Sunday, October 30, 2011

Angels and demons: Do they really exist?

I’ve noted in an earlier post that seventy-two percent of Americans believe in angels. Why would so many people believe in the existence of beings for which there is not a scintilla of scientific evidence? Partly because of references to angels in the Bible and other literature. Mostly because they either believe they’ve had an experience with an angel, or have heard the story of someone who claims to have had such an encounter. 

There are numerous references to angels and demons in the sacred scriptures and apocrypha of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Three angels are mentioned by name in  the scriptures of all three of these religionsthe archangels Rafael, Gabriel and Michael. The names of many more angels and demons are laid down in the apocrypha of the three religions.

For Christians, and especially for Catholics, the biographies of the saints provide numerous accounts of encounters with angels and demons. Perhaps the saints are the most likely to be tempted and tormented by demons, while being protected by their personal angels. Then again, such encounters are most likely to be recorded in the investigations into the lives of saints made by church officials. The lives of those of us that have not attracted the attention of church investigators are not so carefully scrutinized. Perhaps such encounters are far more common than realized.

More than 100 concise sketches of encounters of the saints with angels and demons appear at the following site: I recommend that you start by reading a few of the following accounts:

      003 Maria of Jesus of Agreda - (1602-1665)                                                
      011 Saint Robert Bellarmine - (1542-1621)                                                   
      012 Saint Benedict - (Circa 480-547)                                                            
      014 Servant of God Anfrosina Berardi - (1920-1933)                                   
      015 Saint Louis Bertrand - (1526-1581)                                                        
017 Blessed Veronica of Binasco - (1445-1497)                                           
019 Servant of God Maria Bolognesi - (1924-1980)                                     
026 Servant of God Edvige Carboni - (1880-1952)                                      
027 Servant of God Giulio Castelli - (1846-1926)                                         
028 Saint Catherine of Siena - (1347-1380)                                                  
      031 Saint Bernard of Clairvaux - (1090-1153)                                              
      034 Saint Joseph of Cupertino, O.F.M.Conv. - (1603-1663)                        
      038 Blessed Anne Catherine Emmerich - (1774-1824)                                
      040 The Apparitions of the Angel at Fatima 1 - (1916)                                 
      043 Blessed Angela of Foligno - (1248-1309)                                               
      044 Saint Francis of Assisi - (1181-1226)                                                     
      048 Blessed Maria of Jesus Crucified - (1846-1878)                                    
      049 Saint John of the Cross - (1542-1591)                                                   
      050 Saint John of God - (1495-1550)                                                            
      056 Teresa Higginson - (1844-1905) (Sacred Head of Jesus)                     
      058 Saint Faustina Kowalska - (1905-1938)                                                 
      059 Saint Catherine Labouré - (1806-1876)                                                  
      060 Father Lamy - (1853-1931)                                                                    
      065 Pope Leo XIII - (1810-1903) (Rerum Natura encyclical)                       
      066 Saint Alphonsus Maria de’ Liguori - (1696-1787)                                   
      068 Saint Ignatius of Loyola - (1491-1556)                                                   
      098 Saint Pio of Pietralcina (Padre Pio) - (1887-1968)                                 
      119 Saint Bridget of Sweden - (1303-1373)                                                  
      124 Saint Thomas Aquinas - (1224/25-1274)                                                
      128 Saint John Maria Vianney - (1786-1858)                                               

What makes me think that angels and demons exist? 

I’ve never seen my guardian angel, or any other angel, for that matter, so far as I know. But I did have one experience with a demon. It happened when I was an undergraduate at the University of Wisconsin. 

I was working on a term paper in 1959 about elements of witchcraft in the poetry of William Butler Yeats. At the time, I was corresponding with Gerald Gardner, who ran the Witches Museum at Castletown, Isle of Man, until he died in 1964. 

At the time, I began reading extensively in the occult, from the apocryphal books of Judaism dealing with demons through accounts of the maguses of the Middle Ages on down to the thinking in the late 1950s about wicca and the occult. If you’ve not read the Book of Solomon, an apocryphal Judaic text, it’s about the supposed power King Solomon had over demons, and was a favorite text of medieval necromancers, alchemists, and maguses.

