa and staring intently at a picture of the Srichakra that I have on my living room wall. The feeling that someone else in the room was so overwhelming, I turned on the digital voice recorder I had in the living room, to give whatever it might be an opportunity to say something. But it didn't say anything, and eventually the feeling went away. The only thought in my head was that something followed me from the Mill. This was not a fancy--I had no reason to believe that was the case, it was just a thought that popped into my head, that I couldn't get rid of. I wasn't afraid of whatever it was, but it was curious.

Story 4: This one is quite recent. I'd blogged about a weird night when I found a spider walking on my chest. This is not so weird--I live in the country, and unfortunately, you do get spiders in the house. Fortunately, they're not usually really big, but I still don't like finding them in my bed. However, the spider is unrelated to this event, except that they both occurred on the same night. I woke up at around 3:00 in the morning, and looked at the clock. For some reason, I recalled the Amityville Horror case, and the business about the Lutzes waking up at 3:15 am. Suddenly, I felt something get into bed with me--it was a black mass with a vaguely human shape. It took a hold of my left arm. I felt paralyzed, and started to feel drained. However, I felt I'd encountered something like this many years prior, and I knew the right thing to do was to yell at it. I couldn't yell, so I  thought of my guru's name, and immediately whatever it was let go. I then turned and shouted at it, and it ran off. Even though it was gone, I still felt that breaking up of my energy. Usually I think of Kali or Shiva at moments like this, but for some reason I started reciting a Krishna mantra, and the words of a Krishna bhajan came into my head. Immediately it was like the room filled with light, and my the breaks in my energy suddenly disappeared, leaving me feeling whole again. Still, I did some banishing work when I got up--you can't be too careful with such things.

None of these experiences left me particularly frightened, which surprises me--I would have thought that I would have had a sense of terror. But only the last one was moderately disturbing, and even then, I didn't feel fear as much as I felt shock. Maybe if I actually saw an apparition it would be different.

So, these are my stories. Hopefully none of them will disturb your dreams.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

The Exorcist (Part 2 of 2): Occultists, Buddhists, and Other Non-Monotheists

Yesterday I posted about Father Lampert’s talk on exorcism in the Catholic Church. The talk was interesting and engaging, and he had many fascinating stories. But what came to light for me was the age-old problem I’ve had with the Church—it’s conception of things outside of the monotheistic purview, like pagan religions, Eastern religions, and occult practices.

First, there is the problem of the Church lumping everything that is “not monotheism” into one category. To the Church, spiritualists, table tappers, Satanists, and Buddhist monks all fall into the same category. They lump use of crystals or Tarot cards in with black magic and black masses. All of it is, of course, suspect, because it is not Catholicism. Father Lampert had quoted Deuteronomy 18. As I said earlier, this is dangerous, because Deuteronomy also advocates stoning wayward children to death (chapter 21), and suggests that any man with damage to his “manhood” cannot ever go to heaven (chapter 23). In short, I would not use an old law manual meant for nomadic Hebrews as your 21st century doctrine. At best, you’re going to look hypocritical because you follow some things and not others.

But that is not the most important consideration. It is the conception of occultists. To the Church, the occultist is someone who has turned their face away from God. They will cite rebellion, and in some cases, that may be true. But the rebellious teenager snubbing his parents’ religion is hardly the crux of the problem. I have met many occultists in my lifetime, and have practiced myself. Here is a scenario that illustrates a more accurate picture of one who “turns to the occult”:

Let’s assume a female subject. She is about 14, and a devout Catholic, goes to Catholic school. She has the kind of religious zeal that one has before they get interested in boys or horses. She wants to be a nun. Suddenly, one night, she has a startling vision—maybe not even entirely a vision, perhaps an experience. There is nothing suspect or evil about the experience—the result is overflowing joy and compassion. Yet there are elements of the experience that don’t quite match up to the Catholic worldview she’s been raised with. Catholic doctrine is a bit of a round hole to this square peg. She is not troubled by the vision, she is only troubled by the fact that it doesn’t line up precisely with what she’s been taught. She talks the matter over with her parish priest or school chaplain. She gets one of two possible responses:

“I don’t know what that is, so it’s probably of the devil, and just don’t pay attention to that. Read the Bible.”

“Are you having trouble at home? What’s the real problem you’re having?”

