St. Augustine’s Rejection of Ghosts

Pope Benedict with the bones of St. Augustine
Pope Benedict with the bones of St. Augustine

One final look at Augustine’s theology of the dead comes from On the Care to be Taken For the Dead (De cura pro mortuis gerenda), written in 421 to Paulinus, Bishop of Nola. The text was a response to a question from Paulinus, and is quite touching in places.

A woman had asked for her son to be buried near the tomb of St. Felix, and she asked if there was any benefit in this. Paulinus said yes, but then reconsidered and put the question to Augustine.

Augustine’s primary concern when addressing the subject of ghosts was to disavow pagan funerary practices, which had become lavish, absurd, and consumed by superstition. He writes against them in City of God as well, complaining that people treat the dead as though they were gods.

Remember also, in The Confessions, how he praises his mother for obeying St. Ambrose when he forbid her to bring food to graves.

The body is not important to Augustine, and the funeral rites, while they must be sensitive to the needs of the grieving, cannot become excessive. The soul alone matters. Thus, he answers the question of Paulinus in the negative:

And we must not believe, as we read in Virgil, that the unburied are prohibited from sailing and crossing the river Styx because ‘One may not cross the gloomy banks and foaming crest until his bones find peaceful rest.’ Who would open his Christian heart to these fabulous poetic imaginings, when the Lord Jesus asserts that not a hair of the head of a Christian will perish?

Yet, the bodies of the dead, especially of the just and faithful, are not to be despised or cast aside. The soul has used them as organs and vessels for all good work in a holy manner. If a paternal garment or a ring or anything else of this kind is as dear to children as is their love for their parents, in no way are their very bodies to be spurned, since they are much more familiar and intimate than any garment we put on. Bodies are not for ornament or for aid, as something which is applied externally, but pertain to the very nature of the man. Hence, the funerals of the just men of old were cared for with dutiful devotion, the processions solemnized, and a fitting burial provided.

According to Augustine, the fate of the living is of no concern to the dead, the fate of dead cannot be known by the living, and communication between the two realms is impossible. Though he doesn’t dwell on the story of Dives and Lazarus at length, this passage is at the foundation of his rejection of the idea of the dead passing back and forth to our world.

He is unwilling, however, to dismiss the numerous reports of people who saw the dead, in dreams or while awake, and received some special knowledge from them. For example, there are reports of dead people who report the locations of their bodies, which were missing and unburied, and these reports turned out to be true.

This obviously puzzles him, and he’s willing to admit his ignorance, saying “Now, if we state that these things are false, we shall seem indifferently to go against the writings of certain of the faithful and against the senses of those who affirm that such things have happened to them.”

Augustine allows that these visions, if they provide useful and true information, may be the work of angels, who might be permitted or ordered by God to convey information to the living. The dead, however, take no role in this, and it is only done to provide “solace for the living.” At other times, false visions of the dead (demonic in origin) may lead people into error and doom.

He likens ghostly visions to those times when a person appears in the dream of another, without that person’s knowledge or consent. The dead who are seen as “ghosts” are thus not the souls of the departed. Even if seen while waking, they are no more substantial than the image of a living person in the dream of a sleeper. This is the spiritual vision discussed in Augustine’s Three Types of Vision.

The only exception he may allow is for saints, as with the appearance of Moses and Elijah at the Transfiguration, or when St. Felix is reported to have appeared during the barbarian siege of Nola.

In a poignant aside, he observes that

If the souls of the dead were taking part in the affairs of the living, and they themselves were speaking to us when we see them in our dreams (that I may be silent about others), my devout mother would be with me every night, for she followed me on land and sea that she might be with me. Far be it that she should have become for the sake of a happier life cruel to this extent, that, when anything grieves my heart, she would not console her grieving son whom she loved so fondly! She never wished to see me sorrowful. Truthfully, then, does the inspired Psalmist write: ‘When my father and my mother forsook me, the Lord received me.’ If, then, our parents have forsaken us, how do they take part in our cares and affairs? However, if our parents are not interested, who are the others among the dead who know what we are doing or what we are suffering?

Thus do we see the main thrusts of Augustine’s arguments—his rejection of any hint of pagan death customs or beliefs, and his interpretation of the story of Dives and Lazarus—colored by a very personal bit of reasoning. After all, if the dead could visit at will, where is his beloved Monica? It’s a fair question.

Since Augustine peppers his writings on the subject with stories of dreams and ghosts, I’m going to leave you with one more of his tales:

Payment of a debt was demanded of a certain son, whose father, without the knowledge of the son, had made full settlement before his death, but had not received back the original note which was now produced. The son became very sad and was wondering why his father as he was dying had not told him what he owed, since he had made a will. Then the same father appeared to his son, who was now quite anxious. While the son was sleeping his father told him where he might find the receipt which would acknowledge full payment of his original note. And when the son found this and presented it, not only did he throw off the slander of the false claim, but also recovered his father’s signature, which the father had not recovered when he repaid the loan. Here, indeed, the mind of a man is thought to have exercised a care for his son and to have come to him sleeping, that he might inform his ignorance and so set him free from a great annoyance.