One weekend night in Madison. I decided to see if I could summon a demon using instructions in one of the books I was reading. Alone in my room at Maude Tarr’s boarding house just off the University of Wisconsin campus, I drew a pentacle on the floor of my room, lit some candles, and uttered the incantation I’d found in a book of spells. I was frightened out of my wits when a demon’s head materialized in the room. The flesh of its face was green and purple, its mouth was filled with hair, and its eyes glowed red. 

I broke the pentacle by erasing a part of it with my shoe, blew out the candles, and the specter vanished. I’ve never experimented with summoning demons since. Was I hallucinating, hypnotized by the candles, and by my own chanting? Probably. But that specter was awfully real to me at the time, and I still have memories of it more than 50 years later.

If you are looking for more information about angels and demons, you might try Peter Kreeft’s Angels and Demons: What Do We Really Know about Them? (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1995).

Much of what we think we know about angels and demons, heaven, hell, and purgatory, comes not from nonfiction works on theology and philosophy, but from fiction. If I had to recommend any one work of fiction, it would be the John Ciardi translation of Dante Alighieri’s epic poem The Divine Comedy. There are two reasons I recommend Dante. One is that Dante is generally recognized as one of the four greatest authors of world literature - along with Shakespeare, Cervantes and Homer. The other is that although the Divine Comedy is fictional, Dante’s journey through hell, purgatory and heaven is based on the theology of St. Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica, written by perhaps the greatest of the Catholic doctors of the church. Dante’s epic poem is fictional, but grounded in the Aristotelian logic of Aquinas.   

Dante’s visit to hell is probably the most famous literary depiction of the realm of Lucifer in literature. Hell was created by Lucifer's fall, and he is now trapped, in Dante’s poem, in the lowest level, reserved for traitors. 

While on the surface the poem describes Dante's travels through hell, purgatory, and heaven. at a deeper level, it represents allegorically the soul's journey towards God. At this deeper level, Dante draws on medieval Christian theology and philosophy, especially, as already noted, the Thomistic philosophy of the Summa Theologica. Consequently, the Divine Comedy has been called "the Summa in verse."

If you manage to wade through the Divine Comedy, you might next try John Milton’s Paradise Lost, another epic poem dealing with Satan’s fall from grace.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

The Catholic path to the afterlife in a nutshell

Our life here on Earth is a brief flicker in time that ends at the gateway to eternity.

What is eternity like? Scientists tell us it has been about 13.75 billion years, give or take a few million years, since the Big Bang created the universe.  Planet Earth is almost five billion years old. Modern humans first emerged in East Africa some 100,000 to 200,000 years ago, gradually spreading out across the globe. Migration of modern humans from the Black Sea area into Europe started some 45,000 years ago. By 20,000 years ago, the whole of Europe was settled by homo sapiensmodern man as we know him. Some 2,000 years ago, the Christos was born around the year 6 BCE (before the common era, or before Christ), and died around 30 CE (common era, or anno domini). Here in the United States, our average lifespan is 78 years. That gives you some idea of eternity versus our temporal lives. 

While all sorts of good things and bad things can happen to our body and our soul along our journey to the final destination, the end-point for most Catholics is to get our spirit or soul to an eternity in heaven after death.

To get to heaven, one tries to avoid evil, do good, and die in a state of grace (for Catholics, free of mortal sin).

Catholic theology holds that at the instant of death, the soul, which is eternal, leaves the body, and goes before God. According to Catholic folklore, each person has a guardian angel who guides the soul to God and judgment. In His infinite wisdom, God judges the soul when it arrives.

The soul will eventually undergo two judgments. The first is called the particular judgment. It’s what happens when the just-released soul arrives before God. This judgment applies only to the soul. Later, there will be a general or final judgment at the end-times, the second coming or apocalypse. Only God knows when this final judgment will occur. At the final judgment, the soul of the deceased will be reunited with the risen body that the soul occupied in life. Until then, only the soul is involved in the afterlife.

At the particular judgment, one of three things can happen to the soul. Those who reject God’s love and die in mortal sin without repenting go to hell, cut off from the love and light of God for eternity. The saints whose love for God has been perfected in this life go straight to heaven for eternity. Those who die without mortal sin but whose love of God is imperfect go to a place called purgatory where the soul will be perfected and eventually go to heaven for eternity. 

Indulgences can shorten the soul’s stay in purgatory, or permit the soul to bypass purgatory altogether. There are two types of indulgencea partial indulgence, which shortens the stay in purgatory, or a more powerful plenary indulgence, which permits an instant release of the soul from purgatory. Indulgences may be earned (they may not be bought) only by the living, who must meet specified criteria. Indulgences may apply to the souls of the living or to the souls of the deceased depending on the nature of the indulgence. See the Enchiridion of Indulgences at ( ). 

