Reflection on “Apparitions and Visitations”
by Rev. John E. Gibbons
Delivered on Sunday, April 8, 2012
at The First Parish in Bedford, Massachusetts
Long Winter by Tim Nolan
So much I’ve forgotten
the close insects
the shoot–the drip–
the spray of the sprinkler
the heat of the Sun
the flush of your face
the high noon
the high grass
the patio ice cubes
the buzz of them–
the weeds–the dear
like alien life forms–
all Dr. Suessy and odd–
here we go again–
we are turning around
again–this will all
happen over again–
and again–it will–
Apparitions & Visitations
One day I was at a conference of health care professionals when the speaker asked if anyone present had ever been visited by a dead relative. No one moved. Then a few hands inched upward, and everyone began to squirm. But the hands in the air kept multiplying until the vast majority of people in the room held a hand in the air.
What a relief I thought. I am not alone.
Jesus raised people from the dead, and He came back from the dead Himself, chatting amiably with friends and followers who had perhaps seen Him die. Saint Paul brought a boy back from the dead; the story is told that Paul was up late talking, and the boy fell asleep sitting in a window, and fell to his death; Paul interrupted his talk, went downstairs, brought the boy back to life, and went back upstairs to finish his story.
Three men were walking a trail in Yellowstone National Park, fly rods in hand. Suddenly one stopped and said There’s my dad coming down the trail. The other men stopped also. No one spoke. A hawk sailed over. The wind combed through the pines. The man’s father had been dead for many years. He had often taken his sons fishing in Yellowstone as the boys were growing up. Some things should be accepted for what they are. Under the rocks are the words, as Norman Maclean wrote, in his fishing memoir.
Saint Bernadette Soubirous was fetching firewood along a river when she saw the Madonna hovering in the air. She spoke to Bernadette in French and Latin. For more than a hundred years since that moment, people from all over the world have walked along that river, watching, listening, praying. I have done so.
One time when my cousin was in college he fell asleep in a house by a lake and when he awoke there was a woman with grey hair pulled into a bun and a dark flower-print dress sitting on the stool next to the couch looking at him. She smiled and leaned down and touched his head gently. He sat up suddenly, wide awake. There was no one there.
Five times in recent years a voice has whispered Paul in my ear, and when I turn there is no one there. I am not the only one this has happened to, even in my own house.
I know a young man whose cousin was killed. A few weeks later he was asleep when he felt a disc pressing his stomach and chest and shoulder, pressing down with enough force to wake him. He sat up in bed and saw a disc of light hovering in the air. He says he knew instantly it was his cousin’s spirit. He reached over and turned on the light and the disc of light vanished.
There was a woman who came to America from Italy. She was a most kind, generous, and vivacious soul. Her house was always filled with visitors enjoying food and debate. She dearly loved birds and kept one as a pet. She was a devout woman and lived a long life. When she was buried the birds in the trees around her plot grew so loud you could hardly hear. Her granddaughter told me later that a small wild bird had flown into the house before the funeral and perched a while in the kitchen. When the granddaughter opened the front door the bird shot straight out of the house and was not seen again.
In the house where I grew up sometimes there would be a strong rapping on the front door and when my dad went to open it no one was there. Maybe this was a prank every time, but maybe not. Maybe it was a former resident or relative, now deceased. Maybe.
There was a man named George who had been in a war and never quite came home. He was an edgy man, especially harsh to his uncle Johnny. One day Johnny suddenly died from rheumatic fever. George was racked with guilt. On the day of the funeral, as the family trooped back into the kitchen after Johnny’s funeral, the phone rang. George answered it. There was a long silence as he listened to the speaker at the other end of the line. George hung up the phone and fell into a kitchen chair, slack-jawed. That was Johnny, he said. He told me he forgave me and everything was fine between us and that I shouldn’t feel so guilty. To the day he died George swore that it was Johnny on the phone that day.
A father died and his daughter climbed up to the lectern in church to eulogize him. She said in his last days she asked him if he was afraid to die. He said no, he was sure he would be reunited with family and friends who had died before him, but that he had been frightened by a dream he’d had about the afterlife. He had dreamed that after his death he was walking along a dirt road, passing people occasionally, and he was terrified that one of the strangers he passed on the road was Jesus, and he didn’t recognize Him. He wanted all of us to hear his dream, said the daughter, so that you would all keep this in mind: Whatever you did for the least of my brothers, you did for me.