Both of these responses are irresponsible and inadequate for two reasons. One, it seeks to squelch a transformative experience for a budding soul. Two, it shows no respect to the girl—how could it be possible for her to have some kind of saintly experience? If anything, she must be “dabbling in the occult”, or doing something wrong. The first response will leave the girl in a state of anxiety, because now she feels she can’t trust her own spiritual experiences. The second diminishes her as a spiritual person—real people don’t have “spiritual visions”--only those that the priest thinks are truly “spiritual”. Coincidentally, these are usually the same people who give big collection plate offerings and run all their programs. (Sorry to be cynical, but this happens much more often than it should).

I will liken the girl’s vision to falling in love at first sight. The object of affection is the Divine, or God. She is appealing to the proper authorities, as she wants this relationship with God. And the authorities have told her she’s not suitable. So—she does what every storybook lover does, and she runs away to find her beloved in secret.

And that’s where the occult comes in. Contrary to popular belief, occult practices are designed to bring one into union with God, if you prefer that term. Only a small portion of magical practices center around Goetic evocation (i.e., summoning demons or devils). Usually in such cases mentioned above, demonic evocation would be the last thing they think of doing.

There could be many problems with this. Confronting the Divine means confronting the Collective Unconscious, and that’s a dangerous journey to make without a guide. In fact, with no guide, you’re likely to go crazy. Even if you find a guide, you need to be sure that guide has your best interests at heart, and is not foisting an agenda onto you. It can happen in any spiritual practice. Nonetheless, the pursuit of Divine bliss is enough to make people take the risk. If they weary of the journey, they may decide to return to the safety of organized religion. Many do not. Once you’ve dropped the mediator, there’s no need to ask them to come back. Mediators with the Divine (e.g., priests) can have agendas, too.

As for Satanism, I think I can count on one hand the number of Satanists and/or black magicians I’ve met in my lifetime. It’s hardly a common path. I think it’s most popular among teenage boys who think it’s a joke. Perhaps that is an area of concern for the Church, but it’s hardly an epidemic. A lot of Satanic worship is outright rebellion against the Church. There is a hatred of the Church that suggests that there was once love—love that was probably crushed by a dismissive and authoritarian clergyman. With regard to black magicians—they’re usually shunned by other occultists. I’ve known of a few who have been banned from magical societies. Occult practices should serve the same function as religious ritual—they are designed to get rid of your unwanted spiritual baggage and bring you closer to the Divine. Religion is a tool, and not everyone needs the same tool. Of course, that goes against Catholic exclusivist doctrine, but I don’t see either logically or intuitively how anything else could be true. If you are too wedded to the system, then the system becomes your idol; you are more interested in preserving your system than in fulfilling its intended results.

Now, with regard to Reiki and yoga. I’ve already talked about the Reiki fiasco in the Church, otherwise known as the “someone on the Council of Bishops never learned how to use a library” fiasco. Reiki was banned as a Catholic practice based on false information and poor research. Lately yoga has been a target of both Catholic and Protestant groups, probably more the latter. But I mention the former, since Father Lampert mentioned it in his remarks at the Q&A.

First—Reiki is an energy therapy. It means “universal energy”. In the East, there isn’t anything that isn’t infused with the Divine, but this is perhaps the only spiritual connection to Reiki. You might be able to view it as a type of acupuncture done through touch. It redirects the body’s energies. One does usually say a prayer at the beginning, but that can be to whomever they like—if they want to invoke Jesus’ help, then that is fine. Reiki has been a blessing to people in excruciating pain, and it’s beyond shameful that bishops would take this away from Catholics. The assertion is that Catholics should use healing methods “within their own religion”. Father Lampert had described it as idolatry—relying on something other than God (as they understand it) for help. But that doesn’t really wash, because it validates those Christian groups that will watch their child die from a treatable disease, because “they should only rely on God’s help”. One will argue from that view that God created the medicines for them to use, or allowed them to be created. Then why wouldn’t God create Reiki?

