Beyond Our Ken

It’s rare that people pay a first visit to our old farmhouse without asking if we have ghosts.

I can hardly blame them; I wondered the same thing the first time I came here. It’s certainly haunted with its own past, standing there under its trees, brooding gently over vanished things like a wise old woman holding tryst with memory. It arrests me every time I pull in the drive.

If my husband is present I cut him a sly smile. We love to creep each other out occasionally in the night watches—an impishly easy task, with all these shadowy corners and creaking floorboards—and then laugh at ourselves the next morning. But he knows that I’m not fool enough to tempt fate with a bald-faced commitment beneath the very roof I have to sleep under that evening.

Instead, I usually reply with a shrug of the shoulders and an ambiguous, “We-ell…” that could go either way. If I’m feeling particularly sure of my company, I may quote C.S. Lewis by adding playfully that, “if my house is haunted, it’s haunted by happy ghosts.” Indeed, the folks who built this place over a century and-a-half ago were good, God-fearing Methodists, and apart from some serious Civil War action in the front yard, the rowdiest times it’s seen were probably Wednesday night prayer meetings in the front parlor.

But any home that’s been around for as long as ours has undoubtedly seen its share of things worth telling. The romance of an old house is its story, and it still happens from time to time that some descendant will show up on our doorstep bearing a thread of the tale we haven’t heard—or, at least, that version of it. Not too long ago, a grandson of the last generation of the original owners came by for a visit and held us enthralled a full summer morning with a running narrative as we wandered over the lawn, down to the barn, up to the house again and through the cool, high-ceilinged rooms. We heard the old, familiar ghost stories, told with such an artful relish that Philip and I couldn’t help exchanging a few grins of genuine glee. There were flesh-and-blood accounts, as well, tales of the men and women who had once been as alive in these rooms as we are today. The old gentleman’s stories made them live once more, if only in the sudden match-flare of the telling.

But there was one story I had never heard before. We were standing on the front porch saying our goodbyes when our guest paused and looked at me with an appeal in his eyes.

“Just one more.”

We fairly begged for it, while his wife tilted her head and shifted her purse on her arm with an indulgent smile. She must have seen that eager boy-light on his face just as plainly as we did.

“Well, it happened like this,” he began, with the drawling ease of the raconteur at home in his calling, “back in the old days it’d get so hot in the summer it was just unbearable, and the folks all used to sit out here on this porch in the evenings trying to keep cool. One night my daddy was sitting with his cousin, who’d come for a long visit. They were just rocking and talking and everything was still—it was long about sunset. All of a sudden, my daddy’s cousin jumped up with a shriek and took off running towards the road. You know the old road used to come down right through the middle of your front pasture there,” he gestured with a flourish, not waiting for a reply. “Well, my daddy just sat here watching her with his mouth gaping—he thought she’d taken a sudden fit as he couldn’t see a blamed thing. And when she came back, she was crying like her heart was broken.”

“’It was my brother,’ she said through her tears. ‘I saw him standing there right at the bend, but when I got to him, he wasn’t there anymore.’

“That would have been strange enough,” said our narrator, in a voice that sent a cold crinkle up the back of my neck, “but for the fact that they got word the next day that her brother had died unexpectedly, to the very hour and moment she’d seen him standing there at the bend in the road.”

The hair stood up on my arms and I felt the goosebumps chilling down my legs. It wasn’t fear I felt so much as awe—a trembling wonder at the thinness of the veil before which we’re all disporting our lives away with so little thought for the mysteries on the other side. I walked along the drive after our guests had gone and stood leaning on the fence, gazing at the spot where so extraordinary and inexplicable a thing had reportedly occurred. A soul taking leave of an absent loved one on the cusp of its long flight? Was it really possible?

We sat out on the porch that night, long after dark, watching the fireflies kindle their elven lamps in the trees around the house and along the old, memory-haunted roadbed through the front pasture. I eased my rocking chair back and forth and then tucked my legs up under me in the cane-bottomed seat.

“Why doesn’t it happen anymore?”

I asked it soft, whispered in the warm gloom, but my husband knew exactly what I was talking about. Why do all such stories seem relegated to the distant past? Why is the average modern life so strangely insulated from the unexplained?

