“Death is the veil which those who live call life; They sleep, and it is lifted” – Percy Bysshe Shelley
In the writings of Mircea Eliade, he imagines a hypothetical hominid without religion living in a homogenous, profane space, quickly followed by some savvy primate saying “Holy crap, we’ve got to get these heavens populated” and setting aside some sacred spaces for subsequent, divine real estate speculation. In essence, the recognition of spatial non-homogeneity is the fundamental and primordial experience of religion, an apprehension that reality is a fractured mirror. Eliade further suggested that both religious and non-religious man seem to recognize that there are privileged, qualitatively different places in space, “a man’s birthplace, or the scenes of his first love, or certain places in the first foreign city he visited in youth. Even for the most frankly nonreligious man, all these places still retain an exceptional, a unique quality; they are the ‘holy places’ of his private universe, as if it were in such spots that he had received the revelation of a reality other than that in which he participates through his ordinary daily life” (Eliade, 1959). These breaks in space are the “thin places” that are cross-culturally common, the strange places where the veil between heaven and earth is pulled aside, the gap between the living and dead narrows, or if you prefer, the dimension to which all your missing socks go. One such place appears to have been Waldbach, France, at least if we are to believe Johann Friedrich Oberlin (1740-1826), and we have no reason to doubt his sincerity since the guy was basically a saint.
Unfortunately for Oberlin, there’s no such thing as an official, super-hero style Protestant saint (they’re not big on the intercessory prayer thing). If there was, it would be Oberlin. His father was a teacher and his mother was the daughter of a lawyer. He studied Protestant theology in Strasbourg where he was born, and in 1766 he became the pastor of Waldbach, situated in a fairly remote valley in the Vosges Mountains, part of the Ban de la Roche region of Allsace, France. The Ban de la Roche (or Steinthal, as it was called in German) was a little Protestant oasis amidst Catholic neighbors. That, and the fact that the entire region was surrounded by lofty mountains made impassible by heavy snows for at least half the year, led to a strong sense of local identity, even though the whole region passed back and forth between France and Germany for a few hundred years. When Oberlin arrived on the scene, he decided he was responsible not just for the spiritual lives of his parishioners, but also their material welfare. He rolled up his sleeves and got to work (and set such a good example that others joined him) constructing roads, building bridges, improving farming practices, getting some industries set up, starting a library, founding a few schools and orphanages – consequently he is sometimes referred to as “the true precursor of Christian Socialism in France”. Basically, he wasn’t about to yell about fire and brimstone when the lives of the peasantry already sucked, and if he wasn’t trying to do something about it.
About two years before Oberlin died, he was visited by Reverend J.H. Smithson, with whom he shared a distinct interest in the Swedish scientist-mystic Emanuel Swedenborg, and Oberlin confided in him that when he initially arrived in Waldbach he was both puzzled and concerned about the widespread belief among his flock that the Ban de La Roche was an area where the living and the dead intermingled with a higher frequency.
He said to Mr. Smithson that when he first came to reside among the inhabitants of Steinthal they had what he then considered “many superstitious notions respecting the proximity of the spiritual world, and of the appearance of various objects and phenomena in that world, which from time to time were seen by some of the people belonging to his flock. For instance, it was not unusual for a person who had died to appear to some individual in the valley…The report of every new occurrence of this kind was brought to Oberlin, who at length became so much annoyed that he was resolved to put down this species of superstition, as he called it, from the pulpit, and exerted himself for a considerable time to this end, but with little or no desirable effect. Cases became more numerous, and the circumstances so striking as even to stagger the skepticism of Oberlin himself” (Hobart, 1862, p183).
Oberlin, in the face of an overwhelming number of spectral reports, decided to give up on his attempts to convince the peasantry that spirits weren’t abounding in the Ban de la Roche, started to collect some notes, and scholarly gentleman that he was, began musing on why the area was rife with phantasms of the dead.
Ultimately the pastor came over to the opinions of his parishioners in this matter. And when Mr. Smithson asked him what had worked such conviction, he replied “that he himself had had ocular and demonstrative experience respecting these important subjects.” He added that “he had a large pile of papers which he had written on this kind of spiritual phenomena, containing the facts, with his own reflections upon them.” He stated further to Mr. Smithson that such apparitions were particularly frequent after that well-known and terrible accident which buried several villages, (the fall of the Rossberg, in 1806.) Soon after, as Oberlin expressed it, a considerable number of the inhabitants of the valley “had their spiritual eyesight opened” and perceived the apparitions of many of the sufferers (Owen, 1859, p361).
Of course, one does not go from pious skeptic to believer overnight unless there is some kind of revelation from on high or head trauma. It took quite a bit to convince Oberlin that the spirits were frequently walking among the living in the Ban de la Roche, and for a time he just didn’t know what to make of the whole situation.
