On May 3-4 I will be attending the Hospitality Initiative hosted at Oakland University in Oakland, MI. The convener is Charles Mabee, a scholar who works with the thought of René Girard. This is a multi-faith gathering where papers from a wide variety of spiritual traditions will be represented by the presentation of papers. I will be presenting a brief paper called “Mimetic Hospitality: Guests and Community in the Rule of St. Benedict.” Some of the content overlaps with my blog post Cleaning up our Unclean Acts which introduces some of the thoughts I develop in this paper. You can read my paper here.
I have just received an affirming review of From Beyond to Here from Kirkus. It starts out: “Marr’s collection comprises six short stories aimed at young readers interested in aliens and ghosts (which in turn comprises just about all young readers, one would imagine).” It goes on to say that I have “done a good job depicting the troubles and traumas that preteens and teenagers face and showing how they might be able to deal with life’s challenges.” At the end, it says that I “feel for kids who suffer the death of a sibling or the abandonment of divorce or just the general confusion of trying to grow up or of being afraid to grow up. There are morals to these stories, but they don’t hit the reader over the head. Marr is that wise and often witty uncle that every young person needs.”
I would add for those of you interesting in mimetic theory that the story “Buyer of Hearts” is filled with mimetic issues in the junior high and the town beyond. You can read this review in its entirety on the From Beyond to Here page. You can also read “The Ghost of Swiss Castle” as a sample of my writing. I hope this review encourages more readers to give my stories a try. For some comments on ghost stories in general see Chills and Salvation.
The traditional apocalyptic Advent themes of Death/Judgment/Heaven/Hell fuse in the recent mass shootings, especially the one at Sandy Hook School in Connecticut. A traumatic event like this at this time of year gives us occasion to wonder about the end of the world.
In a memorable poem, Robert Frost mused over whether the world will end in fire or ice. His first thought is that from what he has “tasted of desire,” he holds with “those who favor fire.” The violence of shooting deaths and terrorist attacks is filled with gunfire, suggesting that we should favor fire. René Girard has warned us that with the breakdown of the scapegoating mechanism as a way to hold a violent society together, we run the risk of apocalyptic violence spinning out of control. (See Violence and the Kingdom of God and Human See, Human Want.)
But Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar questions how fiery this violence really is. The opening rebuke of the people: “You blocks, you stones, you worse than senseless things” applies to all of the characters in the play. The ominous oracle of the beast without a heart provides the play’s central image. The heartless violence that drives the plot from civil war to assassination to civil war is all as cold as blocks and stones as well as senseless.
The violence of mass killings and terrorist attacks is frigid. Frost says he thinks he knows enough of hate to know “that for destruction ice/Is also great/And would suffice.” The powerful understatement is all the more chilling.
There is another way the world could end in ice than cold, heartless violence. Jean-Pierre Dupuy, warns us that our modern economy creates victims through indifference. We literally do not know what we are doing. The final story in my book From Beyond to Here, “Buyer of Hearts,” explores an apocalyptic of ice and indifference. Danny Melton, a boy already bummed out because his father has left the family, suddenly begins to see ghosts floating around the school. He becomes all the more creeped out when he discovers that the people are still alive in the flesh, although “living and partly living,” in the words of T.S. Eliot, is more like Danny discovers that many of his classmates and teachers have sold their hearts for large sums of money. The selling and buying of heart gains more and more momentum as more and more people become hopelessly depressed over what is happening to their families and friends. My story, Dupuy’s warning, and Frost’s poem show us that God gives us humans the responsibility let God create new hearts within us to keep the world from ending “not with a bang, but a whimper.”
While visiting a family in the Chicago area that I am very good friends with, the boys wanted to go to the neighborhood park, so their father and I took them. Among the play equipment there was a cylinder-shaped piece shaped like a castle’s turret with large holes in it to facilitate climbing all up and around it. The boys told me they call it Swiss Castle because the holes made it look like Swiss Cheese.
I instantly realized that Swiss Castle had to be haunted. From there, I got the image of a hideous mansion on Lake Shore with huge round windows making the facade look like a hunk of Swiss cheese so the mansion was called “Swiss Castle” by its detractors. Why windows like that? Well, the first floor was abnormally high. Why? Because there was a pipe organ in the living room?
Like the Cheese Castle in the playground, this house had to be haunted. Would nice people live in a house like that? The woman who played the organ was a loving person but she had been dead for years and the couple who lived there were about as affectionate as a couple of posts. A couple like that needs to have a pair of children they don’t want come to visit them for a year because their parents don’t want them tagging along with them to Copenhagen.