Is it because we’re all inside watching TV? “Distracted from distraction by distraction”? Or have we grown too old and wise as a race to admit that there are things in this world—things Scripture is silent on and Science can’t explain—that we will never understand till we shake off this mortal coil? As Christians we are fortified by the promise that we’re peering through a glass on the eternal verities, that God in his grace has given us a view from a window the world can’t see. But it’s a dark glass, and things pass before it that our time-bound vision just can’t distinguish yet. Like a character in a George MacDonald fantasy, we’re all growing into our eyes and learning the meaning of a dual citizenship. We’re learning to see what’s at the end of our nose.

I’m no theologian, but my guess is that modern Christianity has lost much of its romance simply because we think we’re already there. We’ve talked the mystery out of it and we’ve slapped a tidy label over the imponderables. Anything that can’t be explained is suspect or tossed on the rubbish heap. We have lost our fairy birthright of the What-If.

What if souls were really permitted impossible leave-takings? What if there was life out there in the star-hung heavens, in another galaxy than our own? What if the scrim were really so thin and time so nonlinear that one could experience a sense of place deeply enough to actually share it for one fleeting moment with the ones who had once loved it as they do—or at least catch the rustle of a silken skirt in the hallway behind them?

I’m not making a case for ghosts, of course, but for the mere character of a God who can do anything. Who is more fierce, more wildly tender, more untamed and untrammeled than our craziest dreams could make him out to be.

Not different than what our Bible so faithfully tells us, but more.

We’re all trembling on the brink of a wildness that is terrifying and exquisite beyond anything our earthly experience could prepare us for. But I have to wonder if God doesn’t occasionally drop hints of the surprises he has in store: glimpses of a goodness we couldn’t bear even if we were able to conceive of it.

A few years ago I had the inexpressible privilege of watching at my grandmother’s deathbed. I was holding one of her tiny hands, still so lovely and ladylike yet strangely ashen with a marble pallor. My mother had her other hand and Daddy was at her head. I will never forget the peace of that place or the curious sense of joy that kept tugging at my grieving heart. I remember there was an April breeze coming in at the open window, lifting the sheets lightly and fanning wet cheeks, and the day outside was pale and silvery, as if too much sunlight would be an insult to our sorrow. We had been there for hours, noting the least change and talking quietly about the things we loved best about her, when suddenly I was completely overwhelmed by the thought of how beautiful it must be to die surrounded by those who love you so dearly—to be escorted thus from one love to Another. What a crown to a life, wiping away all the ravages of suffering and disease and leaving only beauty and blessing in its wake.

I saw the tired features relax; an unmistakable calm came over the dear face that had been agitated by Alzheimer’s for so many years. It was incredible—like a healing before our very eyes.

And it was then I knew beyond all doubt and misgiving that there was a Presence in that room: a Glory that would be our undoing if it were fully revealed. The air was heavy with it, yet not oppressed; I looked at my mother and I knew that she sensed it, too. I have heard people speak of such things; I have read of it in books. But I know now what their accounts have been fumbling for. I could never explain it to another. But eternity was so, so near. Or, rather, a curtain was lifted, wavered a bit, and I saw how near it’s been all along.

It was an experience that marked me for life and I thank God for such a peep behind the scenes, fleeting and fragmentary as it was. But we can’t dwell in such sublimities, of course, or we’d be no good for the ordinary blessedness of the common hours. To live unceasingly aware would be, as George Eliot so prudently put it, “like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence.”

It is good for me, however, when I find myself too “well-wadded with stupidity”, to be shaken out of my complacent notions of a safe universe and a tame God by a nudge of the incomprehensible.

Even if it’s only a bump in the night that makes me think that the lights can stay on upstairs just this once.

originally published June 2011 on The Rabbit Room

13 Responses to “Beyond Our Ken”

  1. Kate says:

    Thank you, I enjoyed and appreciated it so much.

  2. The hair stood on my arms and goosebumps went down my legs, too!

    My maternal grandmother was an identical twin and she and her sister were as close as twins can be. They lived in the same town and frequently one would pick up the phone to call the other and she would already be on the phone intending to call her.

