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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.


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