A girl is asleep in her college dorm room. She feels a pressure on her stomach and chest and shoulder, pressing down with enough force to wake her. She sat up and saw her grandfather at the foot of the bed. He had died a month before. I love you, he said. Don’t worry about a thing. Everything is going to be just fine. She felt a great peace and confidence and reassurance and fell back to sleep. Thornton Wilder’s last words in The Bridge of San Luis Rey: “But soon we shall die . . . and we ourselves shall be loved for a while and forgotten. But the love will have been enough; all those impulses to love return to the love that made them. Even memory is not necessary for love. There is a land of the living and a land of the dead and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning.”
A nun once told me about her vibrant and lovely sister. The sister was flayed by cancer far too young. Sitting with her sister the nun in the hospital room, moments before her death, the sister said, intently, I am going to be just fine. Everything will be alright. Months later, the nun had a dream in which she was walking along the beach and her sister walked up to her and said again, I am going to be just fine. Everything will be alright. And the nun awoke and knew all was well.
The Gospel of Mark: When he saw that they were straining at the oars against an adverse wind, he came towards them early in the morning, walking on the sea . . . when they saw him walking on the sea, they thought it was a ghost and cried out; for they all saw him and were terrified. But immediately he spoke to them and said, Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid. Then he got into the boat with them and the wind ceased. And they were utterly astounded, for they did not understand . . .
• • •
For all of my years training as a scientist and clinician, I have had experiences that I cannot explain away in sensible fashion, and I have come to the conclusion that sensible explanations only block the gift you may receive. I saw my brother-in-law’s spirit leave a river canyon the day he drowned. I heard my dead grandfather call my name as I was wading along a trout stream. I felt a tremendous call to forgive my enemies the instant I finished drinking from the chalice that Blessed Basil Moreau used to celebrate Mass. I have spoken with the dead in my dreams. I knew the moment my beloved cousin died in a wreck far away. I have learned to wonder and ache and dream at this end of Thornton Wilder’s bridge, as I see and hear from people at the other end. I believe with all my heart and soul that there is more on heaven and earth than I could ever dream of, and that this is God, from whom all blessings flow.
Last week Bill Schulz said, “Leave it to the Unitarian Universalists: when April Fools Day and Palm Sunday fall on the same day, you can depend upon us to celebrate April Fools!” I don’t think that’s quite true, possibly not even close to being true…for as Bill’s sermon demonstrated: despite the persistence of violence and horror and profuse causes for despair, hope and life are indeed persistent, resurgent, perhaps indomitable. That’s not a foolish conclusion, but one redolent of Good Friday and hopeful of Easter.
Yes, the Unitarian Universalist approach to Easter is varied. It’s been known that some people come to UU churches on Easter Sunday only for the perverse delight of discovering what theological jiu-jitsu, what pretzel of preaching, what learned legerdemain and semantic sleight-of-hand ministers upon our congregations may foist.
True, some today will opt for a celebration of eggs and bunnies, tulips and peeps and ham. In church, I have heard bad jokes about Jesus rising, seeing or not seeing his shadow and predictions of the weather to come. Another notorious Easter sermon in the 1950’s, preached by the father of one of our parishioners, disconcerted all of Boston and was titled, “Upsy Daisy!”
And yet two nights ago we here did have a pensive, somber and glorious Good Friday service, complete with communion with nearly 100 participants. And today others among us arose at dawn for a sunrise service. And there is glorious sacred music, even a trumpet! But it’s true, however, that Unitarian Universalists typically rely rather heavily on Easter as metaphor.
This morning, however, I will attempt the opposite. I’ve decided to take the whole resurrection thing literally. What would it be like if it happened just exactly as the Gospel of Mark described? What would it be like if we were visited by one who had, we thought, died?
Reading, now hearing, Paul Myers’ essay on Apparitions and Visitations reminds me of times when, indeed, I do a double-take when I sometimes see my long-gone father, plaid golf cap on his head, driving down The Great Road behind the wheel of some old Buick Skylark. Or when I hear my mother’s voice, even now, telling me “Don’t slouch! Stand up straight!”