    My grandmother was ill for some time, but her sister died first and somewhat unexpectedly. They did not tell my grandmother that her sister had died. But very shortly after her sister died, my grandmother said, “I want to go where Cxxxx is.” My grandmother died very shortly after that and they were buried together. Even in her dementia and without being told, my grandmother knew her twin sister was gone and wanted to go with her.

    I’ve pondered the same questions, Lanier, of why we don’t experience things like this as frequently any longer. I think part of it is that we are just out of touch with the spiritual world (and I don’t mean that in some New Age-y way). Your comment about thinking we are already there is very insightful. Lots of good food for thought.

  3. Monica says:

    I so enjoy reading your posts! THis one made me cry because I have had similar experiences with loved ones and I know that my grandmother isn’t long for this world and I will be right by her side as she awaits her escort into eternity! I think that we don’t see the things that generations past have seen because we don’t have the faith maybe that they had then. We don’t “believe” in the spirit world… all the noise and distractions as you said, many factors contribute to our experiences or lack of. Wonderful post! Thanks for sharing.

  4. Allison says:

    I really enjoyed this reflection, Lanier–especially the thought that our ordinary modes of existence are all a trembling on the brink of something bigger. When I first started studying philosophy, people were worried that I wouldn’t be able to recognize the “otherness” of the world anymore. Personally, however, I find that quite the opposite has happened. To study philosophy is to learn how much we *don’t* know. It’s a real tragedy that so many of us are made complacent by the vision of things we think we know.

  5. Cassie P. says:

    So glad you posted this! Thanks for sharing- your words are breathtakingly beautiful and convicting. Blessings to you and yours!

  6. Teresa says:

    What a beautiful essay, Lanier. I liked it very much.
    And you are so right to recognize the great blessing of being with your grandmother at the death, and the blessing that it must have been to her. I experienced the same with my dear mother-in-law and it is so very sacred.
    I wanted to tell you I also liked your phrase “the ordinary blessedness of the common hours”. Wonderful.
    Thank you for sharing with us.

  7. Josh says:

    I first read this when you posted it at The Rabbit Room, and it’s just as marvelous now as it was then. 🙂

    It reminds me of that passage from The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe:

    “Is he — quite safe?”

    “Safe?” said Mr. Beaver… “Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”

  8. Maria says:

    Ah, Lanier. You’ve inspired me and moved me deeply once again. So beautifully written and so much food for thought. As someone who has always needed “something more” since the time I was a child, I have been banging away at the Great Divide (in a Christian way) all my life. As a result, I no longer discuss my spiritual life, because when I share even the tiniest things, people simply do not believe them. And I think, “Goodness!” and fall silent. “That’s merely a pebble with which I was testing the waters. What if I told you the rest?” And I think there are many who fall silent for this reason, and also because some things are too intimate to relate.

    You are so right in saying that “We’ve talked the mystery out of [Christianity] and we’ve slapped a tidy label over the imponderables.” The best thing anyone can do, imho, is get rid of their Bible commentaries (you know, those strictly historico-grammatical ones), and sit down to read the Word of God with humility and sincere prayer to see what it *really* says. All the explanations are humdrum: they fall so very short, and block the truly endless layers of mystery, magnificence, and allegory that are really there. Forget what you’ve always heard that it meant, and think, “What would I think this meant if someone standing right beside me said it to me in plain English?” If it seems to hint at something wild, don’t brush that off, but chase it down, because it’s true…even if, especially if, it seems to contradict things you’ve been taught. Read the Saints; read the Christian mystics (and read Orthodoxy by G.K. Chesterton…it’s not at all a dry theological treatise as the title would imply, but is very much outside-the-box.); and realize that anything is possible–right now in 2011–and that there is no limit to how close you can get to God in this life. (This past year I’ve had a setback and doubted that last part, which has sort of been a life motto, and you’ve challenged me here to revisit it. Thank you! 🙂

    Spend time with God as with a “real person”: kneel to pray, then fall silent because you really didn’t have anything to say, but just wanted to be with Him for a while. A friend of mine takes quiet, outdoor walks in the wee-sma’s (in all weather!) with Him, leaving physical space for Him on the path beside her, and her spiritual life is indescribable. Okay, I’ll quit. Grin. Only you made me want so badly to say publicly to cast off every limit with regard to Him, and all preconceived notions. I really think a lot of the hot pursuit of bad spirituality in our culture is because the secular church is guilty of denying the power and presence of deep Christian mysticism and miracles, and humans desperately need mystery. When I think how our culture first used science to discredit the holy mysteries of the Church, then lately has handed people of a lot of mystical, completely unfounded…um, slop in their place…oh, I’d better stop now. (smile)