The objections to yoga can only be partially sustained. The objections to the studios that practice hatha yoga cannot be sustained at all. People really are doing it for exercise. Hatha yoga, for an Eastern spiritual practitioner, is designed to ready the body for other kinds of yoga. If you’ve ever had an experience of kundalini shakti, you know that while it brings great bliss, peace, and compassion, it can also leave you feeling like you have the flu when it subsides, if your body is not prepared for this energy burst. Hatha yoga prepares the body for that Divine flow. But—it can be used in isolation. They are only stretches, and they can be used just as well to loosen up stiff muscles and relax the body. They are not inexorably wedded to Divine aspirations.

Other kinds of yoga SHOULD be avoided, unless they are undertaken with a Master or Guru. I would agree that there is a real risk of damage if you mess with those energy centers in a careless fashion. The damage has nothing to do with “demons” or “evil spirits” (though it might leave one too psychologically “open”) —it has to do with the impact of this energy flow on your mind. It has to be regulated safely and properly, according to what your body can handle. Since Catholics would find it anathema for a believer to work with an Eastern Master (at least under the current Pope), then it’s probably a practice they should avoid.

I find it interesting that the Church reiterates their objections to these practices on the grounds that they invoke “spirits other than God”. That’s just mind-bogglingly false. No spirits are invoked at all. It demonstrates a complete lack of understanding of Eastern religious thought. In the East, God is not a separate Being “out there”; God is everywhere, and in every person. Any form the Divine might take is just a convenience; as Joseph Campbell said, “Deities are the vehicle, not the Source”. Our mind has to have images, so we must have gods to relate to the Mystery. But they are not worshipping something different or separate from the Christian God, except in name. To them, there is no separation, except in the mind. So, all actions are necessarily spiritual. You can go to a Hindu Temple and see the pujaris wash the feet of the deity, offer food, flowers and a camphor flame. By the same token, you can visit a Hindu Indian household, and be greeted by having your feet washed, being garlanded with flowers, and having a camphor flame waved in front of you. You are as much a vehicle of God as the statue in the Temple. It’s a different view, and the practices have nothing to do with invoking spirits or entities in the way it’s thought of in Western monotheism.

So—to conclude this very long post—if the Church is concerned about people “turning away from the path”—their path—to the occult, they’d better start taking a different approach. There is plenty in their theology that could support people who have these “mystical” experiences, but they choose to treat it dismissively, and to maintain willful ignorance and a closed mind to these alternate approaches and their effects. It shows a lack of respect for the person, and for the world at large to be so dismissive. They would keep more of their flock if they took it seriously and respectfully.

Friday, October 15, 2010

The Exorcist (Part 1 of 2) : The Lecture

On Wednesday night, Montclair State University’s Newman Catholic Center sponsored a lecture by Father Vincent Lampert, who is one of only 24 appointed exorcists in the United States. I attended, because I was interested to see what the modern take is on this ancient (and perhaps antiquated) rite.

There will be 2 blog postings on this event, as my thoughts on it will not fit comfortably into one post. This post will be more of a summary of the event, and the subsequent post will address the issues raised by the theology discussed at the event. Even if you are not Catholic, you should find them interesting.

The lecture opened naturally enough with student board members for the Newman Center hawking their events, and the President of their FOCUS group (don’t remember what it stands for, but it’s basically a Catholic ministry) had to show a video advertising their next conference. Perhaps I should have expected that at a Catholic Center event, but I tend to find proselytization of this kind offensive. I even find it offensive when it’s done by followers of my own guru, so this is not about Catholicism per se. Still, it did not take up too much time, and shortly thereafter the chaplain introduced Father Lampert.

Father Lampert’s opening statement was, “So, do I look like an exorcist?” He seemed like a very grounded individual, on the level, and had an admirable sense of humor. He mentioned Pope Benedict XVI’s recent encyclical, “Caritas et Veritate” (Love and Truth), which addressed the current economic crisis in the world. Benedict suggested that our crises stem from a deeper moral crisis, with more people “turning away from God, and towards occultism and other such beliefs.”  Father Lampert suggested that he was there not to scare people with stories about exorcism and demons, but to help bring people back “to the path of God”. All of this is very reasonable for a Catholic priest to say, and is in line with Catholic theology. However, Benedict’s statement and this follow up are both problematic. But I’ll save that for my next post.

Father then went on to discuss the kinds of calls he gets for exorcisms. In many (if not most) cases, what the person needs is counseling of some sort, not an exorcism. People have things happen to them, and then decide to self-diagnose the problem on the Internet, and come to the conclusion that they are possessed or otherwise in need of an exorcist. Real possession is a very rare phenomenon. The exorcist always makes sure the person is evaluated by a mental health professional and works in consultation with such a person before even considering an exorcism.

