Each night, somewhere around midnight, the ghosts come out. The phantoms, the wolfmen, the bigfeet and the Grays, too. Accompanied by eerie music, the denizens of the dark swarm through the airwaves and arrive on your television and your radio. Whether it’s the all-night lineup of “GhostHunter,” “MonsterHunter” and “UFOHunter” on the Outdoor Life Network or the xenobiologists and remote viewers on Coast to Coast AM, as soon as the lights go out, America reveals an insatiable appetite for the weird, the mysterious and the unexplained.
Paranormal activity presents some difficulty from the point of view of Catholic theology because very little has been definitively proclaimed about it. Direct consultation with demons is condemned, as are the various arts by which the fearful and fatalistic seek to know the future in advance, but there’s a massive gray area where legitimate disagreement can thrive.
What is going on, for example, when someone foresees the death of a relative in a dream? Or has a strange sense of foreboding that prevents them from going to work on September 11? What does it mean if someone “sees auras” or seems to be able to heal illnesses with a touch?
It’s possible that it’s all demonic, but that does not seem likely to me. I’m not talking here about people who go out searching for preternatural powers. The risks of spiritual pride and gluttony are well known, and sufficiently harped upon elsewhere. I’m talking about folks who have weird or paranormal experiences that they did not seek out.
The “just ignore it” approach, often advocated by spiritual guides like St. John of the Cross, is no doubt good advice, but it’s not very useful if you’re talking to someone outside of the faith or if you’re a parent trying to deal with strange things happening to a teenage daughter. At any neo-pagan gathering, there are always a handful of lapsed Catholics who left the Church because they experienced strange phenomena and no one in the Church was willing and able to help them understand it.
The simple answer is to say that all such strangeness is evil unless it happens to a holy Christian, in which case it is a special grace granted by God. If St. Clare sees a vision, it is a gift from God and not the sin of “recourse to clairvoyance.” If St. Joseph receives a dream telling him not to fear to take Mary as his wife, he does not place his soul at risk of being deceived by demons. If St. Joseph of Cupertino and St. Christina the Astonishing go flying about the church, it is on account of their simplicity, not their pride.
I suspect, however, that charismatic or miraculous abilities are sometimes granted to those who are not model Christians. The Bible tells us, for example, that prophetic dreams were given to pagan kings in order that the glory of God could be made known in his servants Joseph and Daniel. The Magi were led to the crèche of Christ via their astrological arts. The Cumaean Sibyl, the ancient oracle memorialized on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, is said to have predicted the birth of Jesus.
This doesn’t mean that everyone who seems to have unusual powers has been granted a special gift by God. There are demons to consider, of course, and also the possibility of madness — though I suspect that there are often sane people condemned to lunatic asylums or put on personality-damaging drug regimens because they have visions. Neurological abnormalities could account for some phenomena, and others might be the result of a particularly acute subconscious mind.
These matters are difficult to understand because they are hard to study. Scientific attempts to demonstrate psychic powers or charismatic abilities are notoriously unsuccessful. I think this is not because these things don’t exist, but because they don’t manifest themselves in the way people would expect or like them to.
I suspect that many people who claim to be psychic really have had a single vision or dream that was genuinely inspired. There is a temptation, however, to get carried away. A lone prophetic intuition doesn’t give you license to call yourself a prophet. If God uses you once as an instrument of healing, the experience doesn’t put you in the same category as a faith healer. When the real experience fails to repeat itself, the imagination starts to suggest all sorts of phantasmagoria and strange occurrences that contribute to a “psychic” or “sensitive” or “charismatic” identity.
The way to avoid this danger — as well as the dangers of self-delusion, demonic suggestion, spiritual pride and untreated mental illness — is through humility. Obedience to a competent spiritual director who has experience with these things is an important element of discernment — and a safeguard against the sins of superstition, spiritual gluttony and presumption.
And, as St. Paul wrote in his letter to the Galatians, “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. Against such there is no law. Now those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified their flesh with its passions and desires. If we live in the Spirit, let us also follow the Spirit.”
Melinda Selmys is head writer at VulgataMagazine.org.