    Your grandmother’s death…too tenderly portrayed for me to feel anything less than clumsy by commenting upon. I wish for my own family that all could see that the miracle of death is as great or greater than the “miracle of birth” that everyone discusses. You’ve shown it here. How we trusted Him for all the circumstances surrounding our birth before we were “smart enough to know better,” and now that we’ve been “around the block,” instead of life experience teaching us greater faith on our entrances and exits, we’ve learned unfaith and fear. I suppose it’s no wonder He said to become again like a little child. What a testimony is a peaceful Christian home-going.

    The story about the cousin’s brother literally gave me, also, goosebumps–arms and legs! I had to laugh…because one especially likes goosebumps in October and November.

    And lastly, I appreciate much of your phrasing, but this, particularly, was so charming, that it made me stop in a sudden realization of pleasure and admiration: “The old gentleman’s stories made them live once more, if only in the sudden match-flare of the telling.” “The sudden match-flare of the telling.” Wonderfully said.

    Thank you for all of this.

  9. Rachel Dettmann says:

    Hitting a tree revealed the veil to me. Our universe is alongside of Everything…just there. I saw the incandescent shimmer and felt a flexible fabric bend, almost giving way to my pressing…then a door of light. We must be surrounded by thousands of doors…and we know whose face we will see on the other side. Death has no sting…Its only an awakening to glorious realities that have been there all along. It makes the promised future resurrection so much more exciting….for then we will see the spiritual and physical realms unite in full without a veil.

  10. JJ says:

    Lovely! Brings to mind lines from Goudge’s Little White Horse: “But in this world nothing stays still, and in the fullness of time (they) became very old indeed, and tired of life in this world, so they took off their bodies and laid them aside and went joyfully away into the next.”

  11. Molly says:

    I enjoyed this post. I live in an 1830s farmhouse, and my family has only had a few of what you could call ghostly experiences. One night, my parents woke up to the doorbell ringing – one of those old-fashioned, turn-key doorbells. My father went to the door, and no one was there. A few days later, an obituary showed up in the newspaper – a woman who had spent her childhood and most of her adult life in the house passed away that very night; her family built the house and lived in it for about 150 years. I like to think that she checked in on her way back home.

    The priest at my grandfather’s funeral spoke about “thin places”, a concept my Irish grandpa very strongly believed in, and which I think your posting exemplifies.

  12. LeAnna says:

    This post hit home for me in several ways. My Grandpa is currently in his last days, dying from Hodgkin’s lymphoma. My Mom and Grandma are caring for him at home, and while each day is closer to his home-going, the things he has told those that are with him give me chills! I truly believe that our loving, and gracious Father God is giving him glimpses of his eternity. He has made comments about the beauty and splendor, and how millions of people are worshiping and singing and how all things are being renewed. He’s said how he finally figured out math (he never went past the 8th grade), and has so much more to learn. This all coming from a man who is not being medicated, and neither has the energy to turn his head. God is calling him home, and it excites us to hear him talk of the things he is seeing. We are so ready for him to go on home. It’s painful, yes. But how can we be downcast when the glory of God himself has visited him there in his bedroom, and showed him of what’s to come?

    This earth is not our home, and may God give us all a yearning for what waits beyond it. Heaven must never lose its glitter.

  13. Maria says:

    Oh yes, the beauty of the strength of God is amazing and without doubt humbling. I too believe that God can do anything. ANYTHING. If only we were still more often. I do believe that is the difference between days of old and now. In modern times many people are preoccupied with their lives and their things. I find myself struggling with this very thing. I do not sit in silence enough, watching fireflies, drinking tea, thinking about scripture, in anticipation that God could show me His majesty at any moment. But in those moment when I do slow down, He shows Himself to me, whether it be the beauty of a rose opening, the splendor of a sunset or the peace that even though life is hard, full of trials, He is there with me.

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