There are 4 criteria for considering a person to be “possessed”—1. The ability to understand unknown languages, 2. Displays of extraordinary strength, 3. Elevated perception and knowledge (ability to know things they couldn’t possibly know), and 4. Strong resistance against divine influences (presumably prayers, holy objects, and holy water).

Father Lampert became an exorcist because “he was in the wrong place at the wrong time”. The previous exorcist for the Archdiocese of Indianapolis died in 2005, and the priests were avoiding the bishop, feeling certain that he was looking for a replacement. So, Father Lampert was at the bishop’s residence for a meeting, when he ended up passing the bishop in the hallway. The bishop stopped him and said, “Father, I have a favor to ask”. And he knew that he was stuck from that point onward. He went to Rome for mentoring with an exorcist there (one of the chief exorcists from the Vatican, I believe), and sat in on 40 exorcisms during his training.

The Rites of Exorcism are not easy to come by in the United States, though they are widely available in Italy for about 14 euros a copy. The Rites were one of the last documents to be revised by the Vatican in recent years—they hadn’t been revised since 1614. The doctrine of belief in demons and angelic beings goes back to 1215 and the Fourth Council of the Lateran. The Church teaching is that the Devil cannot act directly on the human soul, only on the human mind and imagination, and sometimes the body as well.  They believe that unclean spirits cannot read our thoughts; they can incite emotions and note their effects on us. Evil spirits vary in strength and specialty. How much power they have is relative to the effectiveness of the individual’s resistance. Father Lampert notes that God and the Devil are not of the same ilk—there is a difference between creature and creator, and the Devil is considered to be a creature.

In the Old Testament, only 2 orders of angels are noted—cherubim and seraphim. St. Paul extended the list to 9 orders—seraphim, cherubim, thrones, dominations, virtues, powers, principalities, angels, and archangels.  Father Lampert suggested that just as Jesus incarnated as a human, the Devil wants to mimic God by entering or influencing a human body. The word “Devil” is from the Greek diabolos (adversary), and there is also the Hebrew “Satan” or Shaitan (opposer). The term “Lucifer” no longer applies, as that was the name given to the archangel (described as winged two-headed beasts) by God. In one of the exorcisms witnessed by Father Lampert, when the entity was asked if it was Lucifer, it said, “That was my name, but no longer”.

Demonic influence is said to be of 2 types, the “ordinary” and the “extraordinary”. The ordinary is the regular temptations we face in our lives. The extraordinary is of 4 different types: 1. Infestation (curses, haunted houses), 2. Oppression and/or physical attacks (often on those striving to become closer to God), 3. Obsession (intense and persistent attacks on the mind), and 4. Possession (temporary control of the person’s body and consciousness). Possession usually occurs during a time of crisis in the person’s life, when they are vulnerable to having their consciousness cut off. Their eyes may roll back, their jaws drop, and they may start foaming at the mouth and growling.

How does possession occur? According to Father Lampert, either directly or indirectly, and the Church considers 4 possible ways to invite possession: 1. Occult ties, 2. Curses, 3. Dedication to the Devil, 4. A life of hardship (and presumably a weak psyche as a result). With regard to the first way, he cites everything from crystals and Tarot cards to black magic rituals. He says that occult practices are considered idolatry, because you are seeing help from a spirit other than God. He quotes Deuteronomy 18—a theological slippery slope in my opinion, but again, I will save those comments for my next post.

There are actually 2 kinds of exorcism—imperative and supplicating. Anyone can perform a supplicating exorcism, which involves prayers  of deliverance to God to release the person from the demonic influence. Only trained exorcists are supposed to do imperative exorcisms, which address the demon directly with the authority of Christ.
In the fine tradition of list-making, Father gave us yet another list of the 10 preparations/steps for exorcism, and 12 questions you ask a person to determine if they are possessed. The first list is a matter of procedure and somewhat obvious . What I didn’t know is that exorcisms always take place in a sacred space—the notion of doing an exorcism at the victim’s home is apparently false. The 12 questions were rather interesting—they look at things like psychological history and drug abuse, but largely seem to center around one’s interest in the occult and affiliation with anyone who engages in occult practices—they include psychics and fortunetellers on that list.

