A foray into psychical research and faith

Continuing on my quest to find clues to the Stone Tape idea, I was pointed to Shane Leslie’s Ghost Book of 1956. This prior to Lethbridge’s Ghost and Divining Rod (1961) which much more flamboyantly (and conceitedly) trots out the idea about emotional recording in mysterious “fields” to be played back later to a receptive individual. I’m going through that slog of a book right now. But what was surprising is that I found Leslie’s book quite interesting and entertaining. Leslie was an Irish Catholic diplomat. This book is a collection of ghost stories related to the Catholic faith. There were some fascinating bits of information in here besides the mention of “Mass echoes in time,” which was what I was looking for. I’ll get to that, but first, some views on ghosts and Catholicism.

The Catholic church forbade invoking the dead. But, if the dead came on their own accord, presumably by divine permission, it was perfectly OK to try to interact with them. The Catholic belief, Leslie notes, was that these were souls stuck in Purgatory who were requesting prayers or some action (like destroying some papers) before they could move on and be at rest.

The author clarified more than once that ghost stories were very useful to preachers whether they were real or not because they told a dramatic story and put the fear of God into the people. They didn’t need scientific proof of such things. And, science doesn’t deal in the supernatural, he notes.

There is some talk about Spiritualism, an American religion that had at its core the means to speak to the dead. “Rapping” as a form of spirit communication, Leslie says, was known in religious context long before Spiritualism popularized it. There was very little in spiritualism, he stated, “which is not paralleled in the Catholic history.” He believed that a medium was the bridge between minds and that the mechanism was natural but unknown. One wonders if the levitating mediums knew of St. Joseph of Cupertino whom Leslie depicts, almost comically, as not being able to keep his feet on the ground. He says St. Joseph might be labeled the “patron saint” of Spiritualism because of his levitation skills.

The church was only interested in psychical activity as it was related to saintly miracles. Leslie is clear that nearly all supernatural claims associated with canonization were rejected after due scrutiny. If they were considered valid, it was because of “angelic influences”. Truly diabolic entities were rare. And hoaxes definitely occurred (either by humans or from devilish deception). The church permitted exorcism only after a full inquiry. Then, the Bishop still had to give permission and the activity was done under strict supervision. How unlike today!

The church held that psychical research could be damaging to the soul. Under the influence of evil spirits, one could become obsessed or lose their moral character. Leslie, who was in Ireland, remarked upon the rumor that ghosts were rarer in Catholic countries. He figured it was because saying a Mass for the spirit got rid if it. Masses were more prevalent in Catholic countries. It was a sweet dig regarding the “true” religion – this was the only one that could rightly “lay” the ghost. Another dig was that in Protestant houses, poltergeists reportedly plagued only Catholic guests. The poltergeists, whom he believed used adolescent girls as vehicles to manifest, were said to smash crockery, cause fires, throw stones, and even more coffins around in vaults. In an entire chapter on polts, Leslie describes how these entities were bothersome to the church. Priests often failed to be any help, and the entities, whatever they were, were confused, not chastened, by religious paraphernalia.

Finally, I found the mention related to environmental recording and playback. In a section called “Mass echo in time,” Leslie describes the observation regarding pre-Reformation alters (stone) or wood furniture previously used for Mass (so, not “mass” as in “a lot”) that would give off the sound of music and Latin chants reminiscent of old Catholic services. Only children were said to hear them as they hid under the tables to listen. However, Leslie points to another volume, Roger Pater’s Mystic Voices (1923) for reference to emotional recording in physical media. I think he is quoting from that book here:

“Anything which has played a part in events that aroused very intense emotional activity becomes itself saturated, as it were, with the emotions involved. So much so, that it can influence people of exceptional sympathetic powers and enable them to perceive the original events, more or less perfectly, as if they were reenacted before them.”

He also relates one incident where a priest said that even parchment could convey these echoes from the past. When he “handled” certain manuscripts, he declared, “one came into contact with the living writer or originator,” “spirit touches spirit”. Hmm, this sounds symbolic, not literal, to me. Anyway, there is the mention but it’s not that much to go on. So I looked up Pater’s 1923 book, a collection of short stories. The one called “The Persecution Chalice” is said to be based on a real experience of Pater (his real identity was Dom Roger Hudleston). Since this collection was not readily accessible to me, I refer to this piece in the Downside Abbey Library collection for this description:

“Whilst saying Mass here at Downside, Dom Roger picked up the chalice which was brought to England during the French Revolution, and he could hear the sounds of rioting men outside. Gunfire and shouting were plainly audible to him as he held the chalice. Upon placing it down, the sounds stopped.”

This is yet another example of an object conveying a past event. What is becoming clear is that this idea was ubiquitous. Lethbridge was the writer who managed to coalesce the idea with ghostly experiences. His speculations were then was promoted later by other paranormalists pop writers like Colin Wilson. Then, the modern era of ghost hunters carried the nifty idea into the present under the name from the play/teleplay, The Stone Tape. The piecing together continues…

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