Monday, 30 November 2009

Making sense of the supernatural

Clergymen (and women) are often involved in some weird and unusual things in the course of their day to day ministries. I recall once in a previous parish being contacted by a concerned mother and asked if I could help. She explained that her 3-4 year old daughter had an 'imaginary' friend who she used to talk to in her bedroom. The parents had thought very little of this, putting it down to part of a child's natural development, until one day the child became frightened and told her mother that this 'friend' had tried to bite her. The little girl was so frightened that she would not go back to her berdroom and so the mother, not knowing what to do, contacted the local priest - me- and asked if I could bless the room or something. Not really knowing a great deal about this sort of thing other than a few books I had read on the subject, I went along and said a few prayers of blessing in the room where the incident took place. A day or so later I contacted the woman and asked how things were going. The little girl had gone back to her bedroom and was happy again. This imaginary friend who used to come to play with her had gone now and all was well again.

I remember thinking how unusual this event was but gave it little more thought and reflection at the time. Now however, thinking back, there are a number of questions the whole incident raises which have no easy answer, other than a religious one.

First, who was this imaginary friend? A figment of a child's very active imagination or something more sinister?
Second, was there some kind of psychological reason for this - some kind of low-level mental illness that had only just started to manifest itself and which, perhaps in later years, would become more full-blown schizophrenia or such like.
Three, was there some other scientific or 'natural' explanation that could account for this that I and the parents were/are unaware of?

These, and others like them, are all legitimate and necessary questions to ask and one should not immediately jump to any supernatural explanations for such phenomena. However if the so called 'friend' was a figment of the child's imagination, why did it go after prayers?

The same could be said of any psychological explanations. I did not interview the child, I only spoke to her mother, and as it was the child who had seen/experienced the phenomena, any attempt to assign a psychological cure does not make any sense unless it was the child I had counselled. But even then a three-four year old? You could possibly explain it on the basis that the mother managed to reassure her daughter that the priest had been and "chased the baddies away" but why would this assurance be more viable than the mother's previous attempts at calming her daughter's fears?

As to scientific or 'natural' explanations and having spoken to others who are more of that particular mindset, I have received nothing that would satisfy me as being adequate to the case in question.

Which leaves us with a religious or Christian explanation. For the Christian the categories of natural versus supernatural are not helpful as the former tends to be equated with the notion of 'real' and substantial, while the latter equates to 'unreal/imaginary' or insubstantial. For the Christian all is 'natural' as God made it and to draw any division between the seen and unseen or the world of the spirits (i.e. angelic beings, God - Father, Son and Holy Spirit etc) and the world of 'man' is to muddy rather than clear the waters. There is more going on in the world than what can be seen with the eyes and for the Christian the world of the angels etc is as 'natural' a part of life as the world of trees and eathquakes. The Bible refers to such beings without a hint of doubt or embarassment and although it does not go into great detail, it tells us enough to awaken us to the presence of both good and fallen angels (demons) and calls us to ensure that we know how to both defend ourselves against them or rid ourselves of them.

In Paul's letter to the church in Ephesus he councils them to "put on all the armour God gives you, so that you will be able to stand up against the Devil's evil tricks." He continues, "For we are not fighting against human beings but against the wicked spiritual forces in the heavenly world, the rulers, authorities and cosmic powers of this dark age." (Ephesians 6:11-12 Good News Bible). This incident then can only point towards something along these lines and therefore only such weapons that the Church possesses, under the authority of Christ, are in the end effective against them.

I can find no other explanation for such occurences (there have been others) than the Christian one. If that is the case - and I believe it is - then there is a war going on where sides have to be chosen. If it's good versus bad and God is on the good side, then I know where my loyalty is. What about you?

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