By Magdalena Dajka, ’20
November: here in New England, it is the month when nights grow frosty, when, as poet Richard Wilbur reminds us, “a giant absence mopes upon the trees,” and when ghosts roam the earth and fill men’s imaginations. While it is true that in this season, the secular mind becomes obsessed with all things ghoulish, gory, and demonic, the Catholic Church too turns to thoughts of death and the world beyond the material. This is the season of prayer for the suffering souls in Purgatory, of remembering the future fate of one’s own soul, of listening to sublime and somber settings of Requiem Masses–and of reading ghost stories.
And so, on All Hallows’ Eve, students gathered in the Scholars’ Lounge to listen to Dr. Fahey and Mrs. Kitzinger read ghost stories aloud by candlelight. Here one may wonder: are ghost stories suitable reading for Catholics? According to Russell Kirk, whose “Cautionary Note on the Ghostly Tale” Mrs. Kitzinger quoted, good ghost stories are not only suitable, but also beneficial. As Kirk says:
All important literature has some ethical end; and the tale of the preternatural . . . can be an instrument for the recovery of moral order. The better uncanny stories are underlain by a healthy concept of the character of evil. Defying nature, the necromancer conjures up what ought not to rise again this side of Judgment Day. But these dark powers do not rule the universe: by bell, book, and candle, symbolically at least, we can push them down under.
Dr. Fahey also gave an insightful reflection on the value of ghost stories. He began by enlisting the authority of St. Thomas Aquinas, who argues that the souls of the dead can appear to living men. Souls from heaven can appear to help the living; souls from purgatory can appear to ask for prayers; and sometimes even the souls of the damned can appear “for man’s instruction and intimidation.” It is good for men to be scared out of their comfortable lives once in a while, to think on their final end. Ghost stories serve as a memento mori; they remind us that we must prepare for death. As Dr. Fahey pointed out, part of preparing for death is gratitude for life, and part of being grateful for life is praying for our fellow men who have gone before us and are now suffering in Purgatory. Thus, reading ghost stories is a fitting way for Catholics to celebrate Halloween, that holy day which has been so perverted in the modern world, and to usher in the Church’s season of prayer for the dead.
Ghost stories are an imaginative response, cultural and psychological, to the spiritual reality that surrounds us. They arise, as Dr. Fahey notes, in the early eighteenth century, and are strong in formerly Catholic countries. This, he contends, is the result of two forces: the suppression of the teaching on Purgatory (and thus the total neglect of the dead in Protestant countries) and the rise of Enlightenment rationalism. A proper ghost story follows a form that reveals what the Reformers and the Enlightenment philosophers attempted to deny or obscure: the dead are there, and our finite minds cannot compass everything on earth. As one of the characters says in the story Dr. Fahey selected to read, “The Ash Tree”: “there is something more than we know of.” Dr. Fahey encouraged the students to visit Catholic cemeteries during the month of November and pray for the poor souls, and concluded by reading an extended passage from St. Thomas More’s The Supplication of Souls (1529). The work, in which a soul comes forth from Purgatory and speaks (see below), was written as a defense of the Church’s teaching on Purgatory against the radicalism of the Reformers.
As the readings commenced, the weather perfectly suited the occasion, with a warm, blustery wind blowing the last of the autumn leaves from the trees. The only light in the Scholars’ Lounge came from the myriad of candles blazing all around. Students listened in suspense and wonder as Dr. Fahey and Mrs. Kitzinger read some of their favorite ghost stories: M. R. James’s “The Ash Tree” and Russell Kirk’s “There’s a Long, Long Trail a-Winding.” Each story had a different character: the first, with its brooding atmosphere, provided a spine-tingling examination of the consequences of evil; the second, with its implicit reproach of the alienating forces of modernity, was deep and mysterious. The wind howled and whistled about the windows, making the candles flicker, and the library door, propped open to let in fresh air, slammed at the most apropos moments. There could not have been a more fitting way to spend a Halloween night and usher in the month of November.
A Soul from Purgatory Speaks to Mankind
from St. Thomas More’s Supplication of Souls (1529)
Think how you will come here to us . . . remember how nature and Christianity bind you to remember us. If any point of your former favor towards us, any piece of your former love, any kindness for kinsfolk, any care for acquaintances, any favor towards old friends, any spark of charity, any tender spot of pity, any regard for nature, any consideration of what it means to be a Christian, is left in your hearts, never let the malice of a few foolish fellows—malice borne by a few pestilent persons toward the priesthood, religion, and our Christian faith—erase out of your hearts all care of your kinsfolk, all concern for your old friends, and all remembrance of all Christian souls.
Remember our thirst while you sit and drink; our hunger while you are feasting; our restless wakefulness while you are sleeping; our intense and grievous pain while you are playing; our hot, burning fire while you are enjoying yourselves and having fun. So might God make your offspring later remember you. So may God keep you out of here, or not long here, and bring you shortly to that bliss to which, for the love of our Lord, you help bring us. And we will set hand to help you join us there.
There’s a long, long trail a-winding
Into the land of my dreams,
Where the nightingales are singing
And a white moon beams.
There’s a long, long night of waiting
Until my dreams all come true;
Till the day when I’ll be going down
That long, long trail with you.
—Popular World War I Song