To help along the way to the end of the journey, there are seven sacraments. 

The first is baptism, which for most Catholics occurs a few weeks after birth. Through baptism, we join in the communion of the church and communion with God. This communion joins us with those who have been baptized who have gone before us in history, and with those who have not yet been born who will be baptized. 

By early grade school, the Catholic child experiences the sacrament of reconciliation (also known as penance, penance and reconciliation, or confession). After reconciliation, the child or convert takes first communion (the Eucharist). Near the end of grade school, the young Catholic is confirmed in the faith. 

Baptism and confirmation are one-time events, although baptismal vows (a credo of beliefs) may be repeated on occasion. Reconciliation and communion are repeated throughout life.

The next sacraments a Catholic is likely to encounter are marriage or, for the male who so chooses, holy ordersbecoming an ordained priest committed to celibacy.

The final sacrament is anointing of the sick, formerly called last rites or extreme unction. That occurs when a person is seriously ill or at death’s door. A plenary indulgence is associated with the administration of this sacrament by a priest.

Catholics believe in two types of sinmortal and venial. Mortal sins are serious business. Venial sins are less serious, relatively minor in nature. Either type of sin can be forgiven by the sacrament of reconciliation. If reconciliation is not available, sins may be forgiven by a perfect act of contrition, in which the person is sorry for the sins not because of a desire to avoid condemnation and hell, but because the person recognizes that the sins are offensive to an all-loving God.

Acts that constitute sin fall under two main groupingsviolations of the Ten Commandments, which are enumerated in the first two books of the Old Testament ( , ) and commission of any of the seven cardinal sins (wrath, greed, sloth, pride, lust, envy, and gluttony). Pride is the most serious of the cardinal sins. As the ancient Greeks said, hubris leads to atepride goeth before a downfall.

The good works individuals are to do in this life fall generally under the seven cardinal virtueschastity, temperance, charity, diligence, patience, kindness, and humility.

There are a number of excellent books about the theology behind the concept of purgatory. If you are interested, you might start with Dr. Gerard van den Aardweg's best-selling Hungry Souls. It recounts Church-verified accounts of earthly visitations from the spirits of the dead residing in purgatory. If you don’t have time to read the book, read a few of the reviews posted at at

So, do I think the Catholic path I just covered is the best path to the afterlife? I don’t know. Other paths might well be better. All I can say is that I’m comfortable with the path I’ve chosen. It makes me less afraid of dying and of death.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

On Halloween, ghosts, the soul and the afterlife

With Halloween just around the corner on October 31, it seems appropriate to take a break from the serious topics I’ve been discussing to talk about something lighter.

According to various surveys, eighty-two percent of adult Americans believe in God and in an afterlife. One recent survey found that more Britons believe in ghosts than believe in God. Other surveys find that from thirty-three to seventy percent of Americans believe in ghosts. The main reason people state for believing in ghosts is that they’ve either had an experience with one themselves, or know someone who has.

The closest I think I’ve ever come to seeing a ghost is in a photograph I took at dusk of the Castillo de San Marcos in St. Augustine, Florida. The Castillo is one of the oldest structures in the United States, dating back to the Spanish occupation of Florida after Columbus “discovered” America. When that exposure came back developed, there were four transparent soldiers in red and white uniforms, one with a drum, marching beside the Castillo. The photo is not a double exposure, and I hadn’t seen any transparent soldiers marching in the camera viewfinder when I took the picture.

One of our daughters lived for a time in rural Georgia in an old farmhouse. At various times, she, her husband and both of their children saw the ghost of a young boy. Sometimes the boy would be looking through farmhouse windows from outside. Sometimes the ghost would appear in the house, looking into a bedroom or another room. These apparitions occurred so often that it would be difficult to term them hallucinations.

So, is it possible that some souls linger here on earth for a time, unable to find their way to the afterlife where they belong? And are ghosts, which are recognized in almost all major cultures across time, evidence that a part of us—our spirit or soul—lives on after death, in a form that is devoid of matter, but in appearance resembles the body we had in life?

The Catholic Church has its own take on ghosts. The Church believes that ghosts, or spirits, do exist. There are times when spirits appear to our benefit, but we are warned against attempting to contact these spirits—especially the spirits of departed loved ones—through occult means such as séances. 

