I often thank my Irish ancestry, which factors in that which cannot be factored in. Think of multiple-choice tests, where one of the answer options is “none of the above.”  In life and in theology, that is often the answer. Theologians who debate words and their definitions often cannot get along. Monks of different faiths can be best friends, for they acknowledge that there are areas where words are inadequate.  Thus, Thomas Merton, Catholic Trappist monk, could be friends with the Buddhist Dali Lama.  They were comfortable with the grey areas, able to be friends despite major theological differences. Another two would be the Dali Lama and Desmond Tutu, who together recently co-authored a book on joy.  

So I now present two of my experiences with ghosts. I do not know how to put them into my official theology. They don’t fit.  Yet I cannot deny what I have experienced. So thanks be to my Irish ancestry (which takes in stride the existence of “the little people” and miracles) I simply acknowledge, and leave to God to eventually make sense of it all.  They occurred, they must fit in,  but for now I will label them in the “mystery” category covered by “none of the above.” 

The first instance occurred when I was a combination chaplain and teacher at Sheldon Jackson College in Sitka, Alaska. (Now defunct due to the financial improprieties of the president of the college and others – another story, some day.) Near the college was the Alaska Police Academy, where twice a year I did the invocation and benediction at the graduation ceremony.  One spring day I walked along a dirt logging road, with my dog Tess.  We had walked on the road many a time. But this time, in the distance I heard what at first I thought was rhythmic practice shooting at the academy. Then two things occurred to me: 1) they were not taking time to reload, and 2) there was emphasis in the rhythm, not like true shooting.  Add to that, a growing sense that I was being followed. Tess affirmed it. Normally, off lead, she would be ranging in the woods, checking back periodically. Today, she stayed about five feet in front of me, tense, hair up in a Mohawk, looking at something behind me. I kept glancing back, but there was nobody.   

The feeling grew that I was interfering with something, unwanted. Much like when you enter a room and conversation stops, then resumes off-subject, tension evident.  I was interrupting something. I was not wanted here. What now sounded like drums increased. I walked on, but ever slower. A sense of not so much threat as wrongness grew. Tess came closer, still watching something unseen behind me. Finally my nerve gave way, and I retreated, hurrying back to my car on the road.  Once I came to the road, the sense of being followed and unwelcomed evaporated.   

I did not go on that road for a hike until the next fall.  By then, leafs had fallen. When I got to the spot where I had turned around, I noticed untended graves among the trees – a forgotten Native Alaska cemetery (made during a time when native ceremonies were forbidden, as “un-Christian.”  They were buried, but outside the cemeteries for Caucasian Christians.)  I reported it to the local Native Alaskan group, who nobly took up the cause to clean and honor the site.  

In one sense it was not a ghost encounter, since I saw nothing. But I felt, I heard, as did my dog.   

The second was after I was in the Navy. I was living in a house built in 1927. A two-story, with a wonderful master bedroom which had large windows on two sides. I could sit propped up in my bed on a Saturday morning, coffee carafe on my nightstand, and look out into the branches of tall old trees.   It was like being in a tree house, only better.  One Saturday, I was just waking up when above me I heard a door slam, then three heavy footsteps. My first thought was, “Somebody’s walking in the apartment upstairs.” Then I woke up, and had to acknowledge that I was in a house, not an apartment, and I had not lived in an apartment with people above me for many years.  I thought I had just imagined it.  

About two weeks later, it happened again. Propped up in bed, coffee on nightstand alongside, reading while occasionally glancing outside at the trees, above me a door slammed hard. Three heavy footsteps, stopping just to the left of my ceiling light.  I sat there, stunned.  When it happened again a week or so later, I bravely called out, “Is there anyone there? Do you need help?” Silence. To this day I have no idea what I would have done if I had been answered.  

After another experience, I decided to investigate. I bought a six foot ladder, and checked out my attic. The home inspector had warned me not to try walking in the attic, for there were essentially  only beams, with minimum supports for the insulation. I climbed up with my flashlight and checked the attic out. No floor, no door, no floor.    

After another time or two of door slamming, footsteps, compunction set in. “Dorn, you are clergy, If someone is stuck, you should help,” I told myself. So one afternoon I got my Book of Common Worship from the 1940s, and while sitting in my armchair in the living room, read aloud the funeral service. NOT an exorcism, just a commendation of the deceased into the care of God.  To my immense disappointment it worked. Since then, no slamming, no footsteps.  Blast. 

Once in the Navy chaplaincy, I served with a Catholic priest of Ukrainian background. One day he talked about living in a parsonage, where parishioners kept asking him if he was okay living there.  He then noted couples coming to him for counseling, who remarked on seeing an elderly priest walk past, in a worn but cared for cassock.  After researching, and as time went on, he would respond by simply saying it was Father X.  He just didn’t add that Father had died many years ago.  He was used to living with other priests: the fact that one was dead didn’t change things that much.  I have often thought that this was the perfect way to deal with a haunted parsonage: they are merely a roommate. If non-violent and/or evil, and if prayers don’t stop them, simply deal with them as you would another. Not something for migraines, faith-challenges or ulcers. They are simply “other.”  

Since then, over the years of  being clergy, several times I have encountered when the dead appear in dreams to people, before another family member dies.  I do not question it, for I know that there are some areas of mystery, of “none of the above,” which do not fit into our theology, yet occur.  One good note: in the bible, we are not told that they are fake, just not to be led by them into disobedience.   

I have now moved into a house over a hundred years old. I have to admit, I had hopes to have an encounter. But sadly, my cats have not warned, and all has been well.  If something threatened my cats, I would again whip out my 1940  Book of Common Prayer. But first, I would thrill in the “other.”