Two hurt and angry children plus one hurt and angry ghost leads to some interesting situations with a hope of redemption. (See blog post Chills and Salvation) When it came to publishing the story in my collection From Beyond to Here, I decided to change the title to “The Ghost of Swiss Castle” because I thought calling it Cheese Castle was—well—too cheesy. If a fantasy story with a ghost might possibly interest you or somebody, young or old, whom you know, please give The Ghost of Swiss Castle a try.
For many in North America, Halloween is a day for children to dress up, have fun, and get lots of candy from indulgent neighbors. Skeleton suits and witch’s makeup are all in fun. Not as fun is the background to Halloween that goes back to rites, such as the Celtic Samhain festival, designed to allay anxiety over blurring the distinction between the dead and the living and make sure the dead stay dead. This anxiety causes some people to try to suppress modern Halloween, although the people who sentenced witches to burning should be more horrifying than girls running about in black dresses with candy bags.
Blurring distinctions between the living and the dead raise horrifying issues. To begin with, it calls into question what life and death really are. Zombies and vampires are very popular today as creatures haunting us with this blurred distinction. The idea of being “undead” is a haunting but unattractive possibility.
Rites of and against the dead, encountered by anthropologists worldwide, express fear that the dead envy the living and, if they get a chance to break into the land of the living, they will destroy the life we cherish. That is, the dead are set up as rivals for life that has been made scarce. These anxieties project rivalry experienced with other living persons on those same persons when they are (hopefully) departed this life. Cf. “Human See, Human Want.”
The execution of Jesus followed by his Resurrection, where Jesus appeared not as a vengeful ghost but the forgiving victim, opened up a whole different paradigm of the dead. Christian martyrs who gave up their precious lives to witness to Christ were believed by the early church to be, not vengeful ghosts, but saints in Heaven actively seeking our good. Dante’s Divine Comedy is a particularly powerful vision of those living on earth and those living in Heaven supporting each other in prayer without resentment or rivalry. Cf. “Two Ways of Gathering.”
Many people like to have their spines titillated at Halloween. My stories “Ghost of Swiss Castle” and “The Dark Window” in Beyond to Here might chill the spine a little bit, but they also invite the reader to think of lending a ghost a helping hand and receiving some healing in this life as well.
In one charming story, a monastic who has shared his cave with another, notes that they have never had a quarrel and proposes that they try to have one, like all other people. The other monastic says he doesn’t know how to start a quarrel. The first monastic puts a block of wood on the ground between them and says” “This block is mine. Now you say the same thing.” The second monastic said, “This block is mine.” “No, this block is mine,” insists the first monastic. “Okay, it’s yours,” says the other. And so they failed to have a quarrel.
Would these monastics have quarreled if the first had put a gem between them instead of a block of wood? The story about the children and the balloons in “Human See, Human Want,” suggests that question is whether any article at all is given worth by the desire of the other. A block of wood can become as desirable as a gem if somebody else desires it and another person gets caught up in that desire.
If these two monastics were not quarreling, what were they doing? The desert literature tells us they would have spent large amounts of time in prayer, much of that in psalmody, and then the rest weaving baskets they would sell to give the money to the poor. That is, they were not focused on each other but were opening themselves to God’s Desire and to the needs of other people. Prayer and helping other people does not guarantee there will be no quarrelling, but the two combined surely help quite a lot.
My story “Haunted for a Time” in From Beyond to Here offers a counter-example to these two desert monastics. At the beginning of the story, Murray is so absorbed in his possessiveness of his comic books at the expense of others that he cannot see anything beyond that. Some unsettling apparitions from a ghostly figure challenge him to reconsider his ways.
My book Tools for Peace examines Benedict’s teachings on stewardship of material goods in the monastery that build on the insights of this simple story of the two desert monastics who failed to be movers and shakers in the world, but also failed to have a quarrel.
Early in my monastic life, when I wanted to know everything, I read the Summa Theologiae of St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), a thinker who knew everything, or seemed to. Many of Thomas’ insights and speculations continue to nourish me. The insight that I dwell upon and dwell in more than any other comes in Question 14, article 9.
Thomas has been enumerating what God knows, which, not surprisingly turns out to be everything. In article 9, however, Thomas poses the question of whether God knows everything that has never existed, does not presently exist, and never will exist. One might think that this, at least would stump God, but Thomas blithely insists that God knows these things as well. Huh?
Basically, Thomas says that God knows everything that could exist. That includes everything which God does bring into being as well as everything which God does not bring into being. This is an important point. We take our own existence and the existence of the things in the world for granted. God takes nothing for granted. God chooses some things to exist out of an infinitude of possibilities.