At this point, Father Lambert opened up the floor for questions. I did not stay for the whole Q&A period, just long enough to be irritated by remarks about yoga and Reiki (which he suggested they should avoid, because they conjure up spirits). I understand that he has to toe the line of official doctrine, but if you really don’t know a topic, just say you don’t know, rather than make a sweeping generalization that may create problems for those who use those techniques. Neither has anything to do with conjuring spirits or appealing to spirits. He also brought up the “3 AM hour mocking the death of Christ” bit. If that’s part of doctrine, it’s just ridiculous. But it may well be that is the case. Besides those 2 questions, I could get behind his answers to the questions that were presented. One young man started with, “Hi, Father, I shook your hand before.” The priest responded, “Yes, I won’t wash it for a week.” (Points for the excellent reply). The last question I heard as I was leaving was, “Do you think Glenn Beck is possessed?”which generated a lot of laughter. Father Lambert said that he does not spend his time watching such negative shows, which drew applause. To be fair to the questioner, Glenn Beck has all the physical signs of possession—eyes rolling back, foaming at the mouth, jumping around and grunting like an animal. It ought to be considered.

On the whole, it was an extremely informative evening, and I don’t wish to give the impression that I have a quarrel with Father Lampert personally on points I disagreed with; I have no doubt that he is accurately reporting the Church’s position in all of his remarks. It’s the Church’s position, and ignorance about many of these things, that I find problematic. In the next blog post, I intend to address 2 things:  the Church’s conception of the occult and those who are drawn to it, and the Church’s conception of Eastern religious practices. If the Church wishes to have a legitimate future, it’s something they will have to reflect on themselves.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Last Letter

Last Thursday, I saw an article on NPR’s Facebook page about the imminent release of a previously unpublished Ted Hughes poem, called “Last Letter”.

Most of you probably know that Ted Hughes, in addition to being one of England’s poet laureates, was married for about 6 or 7 tumultuous years to Sylvia Plath. I think people remember him more for the latter than the former, at least in the United States. There has been much criticism of Hughes in the wake of Plath’s suicide in 1963, and many feminist writers and critics seemed to hold him responsible for her death, due to “mistreatment”. They base this on the fact that Hughes left her for another woman after 6 years of marriage (a woman who also committed suicide later on). 

The poem that was released on Thursday was something of a bombshell. Ted Hughes did release a collection of poems he’d written to Plath during their relationship called “Birthday Letters”, but never had anyone seen a poem on the actual suicide event itself. Carol Hughes, Ted Hughes’ widow and keeper of his literary legacy, led Melyvn Bragg to this poem in the British Library archives. He was guest editing an issue of the New Statesman, and had asked Carol if he could use an unpublished poem of Ted’s in the issue. Mrs. Hughes apparently knew about this poem for years, and it seems she was waiting for the right moment and the right circumstances to release it to the public.

A friend of mine sent me a copy of the poem, which I’m not reprinting here, as I understand the estate is very strict about reprinting permissions. However, it is available in the October 7 issue of the New Statesman (if you are at a university, you might be able to access this online through your library). I found myself shaking as I read this poem. It’s hard not to be affected by it. Even Melvyn Bragg was affected—his voice broke upon reading the last lines of the poem at a public event. 

Now, to the poem itself—Hughes reveals a number of things about Sylvia’s suicide. First, she apparently mailed him a suicide note on the Friday before the deed, perhaps assuming it would not reach him until Monday. British post usually comes twice a day, so the postman “defeated” her by getting the letter to him too soon. When he knocked on her door, he was relieved to see her answer. There is a disturbing image in the poem of Sylvia with her “strange smile” taking the suicide letter from him and burning it in an ashtray. He recounts the way he spent his weekend, out with another woman, but somehow returning to the places where he and Sylvia first met. The poem ends with the words from a phone call “your wife is dead”. 