An honest tradesman, relying on the power of Oberlin’s faith, came to him one day, and, after a long introduction, informed him, that a ghost, habited in the dress of an ancient knight, frequently presented itself before him, and awakened hopes of a treasure buried in his cellar; he had often, he said, followed it, but had always been so much alarmed by a fearful noise, and a dog which he fancied he saw, that the effort had proved fruitless, and he had returned as he went. This alarm on the one hand, and the hope of acquiring riches on the other, so entirely absorbed his mind, that he could no longer apply to his trade with his former industry, and had, in consequence, lost nearly all his custom. He, therefore, urgently begged Oberlin would go to his house, and conjure the ghost, for the purpose of either putting him in possession of the treasure, or of discontinuing its visits. Oberlin replied, that he did not trouble himself with the conjuration of ghosts, and endeavored to weaken the notion of an apparition in the man’s mind, exhorting him, at the same time, to seek for worldly wealth by application to his business, prayer, and industry. Observing, however, that his efforts were unavailing, he promised to comply with the man’s request. On arriving, at midnight, at the tradesman’s house, he found him in company with his wife and several female relations, who still affirmed that they had seen the apparition. They were seated in a circle in the middle of the apartment. Suddenly the whole company turned pale, and the man exclaimed, “Do you see, Sir, the Count is standing opposite to you?” “I see nothing.” “Now, Sir,” exclaimed another terrified voice, “he is advancing towards you.” “I still do not see him.” “Now he is standing just behind your chair.” “And yet I cannot see him; but, as you say he is so near me, I will speak to him.” And then, rising from his seat, and turning towards the corner where they said that he stood, he continued, “Sir Count, they tell me you are standing before me, although I cannot see you, but this shall not prevent me from informing you, that it is scandalous conduct on your part, by the fruitless promise of a hidden treasure, to lead an honest man, who has hitherto faithfully followed his calling, into ruin—to induce him to neglect his business—and to bring misery upon his wife and children, by rendering him improvident and idle. Begone, and delude them no longer with vain hopes.” Upon this the people assured him that the ghost vanished at once (Wilson, 1845, p32-34).
Chastising an aristocratic ghost for unmannerly behavior seems a fairly mild form of exorcism, but at the time Oberlin was still not entirely sure what he was dealing with – the madness of men or a plague of phantoms. I suppose he was hedging his bets. A Professor Barthe visited Oberlin in 1824, and Oberlin expressed his thoughts in why the dead appeared to favor visiting Ban de La Roche.
With respect to the faculty of ghost-seeing, he said, it depends on several circumstances, external and internal. People who live in the bustle and glare of the world seldom see them, while those who live in still, solitary, thinly-inhabited places, like the mountainous districts of various countries, do. So if I go into a forest by night, I see the phosphoric light of a piece of rotten wood; but if I go by day I cannot see it; yet it is still there. Again, there must be a rapport. A tender mother is awakened by the faintest cry of her infant, while the maid slumbers on and never hears it; and if I thrust a needle among a parcel of wood shavings, and hold a magnet over them, the needle is stirred while the shavings are quite unmoved. There must be a particular aptitude; what it consists in I do not know; for of my people, many of whom are ghost-seers, some are weak and sickly, others vigorous and strong. Here are several pieces of flint: I can see no difference in them; yet some have so much iron in them that they easily become magnetic: others have little or none. So it is with the faculty of ghost-seeing. People may laugh as they will, but the thing is a fact, nevertheless (Ballou, 1853, p247-248).
As it turns out, what finally convinced Oberlin was when he started receiving visitations from his own wife for nine years after her death. Nothing like a personal apparition to make one wonder if perhaps there is a little more to all this supernatural business than the delusions of the unwashed masses and wishful thinking. And where better a place to pierce the veil than in remote and isolated Waldbach, where the restless dead felt free to pop in for a visit. Maybe, intercourse with the dead is just part of a process we do not understand, where we conceive of ourselves and our current existence as the focus, whereas we might also want to consider the possibility suggested by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, that is, “We are not human beings having a spiritual experience. We are spiritual beings having a human experience”. You may doubt, given Oberlin already had some spiritual leanings, but hey, has anybody named a college after you?
Ballou, Adin, 1803-1890. An Exposition of Views Respecting the Principal Facts, Causes, And Peculiarities Involved In Spirit Manifestations: Together With Interesting Phenomenal Statements And Communications. 2nd ed. Boston: Bela Marsh, 1853.
Crowe, Catherine, 1800?-1876. The Night-side of Nature; Or, Ghosts and Ghost-seers. New York: J. S. Redfield, 1850.
Eliade, Mircea, 1907-1986. The Sacred and the Profane: the Nature of Religion. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1959.
Hobart, Nathaniel, d. 1840. Life of Emanuel Swedenborg: With Some Account of His Writings. 4th ed. Boston: W. Carter & Brother, 1862.
Owen, Robert Dale, 1801-1877. Footfalls on the Boundary of Another World. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott & co., 1859.
Wilson, Lucy Sarah Atkins, 1801-1863. Memoirs of John Frederic Oberlin, Pastor of Waldbach, In the Ban de La Roche. 2nd American ed., with additions. Boston: James Monroe, 1845.