Halloween has now been and gone, leaving behind it the usual trail of controversies over how religiously-minded persons should treat the festival: as a harmless piece of spooky fun, or as an unholy feast of Satan merely disguised as an unholy piece of spooky fun. Very much in the latter camp is Fr. Jaromir Smejkal, parish priest for the village of Kurdejov in the Czech Republic, who made headlines after stamping on and destroying a number of carved pumpkins placed out on display in a local park by schoolchildren.
According to Fr. Smejkal, “I acted according to my faith and duty to be a father and protector of the children entrusted to me and removed these symbols,” claiming the very idea of Halloween had been created in a “heathen, contemporary world” as a perverted satanic inversion of the adjoining more genuinely Catholic feast of All Souls’ Day.
Fr. Smejkal was generally presented as a kind of cartoon spoilsport, in line with the usual depiction of Christians as figures of fun in the mainstream secular media (if an imam had performed a similar act, the incident would simply not have been reported…), but the man himself claimed his motives were pure. “Try to remember that my duty as a figure of authority and a priest is to protect children and families from hidden evil,” Fr. Smejkal protested.
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
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What most of the media who mocked him—it didn’t help that there was a mid-’90s alternative rock group called The Smashing Pumpkins, creating an easy instant headline for journalists—seemed to find most amusing of all was the simple fact of the sincerity of Fr. Smejkal’s faith. It is not so much the admittedly comical idea that he believed specifically that the pumpkins represented the forces of “hidden evil” which offends modern materialistic sensitivities so much as the fact he believed in the existence of any such hidden spiritual forces at all in the first place.
To the average modern mind, this very proposition seems inherently suspect: where, such people might ask Fr. Smejkal, is your proof that such things exist? To which Fr. Smejkal might well answer with a question of his own, namely: What has happened to your faith that such things exist?
Another staple of the Halloween season these days is TV ghost-hunting shows. In Britain, this year’s major such seasonal offering was the BBC series Uncanny, whose Halloween episode featured an interesting story of three theology students sharing a house in Oxford during the 1990s. The students felt so disturbed by an oppressive spiritual presence lurking there that they felt the need to call in a Catholic clergyman to perform an exorcism.
Theology students should be well-versed in matters of faith and belief, but the program itself adopts a regular tactic of asking its viewers, “Are you Team Skeptic, or Team Believer?” utilizing the standard on-screen “Mulder and Scully” device of asking two contrasting experts, one who believes in ghosts and one who does not, what they think about each week’s new case. The strange thing is, however, that both parties talk about ghosts in terms of much the same thing: proof. Whenever those on Team Believer are asked why they think poltergeists, discarnate spirits, or the immortal soul of man might be real phenomena, they are never allowed to simply answer: because I just believe.
At a young age, the host of the show, Danny Robins, became interested in the search for proof of the reality of ghosts. Robins’ family lost their Catholic faith some time before he was even born. In an interview promoting his new series, Robins explained:
I’ve been obsessed by ghosts since I was a kid…I think I was very driven by the fact that I grew up in a belief-free household. My Mum had been brought up Catholic but become a devout atheist…from an early age, I was fascinated by the idea that I might be missing out on something—some other layer of existence, magic if you like. Some people would have found God, I found ghosts!….When I was in my early twenties…I was convinced I was having a heart attack and hallucinated angels. It turned out it was a panic attack, but that moment gave me a profound fear of death that still remains, and, of course, the antidote to death is ghosts…”
The traditional “antidote to death,” of course, was Christianity—but that no longer seems to be available to many people. Instead of faith, they need proof of matters like life after death—generally, that kind of hard, physical proof which can allegedly only be provided by science.
This is not as purely modern a phenomenon as we might today think. The great English writer and Catholic convert G.K. Chesterton maintained a watching brief on the previous Spiritualism craze of the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, noting how peculiar it seemed that both believers and skeptics alike had developed the habit of attending séances armed with devices like cameras, thermometers, and sound-recorders to see if they could capture definitive scientific proof that the performing spirit-mediums were either outright frauds or genuine workers of wonders.
