Some years back, I switched on my TV and caught the tail end of a documentary that featured Martin Scorsese talking about the experience of watching movies in the comfort of your living room. On the show, the acclaimed director stressed the importance of watching films in widescreen as compared to the very common (at the time) full-screen format. The difference? When a movie is edited for TV and watched on a screen shaped like a box, 30 percent of what the director intended to be seen is lopped off. The viewer misses nearly a third of the beauty and mystery from the director's original vision. As an example, Scorsese showed the opening seen of The Sound of Music. In standard format, all that could be seen was a close up of Julie Andrews' face. Not a bad thing at all. But in widescreen you saw the actress, and you saw the hills which were very much alive with the sound of ... well, you get the point.
I thought a lot about that documentary a few months after I became convinced that my house was haunted. Now, I know what you're saying, "Nonsense, there's no such things as ghosts." A few years ago, I probably would have agreed with you. Though I always considered myself a spiritual person, I prided myself on being a rationalist. Looking back, even though I considered myself a Catholic, I put very little faith in anything I couldn't see or touch. I never gave much thought to a spirit world. Like most people, the idea of an angel or a ghost was ancillary to my daily life. So were heaven and hell and what comes to pass after we die. I can't legitimately say I was a total skeptic about these things (I had a number of unexplained incidents take place around me growing up), it's just that unless I was watching a scary movie or attending a funeral, the thought of an invisible spirit (other than God) never really crossed my mind. And when it did, it never lasted long.
But between 2007 and 2008 my family and I began experiencing a series of unexplained phenomena in our Long Island home. During that time I felt peculiar, electrical sensations in certain rooms in our house. It wasn't faulty wiring, a pinched nerve or even gooseflesh. It was unlike anything I had ever come in contact with in my life. My wife and child began experiencing things, too. There were strange noises, mysterious shadows would appear and disappear, and my three-year-old son's battery-powered toys would turn on by themselves during all hours of the day and night. There was no known explanation for any of these occurrences. These events were, to say the least, unnerving. There were moments of intense fear, danger, confusion and sometimes even awe.
Eventually, after a number of twists and turns (that seemed like something out of a Scorsese movie), the activity ceased. Yet, in their wake, these bizarre events would forever change the way I look at life, death and what ensues after we say goodbye to this world. It would also change the way I view the spiritual life, as well as a tiny prayer that I had taken for granted for most of my life.
When Catholics pray, we usually begin by making the Sign of the Cross. This is a simple, pre-prayer prayer, if you will. It's a physical gesture where we touch our foreheads with the fingertips of our right hand and intone, "In the name of the Father." We then move down toward our chest and say "and the Son." Then we move our right hand from our left shoulder to our right shoulder, while saying the words, "and the Holy Spirit." The prayer then ends with bringing both hands together with an "Amen." For most of my life the Sign of the Cross was something I mindlessly did at the beginning and end of church. It had very little significance for me. But after the haunting in our house I saw for the very first time that this gesture was really a roadmap to the spiritual life. How so? Let me explain.
For most of us, we begin our spiritual journeys by coming in contact with our heads, with our intellect (just like in the Sign of the Cross). We may read, study and pray intensely. We may meditate for long hours trying to get our minds to slow down, or we may exchange ideas with one another about what it means to be a spiritual person. This is all well and good, but it is only part of the trip. At a certain point, we have to leave behind our intellects and move to the place of the heart -- the place of emotion and sensation -- a place where there are no words. But even then, just like in the Sign, our expedition isn't complete. We still have to surrender to our experiences, whether a birth, a death, a new job, a child or a strange, unexplainable encounter, and allow the heart to be pierced by the Spirit (signified in the movement of the right hand from the left shoulder to the right shoulder). It is a moment when we encounter an enormous God who is greater than our collective intellects and grander than all our hearts. It is this acknowledgment of mind, heart and spirit that leads to the great affirmation of life, the Amen.
I went through all those stages during those unsettling 12 months in our house. There was a period where my intellect kept saying this can't be happening, that there must be a logical explanation. Then, there was a period of trying not to over-intellectualize the unexplained events in our home, to accept them for what they were: sensations and experiences. In time, I found myself surrendering my intellect and my heart, which in time affirmed that there was something miraculous going on in my life.
And this is where Scorsese comes in. It was at the conclusion of the haunting when I realized that for most of my years I had been seeing the world in front of me in a box, in standard format. There were things of this world (or maybe of the next), mysterious and wondrous things on the fringes, that my myopic attachment to day-to-day problems and existence had precluded me from seeing. Looking back, those haunted encounters were deeply spiritual and now, with some distance from all that happened, the world looks more like widescreen than square, the spiritual journey more vast than I had ever imagined. I'm now open to the world of the seen and the unseen, to the mysteries of life and death that lie at the heart of our combined human experience.
That yearlong ordeal was, to say the very least, a wake-up call to trade in standard format for widescreen, to increase my vision so I could see a bit more clearly the things I took for granted every day: loved ones, strangers, thoughts, heaven, earth, all the people who have passed on in this life and even God.
Gary Jansen is the Editor of Doubleday Religion and the author of Holy Ghosts: Or, How a (Not So) Good Catholic Boy Became a Believer in Things that Go Bump in the Night