One of things that people very often ask you as a priest, if you have done an exorcism or if you have any experience of evil spirits. Over the course of my own priestly life I have been asked on a number of occasions to visit houses and say prayers and blessings in places in which very strange things apparently are happening. It’s an area in which I am very careful about, most things of this nature are related to mental ill health, delusions and fantasies. People who see ghosts, hear voices, think that voices are coming to them, usually are unwell or are becoming unwell. It’s an area in which you have to be careful not to increase superstition and certainly not to confirm people’s delusions. Some form of discernment has to take place, quick or prolonged, short-term or long-term, sometimes it helps you to deal exactly with what is going on, rather than something imaginary.
On one occasion, a number of years ago, I met a Jesuit priest while visiting America, his name was Fr Walter Halleron. It turned out that this same priest, as a young Jesuit novice was taken to an Exorcism. The exorcism became famous it became the basis of the novel by Peter Blatty called the Exorcist. While saying that the graphic portrayal was not what happened, what did happen, he said, was very frightening. He left it at that and I asked no more. I rather suspect what was frightening was the outer manifestations of the illness of the young girl.
I suppose caution has to be the key word. We do not live in the middle ages, ancient times or any other times, those were times in which superstitions abounded. We do not want to increase superstition, false ideas or medieval notions. In the same way as ancient forms of medicine would be out of place in the modern world, so ancient ideas of spirit s and ghosts and the underworld are also out of place.
Strangely in the middle of the resurrection story, the very notion of ghosts and spirits appears. Its clear that in the mind of those who see Jesus, they think he is a ghost, a spirit, some force from the underworld.
But whatever form the risen body takes – the Gospel writers seem to want to tell us that he is not a ghost, in other words, something that is still dead. They can touch him. He eats before them. Infact, it would have been easy for them to describe Jesus in ghostly terms, middle eastern people of those days and even the most civilised mind of the time would have been able to accept and understand this.
However, this is what they don’t do. But the reality of what they are seeing is veiled from them, they just cannot put their finger on. They recognise him and yet they don’t recognise him, they are joyful at seeing him and yet they hold back, even Mary Magdala thinks him to be the gardener. There is something the same and yet something different about him, the wounds are the same wounds he was inflicted with, he should be dead and yet he is alive in a new way. His body was once dead and yet he alive and transformed in some way. Its clear that they are struggling to tell us what it is like, because they don’t understand it themselves.
It is clear also that they don’t want to say that Jesus was a ghost but that they do want to say he possesses a body which is somehow transformed and risen, not like Lazarus body which was a body resuscitated. This is the same Jesus they knew and yet different.
The language of the resurrection and these ancient times is difficult for a modern mind to comprehend. Does it mean that we have to buy into spirits and ghosts or is it simply saying in the terms best known to them that he appeared alive in a way that they had never experienced and really couldn’t at the end of the day comprehend.
Sometimes some people still live in these two worlds, the world of spirits and the living. You sometimes meet people who tell you that great aunt Gemima returned to give them a message. You sometimes meet people who say those butterflies that appear are great auntie Lizzie taking her leave. The world of spirits and ghosts is the world of fear and darkness and very often superstition. It can be used to trap people, to con people, to deceive people and to frighten people.
What better thing is there to believe in than life. Easter is about life. Its about life in its full sense. Jesus is alive and we are alive in him. He breathes again and eats again and talks again and is present again in a new way – it is the story of life. This is a language that is used is the language of life. Easter tells us to live, to really live.
Spirits and ghosts don’t worry about them. Let them belong to books, TV programmes and films. Let them frighten children and people that are easily frightened. Easter is about the living and about life. The apostles are no longer afraid when they see the Lord, their joy is unbounded.