It's an interesting insight into human nature that we like to get good and scared once in a while—on condition, of course, that we feel secure in our general surroundings.
Toddlers bubble over with mingled fear and delight when dad pretends to be a roaring monster. They trust daddy, of course; and this prevents stark terror of his monster act. Horror movie fans seem to thrive on a similar fear but of course they're watching these films in the safety and comfort of a home or theater. People like to tell ghost stories around campfires under a night sky, even if their backs are to the dark woods. But they have the light of the campfire on their faces and they're sitting in the midst of a crowd. Safe and secure.
All that aside, have you ever wondered whether Catholics should be telling ghost stories? Do ghosts actually exist?
A Catholic Understanding of Ghosts
That depends on what you mean by "ghost." If you're referring to something filmy draped in a white sheet, or something that snarls and threatens physical violence by its very presence...if you're referring to what you see in films and on T.V., then the answer is: no.
However, if you are referring to a disembodied spirit—the soul of a human being who has died (and we will all become disembodied spirits at death, and will remain that way until the resurrection of the dead at the end of time)—then the answer is: yes. It seems that there are indeed ghosts. However, their appearances are going to be much more rare than the world might have you believe. And demons are also fully capable of appearing to be ghosts, so prudence is important.
The word "ghost" comes from an Old English word, geist, which means "spirit." The Catholic Church has not offered an official teaching on the subject of ghosts, but her theologians have discussed the matter for centuries. Interestingly, St. Thomas Aquinas is someone who said yes, indeed, there are ghosts.
...according to the disposition of divine providence, separated souls sometimes come forth from their abode and appear to men . . . It is also credible that this may occur sometimes to the [souls of the] damned, and that for man’s instruction and intimidation they be permitted to appear to the living.
—St. Thomas Aquinas
These "ghosts," then, are the souls of human beings, and they come from one of two places: purgatory or hell. Note St. Thomas's point that the "damned" may appear "for man's instruction" and even intimidation. (In other words, to "scare you enough to get your act together and think about eternity.")
Halloween: The Holy Day That Was Hung Out to Dry
And here we are, at the time of year when people think more about ghosts than they ever do outside the autumnal-and-Halloween season. Autumn, though beautiful, is a season of quiet surrender; the foliage and the earth itself surrender to a temporary death. Spring will resurrect the flora and fauna. In the meantime, we ourselves think about change, and the end of things, and the shortness of life, even if it is a subconscious consideration. Halloween, especially, brings to mind the memory of souls who have gone before us. Our imagination is kindled.
It's a pity that Halloween has been hijacked as a dark and godless holiday. Originating in the Catholic feast of All Hallow's Eve, it was first celebrated as a triduum: All Hallow's Eve, All Saints Day, and All Souls Day. (To learn more about this Catholic holy day, read A Catholic's Guide to Halloween.)
It's important for Catholics to learn about the Catholic roots, and the proper celebration of, All Hallow's Eve. We could then take the positive (or even neutral) aspects of the current cultural celebration, and baptize them into an orthodox approach to this holiday.
That celebration can include ghost stories told around campfires. There are some stories that do indeed seem to be true. Popular speaker Fr. Michael Schmitz shared details of a ghost story that took place quite recently, in a convent. St. Thomas Aquinas received visits from two different ghosts. These visits are rare (most sensationalized claims of ghosts can be attributed to natural causes) but they do occur.
So You Want to Hear a Catholic Ghost Story...
I have three stories to share today. The first one is not a ghost story strictly speaking. It does, however, involve a monk, a cemetery, and a few demons. Therefore it fits in the category of ghost stories, that is, stories-to-make-me-shiver-and-fear-the-dark.
This account involves St. Macarius of Egypt. He was born around the year 300 and died in 391 A.D. His humility was so great that the demons could not overcome him, and they hated him for it.
And now the story begins:
Once when he was on a journey through Egypt, St. Macarius the abbot climbed into an ancient pagan cemetery to sleep for the night. He placed one of the mummies under his head as a pillow.
He did what? Climbed into a cemetery...to sleep? And he chose a mummy for his pillow? On purpose?
The demons hated [St. Macarius] because his faith in God made him unafraid of the place. They tried to frighten him by calling out, "Lady, come with us to bathe!" Then another demon answered from beneath Macarius, as if he were the dead woman, "I have a pilgrim on top of me. So I can't move!"
Admit it. Even if you had gotten up the courage to sleep in a cemetery—and use a mummy as a pillow—you wouldn't stick around when it started talking. You'd break the world's record for the long jump and hightail it out of that place. And yet...
The old man was undaunted. Confidently, he thumped the mummy and said, "Go ahead and get up, if you can!" When the demons heard [his words], they screamed...[and] they fled in confusion because of the abbot's refusal to fear them.