The poem lays to rest a lot of assumptions about Hughes’ interaction with Plath in her last days. I’ve always thought it was unfair for people to judge Ted Hughes as being somehow “responsible” for Plath’s depression and suicide. No one should ever pass that judgment on someone else’s relationship—even if they knew the couple well. If anything is clear from Sylvia Plath’s biography, it is that she was NOT a well person. As far as I know she was never officially diagnosed with a mental illness, but her mother’s account of her screams “bipolar”. If she was indeed bipolar, and it was untreated, then there was nothing anyone could do. And there would have been no way for Ted to win against that—his marriage to her would have been doomed from the start. It would not be surprising to have a mental illness like that go undiagnosed in the 1950s. It is clear from one of her mother’s few public interviews that she was dismissive of the idea of Sylvia being mentally ill. A psychologist is more qualified to look at the facts and make a guess than I am, though we’d never really know without Sylvia actually being here. 

Whether it was bipolar disorder or something else, it is clear that not all was right mentally with Sylvia, even before Ted left. This may have been the fountain of her genius as well as of her suffering. One wonders if we would have such a magnificent body of poetry from her if she had been medicated for a diagnosed illness. And then you have to ask—is that level of insanity required for creativity? Does the artist always have to live a torturous emotional life or have a “screw loose”? Does that bring about the “best” art? How fine is the line between creativity and insanity?

A recent study suggests that the answer may be dopamine. Highly creative people and those with schizophrenia have a low number of D2 receptors (receptors for dopamine) in the thalamus, which means they have fewer information “filters”. This enables them to make connections and associations in ways that others don’t. The article I’ve linked to makes a distinction between “healthy creatives” and schizophrenics. But again, there is a spectrum, and the lines seem very blurry at times.

Back to Ted Hughes-- I feel a lot of sympathy for him, because in the end, he had a relationship that was unmanageable, and even harmful at times. I know what it’s like to reach the point where there’s nothing else you can do but leave. It is clear that he still cared about Sylvia, and there is nothing worse than when you really love someone and realize that it’s just not going to work, no matter how much you want that. In any difficult relationship, there is never just one partner responsible for the split—as they say, “it takes two to tango” (though it can be argued that sometimes one partner is clearly more responsible). But to blame Hughes for Plath’s suicide is just unfair. I hope the publication of the poem lays much of that controversy to rest.

Saturday, October 09, 2010

Ghost Stories

We're edging ever closer to Halloween, which means soon I will be in the mood for Christmas. But I'm determined not to rush things this year, even though I've already started my Christmas shopping.

Traditionally, Christmas was a time for telling ghost stories, which gives it something in common with our modern Halloween. I think my own writing has a rather odd style because most of what I read for pleasure ARE ghost stories--not just the YA variety mentioned in previous posts, but 19th and early 20th century Victorian ghost stories in particular. I'm not too impressed with later stories, as they tend to be too "horror" driven--psychopaths, zombies, serial killers--these can make for suspenseful stories, but they are not the good old fashioned scare that I enjoy.

If you read enough ghost story collections, you will find a lot of repetition of content. I just may have read every Victorian ghost story still in print. Below is a list of classics that is by no means exhaustive, and links to read those stories where they exist:

The Empty House by Algernon Blackwood
Canon Alberic's Scrap Book by M.R. James
Nobody Ever Goes There--Manly Wade Wellman
The House of the Nightmare--Edward Lucas White
The House of Nightmare, and Lukundoo (Dodo Press)
The Vacant Lot--Mary Wilkins Freeman
Shadow over Innsmouth--H.P. Lovecraft
The Next Room--Vincent O'Sullivan (no link)
What Was It?--FitzJames O'Brien
The Tractate Middoth--M.R. James
The Dream Woman--Wilkie Collins
Man-Size in Marble-E. Nesbit
The Body-Snatchers--Robert Louis Stevenson
The Signal-Man--Charles Dickens
Mr. Justice Harbottle--J. Sheridan Le Fanu
The White People--Arthur Machen

All of these authors listed are classic authors in some capacity, with M.R. James, Sheridan Le Fanu, Wilkie Collins, Algernon Blackwood, and H.P. Lovecraft probably being the most well-known. Here are a few collections I would recommend:

Casting the Runes and Other Ghost Stories (Oxford World's Classics)

J. S. le Fanu's Ghostly Tales

Edward Gorey's Haunted Looking Glass: Ghost Stories

Best Ghost Stories of Algernon Blackwood

The Best of H. P. Lovecraft: Bloodcurdling Tales of Horror and the Macabre

Pleasant reading.