So what about unicorns and all else that allegedly do not exist? What does God have against them that God did not bring them into being? The answer is God has nothing against anything. The deeper answer is that God leaves many things to our imaginations. We can’t imagine horses; they are already here. But we can imagine unicorns and dragons and creatures from other planets that may or may not exist. What I find so awesome about Thomas’ insight is that God invites us to enter into God’s imagination to glimpse a few of the infinite number of beings that will never exist. God encourages us to welcome into this life many creatures we otherwise would never see and get to know. Not only do we get to pet the cats who live at our monastery, but we get to ride dragons through the air!
It is because God has invited me into small visions of the divine imagination that I can introduce you to Korniel, Pandara, Merendael, and many others. If you wish to meet them for yourself, you can read Creatures We Dream of Knowing and From Beyond to Here. Knowing them has enriched my life. I hope it will enrich yours as well.
I have just added an article called Baptizing the Imagination that was originally published in the Abbey Letter of St. Gregory’s Abbey. Here, you can read about my reflections on the theological dimensions of fantasy literature with comments on several important writers such as C.S. Lewis and J.K. Rowling. Helpful background to Creatures We Dream of Knowing & From Beyond to Here.
Ghost stories fascinated me when I was a child. Slipping into an eerie unknown territory gave me a slightly pleasurable chill in a dose I could take. Although I read ghost stories for pleasure, they stretched my world and, more importantly, confronted me with issues of good and evil against a backdrop deeper than the material world. M.R. James’ “Lost Hearts” is a particularly powerful example.
As I grew older, I became aware of the psychological insight the best ghost stories called offer, adding depth to the chills they offered. Henry James (no relation to M.R. James) was the great master of this sort of ghost story. The Turn of the Screw is a troubling, masterpiece that inspired a great, if equally troubling, opera by Benjamin Britten. James’ story has inspired an unresolvable debate as to whether the ghosts are real or are projections of the fevered imagination of the governess. Britten’s opera presents them as all-too-real and malevolent. What both the story and the opera show with devastating clarity is that the governess’ rivalry with Quint, whether a real ghost or a figment of her imagination, destroys the boy Miles, as conflicts of this kind always distort one’s sense of reality and destroy vulnerable people caught in the crossfire.
Turn of the Screw does not invoke any transcendent dimension beyond the tragedy in either the story or the opera. Some of the ghost stories by Mary Downing Hahn, such as All my Lovely Bad Ones, move in a more redemptive direction. Stories such as those by James and Hahn show us how victims and victimizers can be stuck, seemingly for all eternity, in a destructive relationship unless they are delivered. We experience this stuckness that feels as if it will never end in real life often enough.
Approaching the ghost story genre with my religious convictions, I am concerned with the possibilities God holds out to each one of us for all eternity. I am also concerned for how, just as one can do God’s work by helping a troubled person in this life, one might do God’s work by helping a troubled person who is stuck and cannot “move on” without help. An encounter with a ghost can give a fictional character and the reader chills as it does in “Ghost of Swiss Castle” and “The Dark Window” in From Beyond to Here. The Light reaching to us offer salvation can give us much deeper chills.
We all become at least slightly disoriented when we meet a person who is different. This disorientation is often mixed with fear and distaste, maybe even disgust. If we encounter someone really strange, such as a visitor from another planet or a ghost, our fear can easily turn into panic. Although most daily strange encounters are less drastic than that, we often find that we react with fear and disgust before thinking rationally when meeting even a mildly strange person. If we get to know the stranger, however, we often find that person to be a gift to us.
Fantasy stories give us the opportunity meet with the strange, the weird and the frightening and learn to overcome our fears enough to see the potential giftedness in these encounters. In “Merendael’s Gift,” the opening story in the collection From Beyond to Here, a boy named Eddie encounters a very strange creature with an elusive and frightening appearance, yet the creature communicates to Eddie a desire to give a gift that is very important. As the story unfolds, Eddie has deal with his fears, not only of the creature, whose name is Merendael, but of losing his social standing with the boys he hangs out with. Each story in Creatures We Dream of Knowing brings together one or more allegedly fantastical creature and one or more children. In “The White Tree,” for example, a mysterious white plant growing quickly where four backyards meet frightens some people but offers great musical gifts to those open to receive them.
As a Benedictine monk, I follow a monastic rule that enjoins hospitality as a major apostolate, second only to the ministry of prayer. We are constantly challenged to open our hearts to strangers, some of whom seem strange and some of whom really are difficult to deal with. Hospitality, of course, is a Christian virtue. The author of the Epistle to the Hebrews reminds us that, like Abraham, we may entertain angels unawares when we offer hospitality. I discuss Benedictine hospitality in my book Tools for Peace.
The story “Merendael’s Gift” and the others in From Beyond to Here and in Creatures We Dream of Knowing can help readers of all ages reflect on the challenge of welcoming the truly strange stranger into our lives and learn what God would have us learn from them.