Now you know whose intercession to seek when you're afraid of the dark. St. Macarius will, I am sure, be delighted to pray for you. And if you want to read more true stories about saints who confronted demons, grab a copy of the book this story came from: Saints Who Battled Satan
Two Actual Ghost Stories
There is a 20th-century report about a devout widow who had a special relationship with those in purgatory. God permitted various souls from purgatory to visit her, so that she could offer prayer and sacrifices on their behalf. Her experiences were shielded from vain curiosity by the parish priest. Even those who in her community—who thought her as ordinary as any woman—would not have guessed that she was receiving visitors from "the other side."
Here is one of her stories. (To protect her identity, she was given the name “Ruth.”)
The first [soul Ruth helped] was her departed husband. He had often been impatient during his bout with cancer and had reproached God.
One evening, Ruth heard a voice. [That happened] almost every evening, over a long time, when she came in from the stable. Then she suddenly recognizes the voice of her husband. But she isn’t quite sure. Then she kneels down and just prays the Rosary. She recommends her husband in particular. Yes, she thinks, he was often rather impatient; is that perhaps the reason he must still do penance?
A few evenings later, she sees a nebulous apparition, right in the middle of the room. She takes holy water and prays, “O Lord, give him eternal rest!” It makes her very upset...Then she sees her husband. He speaks quietly: “Don’t be afraid, Ruth! It’s me. I may come here to ask your help. Pray three chaplets each day…” Then he is gone.
Every day she prays three chaplets. Each time she adds, “Good God, forgive my husband his impatience when he suffered!” After some weeks, her husband stands again in the middle of the room. He looks well. He is friendly and beautiful. She recalls how he was as a young man. He says nothing. He only looks at her so grateful and full of love. Then she asks him, “How are you, Jacob?” He answers clearly and quietly, “I’m fine. I may come [to heaven] soon. I thank you, Ruth! I thank you so much!”...[After this] He never appeared again.
Ruth would receive many subsequent visits from holy souls. Over time, she grew less afraid of them, and was eager to offer prayer and acts of charity to God on their behalf.
Souls who appear on earth do not always come from purgatory, however.
Here's another true story. It involves an encounter with a damned soul and was confided to a priest (who tells the story) by a trusted relative of the woman who experienced it.
Ready? Here we go:
She was in London, the winter of 1847 to 1848. She was a widow, about twenty-nine years old, very worldly, very rich, and very good-looking. Among [those] who frequented her [parlor] was noted a young lord...whose behavior was anything but edifying.
...one night (for it was already past midnight) she was reading in her bed I don't know what novel, waiting for sleep to come. It struck one hour by her clock; she blew out her taper. She was about to fall asleep when, to her great astonishment, she noticed that a wan, strange glimmer of light...spread gradually in her room and increased from one moment to the other. Stupefied, she put her eyes wide open, not knowing what this could mean. She got frightened when she saw the door slowly open and the young lord, the accomplice in her disorders, enter her room. Before she could have said a single word to him, he was near her, seized her left arm at the wrist, and said to her in English, in a striding voice: "There is a hell!" The pain she felt in her arm was so great that she lost her senses.
When she came to again, half an hour later...she noticed on her wrist a burn so deep that the bone was laid bare and the flesh nearly consumed; this burn was the size of a man's hand. Moreover, she remarked that the carpet from the door of the [parlor] to the bed, and from the bed to this same door, bore the imprint of a man's steps...
The next day, the unhappy lady learned, with a terror that is easy to imagine, that on that very night, close upon one o'clock in the morning, her lord had been found dead-drunk under the table, that his servants had carried him to his room and that he had died in their arms.
...[this lady] in order to keep out of sight the traces of her sinister burn...wears on her left wrist...a broad gold band, which she does not take off day or night.
...all these details [come] from her nearest relative, a serious Christian...In the family itself, they are never spoken of...
This account comes from the book Hungry Souls. It's particularly unnerving because this damned soul was visiting the wealthy widow from his new abode in hell. But notice the element of hope hidden here: God, in His mercy, permitted a deceased man to visit a woman who was complicit in his sin. The damned soul had made his choice—he had chosen hell—but the widow still had the opportunity to choose eternal life over eternal death. She could amend her life and turn back to God.
There are always lessons contained in true ghost stories. God doesn't permit apparitions for mere entertainment.
So there you have it. Two "ghost stories." They're true, which makes them the best kind of story to share around a campfire this autumn.
If you want to gain better understanding of the supernatural—to learn more about ghosts, how angels communicate, and what demons are capable of, according to faithful Catholic teaching and therefore without hysteria or exaggeration—then you'll find what you're looking for at Good Catholic. We're launching a brand-new digital series: Angels and the Supernatural. We hope you'll take this online journey with us!
Did you know that St. Thomas Aquinas put forward belief in ghosts?
Are you aware that we should not fear departed souls, but pray for those in purgatory?
What did you think of the stories shared here?
Share your thoughts with us in the comments below.