Thursday, October 07, 2010

Shut In

I’ve been doing less blogging and more winterizing these days. I’m extremely conscious of my oil bill, and would like to have my payments go down, not up. It has been damp and cold here—the house temperature is only 60 degrees Fahrenheit. But I just close the storm windows and put on an extra sweater—I refuse to turn the heat on this early in the month.

All of this closing up and shutting down naturally makes me think of what that symbolizes on less conscious levels. Recently, Risha Mullins posted an experience she had with a particular school district with regard to censorship. (I’m not posting the link, as she took the article down when people started calling and writing to her former district with angry comments). The post was very moving (Fark gave it a “sick” tag, being hugged by the crying “sad” tag), and has a lot to do with the idea of closing up and shutting down.

The gist of her post was this: She’s a schoolteacher with a Masters in Reading, that started a book club for her students. They read a variety of award-winning YA books. The membership in the book club eventually went up to 130 students, and the students’ reading comprehension scores went up as well. Then—a parent decide to complain that one of the books was “pornography” (what YA librarian hasn’t heard this before?), and suddenly she was removed as chair of the literacy committee, the principal threatening to disband the book club, and she generally became the center of controversy. Things were temporarily ironed out when a committee agreed to review and approve the books, but the controversy took on a life of its own, and parents jumped on the bandwagon to criticize her, eventually leading to an in-school suspension and other difficulties for Risha. Eventually she just gave up and resigned from her job. The controversy that followed her prevented her from getting a new job near her husband’s new job. And the reading comprehension test scores of the kids in her former school plummeted once again.

What’s sad about this? Many things, and they’re all interconnected. But the root of the issue is fear; namely, the fear of parents who don’t want their children exposed to literature that talks about real-life feelings and situations. They want to protect them from stories about drugs, rape, gay relationships, sex in general, realistic narratives of the Holocaust—anything that might disturb their child’s peaceful, sheltered existence and the worldview they want them to have. I don’t know if there’s a study weighing requests for censorship against religious background and beliefs, but I would bet money that the biggest complainers are the ones that claim to be strictly religious, usually in the Biblical Christian literalist sense. (The same group, by the way, that failed miserably on a survey of basic questions about religion and religious beliefs in America).

What I find interesting and disturbing is the attempt to keep children “shut in” by not exposing them to any alternative viewpoints or real-life situations. Shutting in is a means of protection, a withdrawal. Sometimes it is a good thing—in dangerous situations, or overwhelming ones, withdrawing your energies may be the only sensible option. But withdrawing from the world and wearing a cloak of deliberate ignorance I would say is not so good. It’s a kind of “whistling in the graveyard”, or if you could imagine the person with their hands over their ears saying “la-la-la, I can’t hear you.”

Deliberate ignorance is an avoidance of responsibility. Either you are participating in society or you aren’t. To deliberately ignore the realities of life, and then get vocally and disruptively angry when they don’t match your fantasy view of the world is childish and irresponsible. It’s also a crime against children, who are given no tools for negotiating real world situations—something that is society’s responsibility. Pretending that such things don’t happen and not letting your teenagers see them is almost a guarantee that they will do the wrong thing if confronted with such a situation. But it goes beyond an individual and their child; all of our actions affect others, whether we like to accept it or not. And when individuals act in xenophobic ways, anyone perceived as “different” or offering differing viewpoints is needlessly harmed.

However, not all “shutting down” is about ignorance and avoidance. Besides withdrawing in the face of danger, there are times in life when we are legitimately at a stalemate. We make efforts, but have to wait for results. And we can’t go further until we get those results. Sometimes we have days that are what I call “comically awful”. A comically awful day is one that has so many bad things happen in succession that you can’t do anything but laugh, because it seems like a huge, cosmic prank. But we all have times where we feel tired, defeated, and/or depressed. At such times, withdrawing and re-evaluating our position, taking stock of our life and why we feel the way we do is the best thing. It’s been suggested that depression has the biological function of shutting us down so that we can recuperate. But such a shutting down is only a temporary break, and doesn’t mean an avoidance of responsibility. It is facing one’s responsibility and possibly correcting one’s actions if warranted. Too often we try to avoid these periods of shutting down, feeling that there is something wrong with us if we do that. But, “when fishermen can’t go to sea, they repair nets.” Sometimes withdrawing our energies and not acting is the only correct action.