You know, there was a 19th century Unitarian catechism written by James Freeman Clarke – one of those question-and-answer things – that asked among other things, “Where do the dead go when they die?” And the approved official answer, presumably memorized by dutiful Unitarian youth – though with what I have to assume was unintended humor – was this: “Where do the dead go when they die?, the catechism asked. The official approved answer, “Not very far!”
From Paul Myers’ essay, to what I see and hear with my own eyes and ears, I find myself in increasing agreement. The dead do not go far. So several days ago I put the question to you on our email listserv. I asked if you have been visited by a dead relative. The remainder of this reflection consists of your words in response to my question.
– – – –
“While planning my very difficult alcoholic sister’s memorial service, I was in my other sister’s upstairs bathroom for some quiet time. It was very quiet and I could reflect on the important things we needed to say an do….. I was sad, but not crying and then I heard my dead sister’s laugh! It was so clearly her laugh and seemed so very real; it didn’t sound like it came from the house or even inside my head but from around me, even external to the house. I even looked up at hearing it. It was the laugh she made when she thought we were making a big deal about absolutely nothing important. I took it as a sign that she was in a good place and not to worry about her anymore. It was very spooky; maybe heavenly.”
– – – –
“I had a miscarriage in the years between our other childrens’ births. I was about 10-11 weeks pregnant. The miscarriage was so unexpected as my previous pregnancies had been fairly easy. My husband and I went to my obstetrician’s office where I had a D&C. I had difficulty sleeping that night and came downstairs to our family room to just sit and be with my sadness and feelings of loss. I just knew the baby had been a girl and I found myself quietly crying as I stared out our darkened patio/porch doors. I know I was fully awake. Anyway, I saw a small ball of bright golden light–just about the size of a tennis ball–appear about 3-4 feet in front of me. It hovered there for a few seconds, then slowly moved out through the glass doors, getting smaller and smaller as I watched. I’ve always felt that even though her body had left mine hours before, her spirit was moving on then–saying goodbye, maybe? Who knows? But I felt calm and so very comforted after…and I slept.
– – – –
Once when I was caught in a family conflict over my sister’s care, my mother “came to me in a dream” and said, “Oh Bunny, you know your niece has always been a bit paranoid.” Truly the niece is agoraphobic and has a lot of fears. I took it to heart and found it comforting as if she had really said it.
It was very real to me that the message was from my mother, but I don’t think for a minute that she spoke to me from the grave. I’d guess it came from my own memories and understanding of what she would have thought.
– – – – –
A Carleton-Willard resident, now 98 years old, told me that her beloved father died when she was only in her 20’s. All her life she has kept a photo of her father close at hand. “When I’m in trouble,” she told me, “when there’s a decision I have to make, when I don’t know what to do…I look long and hard at his photo. And then I know what it is that I must do.”
– – – –
Back in 2000, a large pine fell on my car in the driveway, breaking the power and phone lines. No heat, phone. Finally, three days later, a power truck came. A man wearing a hard hat got out, moved the tree, and restored power. As I looked out of our son’s bedroom window, he was getting back in the truck. At that moment, he took off his hat, and winked at me in the window. It was my Dad! It took me a moment to recognize him because he was in his 20’s with his reddish hair and sly smile. As I rushed out the door, he was gone already up the driveway and into the street. Tears are flowing as I write this. I have always known he is looking out for us, and he certainly showed it that day.
My husband thinks I’m nuts, but I know what I know.
– – – –
After my father-in-law died, and he freaked me out when he was alive, my husband put a couple of his suit coats on a pole where we hang clothes in the basement, and some of his hats on the shelf up above where we’d put his brother’s Army uniform, who had also died years before. This is a dark corner, as most basements are, even when a light is on. I started to look with trepidation at the corner when I did the laundry, and didn’t want to hang things too close to where they were, or felt creepy when I did.
This went on for I don’t know how long–maybe a year, as you know people are loathe to move other people’s dead relatives’ things, out of respect. But…both the father and son did things I have never done, and both scared me, as I said, when they were alive. Finally, I decided to move the uniform upstairs, where we wouldn’t forget it. I was tired of being bothered by this corner of the house.
And I did not really believe anything would happen–what could? Well, what happened when I picked up the uniform to move it was, one of the father’s hats fell down onto my head from the shelf up above. I screamed and jumped back. I hadn’t bumped anything, not the pole, not the shelf, and certainly not the hat.
That’s my story and I’m sticking to it!