Chesterton did not hold Spiritualism itself in total disdain. Instead, he sometimes viewed it as a potential step on the path toward future belief in the true religion of Rome. After all, as I myself put it in a recent article elsewhere detailing Chesterton’s youthful experiences with the Ouija Board, “At least Spiritualists believed in spirits of some kind, even though these were not the Holy Spirit, whereas the early Richard Dawkinses of his day did not even do this.” Chesterton did not hold Spiritualism itself in total disdain. Instead, he sometimes viewed it as a potential step on the path toward future belief in the true religion of Rome.Tweet This
However, what Chesterton disliked just as much as the spoilsport scientific skeptic who attended a séance only to unmask and spoil it was the willing scientific believer who attended a séance only to try and prove it was all true instead, by subjecting it to systematic investigation with tools taken straight from the laboratory. Very few Catholics went to church and took a sample of the Host home to chemically analyze following its Transubstantiation during Mass; instead, they just had faith the regular miracle really had again occurred as the priest promised.
Faith is supposed to be its own reward. That, said Chesterton, is the sign of a true religion. That so many Spiritualists sought instead to try and prove their religion was real, rather than simply having faith it was so, provided to Chesterton real proof that Spiritualism was not actually a true religion at all but a sham. And yet…
In his 1906 essay Skepticism and Spiritualism, Chesterton pointed out that just because a certain medium is fake, it does not mean they all necessarily are: fakes only exist because there is something genuine in existence to be imitated in the first instance. What would be the utility of a fake banknote if there were not any genuine banknotes existing beforehand for it to imitate? How could you hope to spend one, otherwise?
Likewise, just because ghosts suspiciously often refused to pop up and provide definitive proof of themselves within the cold, antiseptic confines of a scientist’s laboratory, as opposed to within the more romantic bounds of a traditional haunted house, perhaps this just meant such things inherently could not be studied due to some innate quality of their very nature: “Students of physiology and surgery might learn something from a man suddenly stabbing another man on a platform in a lecture theatre. But no man would stab another man on a platform in a lecture theatre.”
The ironic thing was, however, that for Chesterton, Spiritualist believers were the ones who had the most pressing need to accept such facts, not Spiritualism’s many debunkers:
I do not mind Spiritualism, in so far as it is fierce and credulous. In that it seems to me to be akin to sex, to song, to the great epics and the great religions, to all that has made humanity heroic. I do not object to Spiritualism in so far as it is spiritualistic. I do object to it in so far as it is scientific…no religion was quite so blasphemous as to pretend that it was scientifically investigating its god to see what he was made of. Bacchanals did not say, “Let us discover whether there is a god of wine.” They enjoyed wine so much that they cried out naturally to the god of it…When I hear that the Spiritualists have begun to carve great golden wings upon their flying tables, I shall recognize the atmosphere of a faith. When I hear them accused of worshipping a planchette [Ouija Board] made of ivory and sardonyx (whatever that is) I shall know that they have become a great religion. Meanwhile, I fear I shall remain one of those who believe in spirits much too easily ever to become a Spiritualist. Modern people think the supernatural so improbable that they want to see it. I think it so probable that I leave it alone. Spirits are not worth all this fuss; I know that, for I am one myself…
But how did Chesterton “know” this final fact? Had he photographed his soul, weighed it, chemically analyzed or measured it? No. He simply had faith that this was so. Can ultimate scientific proof of such things ever actually be provided, in any case?
One Halloween many years ago, during a former career, talk among a group of schoolgirls I was teaching naturally turned to ghosts and Ouija Boards. One student present informed me solemnly that she believed in neither. I asked her why. She replied, “Because, when I used one once, after I asked ‘Is there anybody there?’ the glass moved to ‘NO’ by itself.” I still cannot quite work out if this was a manifestation of profound idiocy or of profound wisdom on her behalf.