As for children going out on Halloween to “trick or treat,” dressed up as ghosts, zombies, vampires and the like, the Church has no objections. Father Gabriele Amorth, a Vatican-appointed exorcist in Rome, has said, "if English and American children like to dress up as witches and devils on one night of the year that is not a problem. If it is just a game, there is no harm in that.”

Catholicism holds that we must not attempt to conjure or control spirits. But that doesn’t mean we’re forbidden from asking one or another of the saints to intercede for us. When our Siamese cat Sadie escaped the house in pursuit of a neighborhood cat she dislikes, I asked for the intercession of Saint Anthony, the patron of lost items. There’s a little prayer Catholics say, “St. Anthony, please look around, something lost has to be found.” I said it multiple times, and after three days of searching,  we successfully found the cat, who had gone into hiding. Did St. Anthony intervene? I’ll probably never know that, but I’m grateful the cat was found before harm came to her.   

Getting back to the discussion of ghosts … “Ghost” is simply another word for spirit. (Geist means “spirit” in German.) There are three kinds of spirit: the human spirit which, combined with body, make up a human being; the defined spirit that has no body, such as angels; and the infinite Spirit, or God, of whom the third person is the Holy Ghost. 

When someone asks about ghosts, he or she usually has in mind the first kind, a human spirit or soul that may be incorporated in a body, or may have departed the body.

Not just Catholicism, but Christianity in general, believes that God may, and sometimes does, permit a departed soul to appear in some visible form to people on earth. Allowing for legend and illusion, there is enough authentic evidence, in the lives of the saints for example, to indicate that such apparitions occur. The purpose of the ghost may be to teach or warn, or request some favor of the living.

The history of Halloween’s evolution from a pagan to a Christian observance is an interesting one. Antecedents can be traced to the Roman observances of Pomona (goddess of fruits and seeds) and Parentalia (festival of the dead), and the Celtic observance of Samhain (summer’s end). For more information on Halloween, visit:

For more on ghosts, visit:

For an excellent article on why people believe in the paranormal, or in God, go to:

For more on surveys about people who believe in ghosts, visit:

Thursday, October 6, 2011

I choose my path for the journey to the afterlife

In my last post, I discussed what most Americans believe about the afterlife.

Like eighty-two percent of adult Americans, I believe in God. And like seventy percent or more of U.S. citizens over age eighteen, I believe in miracles, heaven, that Jesus is God or the Son of God, angels, the survival of the soul after death, and in the resurrection of Jesus.

The beliefs just enumerated are for the most part Christian beliefs, so I, like the vast majority of Americans, choose to follow the Christian path to the afterlife.

The specific Christian path I choose to the afterlife from among the more than 630 Christian denominations in the U.S. is Catholicism.

Why? Not because of consensual truth, although 1.2 billion citizens of the world have chosen Catholicism as their religion. It’s more because of being raised Catholic, because of a lifetime of study of the history of the religion, and because of various experiences I’ve had.

Am I absolutely sure Catholicism is the right path? Of course not. Any of the 22 paths I’ve already discussed - the major religions of the world, plus agnosticism and atheism - might be the right path. Perhaps a combination of two or more paths would be the right way to go. But I’m comfortable with the path I’ve chosen, and that’s the one I will follow.

As the pater familia of my familythe father of my familyI want to leave behind some of my thoughts about Catholicism for family members to think about. I’ll do that in small bursts, and hopefully record the most important thoughts before my time is up.

I’m thoroughly familiar with all the mistakes the Catholic Church has made over the centuries. I know about the bad popes, the selling of indulgences, the silencing of Galileo, the Inquisition, the resistance of the church to translation of the Bible into English and other local languages, and right down to the present day, the church cover-up of pedophilia and other sexual abuses by a small minority of priests. Remember that the church is populated by humans who have failings and make mistakes. The humans who constitute the church ecclesia have had more than 20 centuries to make mistakes, and they’ve made plenty.

But let me turn from the negative to the positive experiences that influenced my belief system over the years. Among the more significant:

            (1) I was baptized a Catholic shortly after my birth. As Jesus Christ was baptized by John the Baptizer, so baptism is what initiates a Catholic into the religion. For most Catholics, it occurs a few weeks after birth, although it sometimes occurs later in life, especially for converts.