– – – –
A friend of mine’s father died, and at the burial, his wife, who was now dating another man, suddenly stepped backward into a pile of dog poop in her nice shoes. We all laughed, and my friend’s husband remarked that the father had always made scatological jokes. He felt this was one of his jokes, clearly.
– – – –
1) My father: My father died of a heart attack on a Saturday night in February 30+ years ago. On Sunday morning our car wouldn’t start. Without thinking too much about it I wandered down the driveway and started to speak (silently) to my father, saying, “Please, we’ve had a rough night, and don’t need this right now. Please help us.”
I felt what I would describe as a warm beam of light pass through my midsection and the car started.
2) My mother: My mother was angry at me when she died, and disowned me, wrote me out of the will. This, needless to say, was a profound shock. A few weeks after she died, I was sitting quietly in the sunny office I worked in at the time and felt her presence, invisibly, but palpably, a little way above my head. I distinctly felt her trying to say she was sorry, that she realized she’d made a mistake. I asked her to leave me alone. She left, and I haven’t had an experience of her since.
– – – – –
Not sure if this counts as a visitation…as I’ve never seen the gauzy figure of my mother floating in mid-air. But at various times in my life I have sensed her presence strongly enough that I will find myself looking up at the doorway expecting her to appear. Often I experience this when I am struggling with something, or when there has been another death in the family — I think I know what most psychiatrists would say about that. But just as often it comes upon me unbidden by any special circumstances… just that feeling, like someone coming silently into the room behind you and you know they are there before you turn. At first I found this unbearably sad, later creepy, and now I just enjoy it. I like to think she is out there in the universe somewhere and decided to swing by and say hello.
– – – –
And again from the Gospel of Mark: “When he saw that they were straining at the oars against an adverse wind, he came towards them early in the morning, walking on the sea . . . when they saw him walking on the sea, they thought it was a ghost and cried out; for they all saw him and were terrified. But immediately he spoke to them and said, Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid. Then he got into the boat with them and the wind ceased. And they were utterly astounded, for they did not understand.”
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem, Haunted Houses:
All houses wherein men have lived and died
Are haunted houses.
Through the open doors
The harmless phantoms on their errands glide,
With feet that make no sound upon the floors.
We meet them at the door-way, on the stair,
Along the passages they come and go,
Impalpable impressions on the air,
A sense of something moving to and fro.
There are more guests at table than the hosts
Invited; the illuminated hall
Is thronged with quiet, inoffensive ghosts,
As silent as the pictures on the wall.
The stranger at my fireside cannot see
The forms I see, nor hear the sounds I hear;
He but perceives what is; while unto me
All that has been is visible and clear.
We have no title-deeds to house or lands;
Owners and occupants of earlier dates
From graves forgotten stretch their dusty hands,
And hold in mortmain still their old estates.
The spirit-world around this world of sense
Floats like an atmosphere, and everywhere
Wafts through these earthly mists and vapours dense
A vital breath of more ethereal air.
Our little lives are kept in equipoise
By opposite attractions and desires;
The struggle of the instinct that enjoys,
And the more noble instinct that aspires.
These perturbations, this perpetual jar
Of earthly wants and aspirations high,
Come from the influence of an unseen star
An undiscovered planet in our sky.
And as the moon from some dark gate of cloud
Throws o’er the sea a floating bridge of light,
Across whose trembling planks our fancies crowd
Into the realm of mystery and night,–
So from the world of spirits there descends
A bridge of light, connecting it with this,
O’er whose unsteady floor, that sways and bends,
Wander our thoughts above the dark abyss.
The poet Philip Larkin, from “On Church-Going”:
A serious house on serious earth it is,
In whose blent air all our compulsions meet,
Are recognized, and robed as destinies.
And that much never can be obsolete,
Since someone will forever be surprising
A hunger in himself to be more serious,
And gravitating with it to this ground,
Which, he once heard, was proper to grow wise in,
If only that so many dead lie round.
And last from Thornton Wilder, the conclusion to The Bridge Over San Luis Rey: “But soon we shall die . . . and we ourselves shall be loved for a while and forgotten. But the love will have been enough; all those impulses to love return to the love that made them. Even memory is not necessary for love. There is a land of the living and a land of the dead and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning.”
Where do the dead go when they die?
Not very far, my friends, not very far.