            (2) I attended a Catholic grade school, Holy Name, in Kimberly, Wisconsin. That’s where I memorized the catechisms (questions and answers about the key beliefs and tenets of the faith).

            (3) In grade school, I became an altar server or acolyte in the days before Vatican II, when the liturgy was said in Latin and the priest faced the altar rather than the congregation. I most often served the 6:30 a.m. daily mass, meaning I got up around 5:30 a.m., dressed, stopped at the local Lamers Dairy for a bottle of milk, stopped at the Van Thull’s bakery for a roll, and then walked the rest of the way to the church. In those days, we fasted before taking communion (the eucharist) at mass, and the bottle of milk and roll were for breakfast after mass. What I most remember about this period of serving mass are the walks in the frigid Wisconsin mornings, snow crunching under my galoshes (rubber boots), and the ghostly quiet landscape lit by the moon and the stars. I also served at a number of functions other than the mass - benedictions, stations of the cross, funerals (requiem masses in Latin in those days), and group rosary recitations. I still have a fondness for religious services said in Latin, and for Latin hymns like the Requiem Aeternam.

            (4) As  a Boy Scout, I earned the highest award a Catholic scout can achieve, the Ad Altare Dei, which got me interested in liturgical symbolism.

            (5) In grade school, riding to Appleton in a car driven by the father of one of my friends, in the days before seat belts and air bags, we were involved in an accidentthe car rolled over, knocked over a gasoline pump at a gas station, and ended upside down on its roof. I have an intuition that my guardian angel (Catholics think everyone has one) kept me from emerging from the accident without a scratch. I suspect the same angel was there when I had some other close calls in my life.

            (6) In my first year at the University of Wisconsin, I lived in an Opus Dei house where I could attend daily mass. After that, I moved into a single room in a boarding house just around the corner from St. Paul’s, the Catholic church on the University of Wisconsin campus. For the next three years, I ate my lunch and dinner meals at the student co-op in the basement of the church, where we all participated in preparing group meals as well as in enjoying the companionship.

            (7) One of my major influences at the University of Wisconsin when I was working on my first degree (I eventually got three degrees from UW, Phi Beta Kappa, Phi Kappa Phi) was an English professor named Helen White. The main library at the University of Wisconsin is now named after her. She was one of America’s top Shakespearian scholars, but also wrote an award-winning biography of Francis of Assisi entitled Firebird of Assisi. I’d written my first UW term paper on the Giotto frescoes of Francis of Assisi, and Dr. White’s classes got me interested in stigmatics, religious ecstatics, and ecstatic poets like John Donne.

            (8) I suspect my guardian angel kept me out of harm’s way when I was serving on active duty overseas as a U.S. Army officer. One of my bunkmates in those days was a Jesuit chaplain named Fr. Aloysius McGonigal. I’m working as I write this blog post on a magazine article about him. He was killed in action in Hue, Vietnam, during the Tet Offensive, while giving comfort and last rites to the wounded and dying. He’s been nominated for the Medal of Honor.

            (9) Over the years since, I’ve read and studied a great deal about religious history, and one of my hobbies has been photographing and studying religious stained glass. I’m especially fond of Tiffany and LaFarge glass, although I also admire much of the work of German masters. My favorite glass is at the French cathedrals of Mont St. Michel and Chartres. I read a lot about the historiography of Christianity - the history of how Christianity developed from Jewish and other religious traditions down to the present day.

            (10) I’ve already mentioned Helen White, the University of Wisconsin Shakespearian scholar. Ever since I took a course she taught in the ecstatic poets, and got interested in her biography of Francis of Assisi, believed to be the first religious stigmatic (a stigmatic displays the same wounds as Jesus Christ at the crucifixion), I’d wanted to do a book on someone similar. When Mel Gibson brought out his “Passion of the Christ” movie, I knew immediately that he had relied heavily in scripting the film on the visions of a 19th century nun, ecstatic, stigmatic and inediac, Anne Catherine Emmerich (Anna Katharina Emmerich). So I immediately set to work on a 100-page introduction to The Dolorous Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ, an 1833 account of her visions of the passion and crucifixion set down by German folklore scholar Clemons Brentano. My version, which identifies 43 scenes in the Gibson movie based on Emmerich’s visions, was published it in 2005. The book was reviewed well by Publishers Weekly and other outlets, and has sold well since, especially to filmscript and devotional literature courses taught at Catholic colleges and universities.