Right before the New Year during my sophomore year of high school, my best friend and I got out her old Ouija board. As she smoothed away the dust with the palm of her hand and placed the board on the floor in front of us, she recounted to me with great emphasis a series rules I was supposed to follow, like saying “break” before you take your hands off the planchette. There would be something real going on here, she insisted, and so it was important to approach this activity with respect.
I prided myself on being a pure atheist materialist — I never knocked on wood, avoided opening umbrellas in houses, threw salt over my shoulder, or engaged in any other superstitious activities “just in case” — and so this was an opportunity for me to demonstrate my strict adherence to my belief system. No warnings about malevolent spirits could scare me! Confident that this would secure my place as the most rational 16-year-old in the universe, I demonstrated my amazing non-superstitiousness making a big joke out of the whole thing. To my friend’s great concern, I taunted the supposed spirits, denounced the entire activity as dumb, and went out of my way not to observe the little formalities like saying “break” before we stopped.
When we first placed our hands on the planchette, I was startled when it moved without any effort on my part. I quickly shrugged it off, assuming its slide across the board was due either to the actions of my friend, or our collective subconscious desires to have something interesting happen.
Late into the night, probably about half an hour after midnight, more strange things were occurring which my friend attributed to contact with spirits. I started to make a sneering comment toward this supposed otherworldly being, but I was interrupted when the silence of the house was shattered by the loud ringing of the phone in the next room. We both jumped, and my heart beat so rapidly I immediately felt dizzy. Who on earth would be calling at this hour?
We dashed into the other room, a seldom-used home office, and my friend picked up the phone. She stopped one syllable into the word “hello,” paused, and hung up. It was just a dial tone. I picked up the phone and turned it around to switch off the ringer. I almost dropped it back down on the desk when I saw that the ringer was already turned off.
A few weeks later, we decided to try the thing out again, so my friend brought it over to my house. We never got around to playing with it, and I assumed that she took it back to her place. Then, one night around three o’clock in the morning, I awoke from a deep sleep to hear a violent thrashing sound to the right of my bed. I figured it was the cat “fighting” with one of my stuffed animals, and was annoyed since it sounded like he was completely destroying it. I clicked on a lamp and threw myself across the bed to shoo him away…but saw only a motionless pile of stuffed animals and decorative pillows on the floor. My skin prickled with cold sweat when I caught sight of something out of the corner of my eye: my cat, sound asleep on the foot of my bed. With my hand shaking, I slowly tossed each item in the pile by my bed out of the way.
On the floor underneath it lay the Ouija board.
The rest of that year was awful. I was involved in multiple car accidents and some other bad stuff, but the worst of it was that I was mired in a strange type of depression. I’d experienced bouts of depression before and since then, but this one was different. It was an inability to be fully happy, yes, but there was something darker. It was a constant sense of doom, a fear that infected me at a molecular level — though fear of what, I didn’t know. It also came with a virulent hateful streak, one that left me hissing out the nastiest responses (in my mind, if not always spoken) in response to the oddest, most insignificant provocations. It wasn’t as if I was an unhappy version of myself; it was as if my self had been tied up and locked in a basement somewhere, and my body was an abandoned haunted house.
For years I doggedly maintained that there was nothing to the whole Ouija board thing. Even when I first came to believe in God, I still rolled my eyes at the idea that there could be anything dangerous about playing with a cardboard toy that my friend’s mom bought at Target. But then I actually started reading the Bible, and I saw how frequently even the New Testament talks about evil spirits and their powers. I looked at world history and began to see the work of an intelligent evil force, its presence so strong that I wondered how I could have ever overlooked it. I learned more about the reality of good and bad supernatural forces, and the importance of knowing how to distinguish one from the other. And when I thought back on my experience with the Ouija board, I saw that though the “tools” we’d used may have come in the form of a $20 board game, I had participated in an event whose aim was to summon spirits indiscriminately — it didn’t matter whether they were good or evil (or, in my mind at the time, whether they existed at all); the goal was our own amusement. And when I looked back on my experiences in the months following those Ouija board games, I realized that they had all the signs of severe spiritual attack.
In his book Jesus-Shock, Dr. Peter Kreeft talks about how we are “self-centered experience addicts.” When discussing the issue of spiritual dry spells or lack of emotional experiences during prayer, he writes:
We are so addicted to our own positive experiences of joy and happiness that if we experienced Christ more joyfully than we do, we would almost inevitably come to love our experience of Christ more than Christ Himself. We would come to worship our experience, that is, ourselves.
Here he is talking about the dangers of worshiping positive sensations that come from contact with God instead of God himself, but I think the flipside is true also: we can end up accidentally cooperating with evil when we approach the spiritual realm with our own experiences as our first priorities.
I think that the reason that dabbling in the occult has had an increased appeal in recent decades is simply because people are bored, and yearn for interesting distractions. The Holy Spirit speaks in a still, small voice, and God doesn’t make cool stuff happen on command like a parlor magician. You can probably gather more thrill-a-minute stories while dabbling in the occult than you could while carrying your cross behind Christ. As we say in our baptismal promises, evil has a certain hollow “glamor” to it that a life faithful to God does not.
Lately I’ve been in yet another of my many spiritual dry spells, and I sometimes find it frustrating that I haven’t had any amazing experiences during prayer like I have in the past. But remembering my experience from high school serves as a warning not to fixate so much on whether I am personally entertained in my prayer life. Not that I’d go all the way to breaking out a Ouija board and channeling spirits if my reading of the Gospels continues to be dry, but I am reminded that the quest for spiritual glamor always leads down a dangerous path.
I finally got a chance to upload the audio from my recent talk. You can see the video here, which includes the introduction by Fr. Dean Wilhelm and the Q&A afterwards. It’s similar to my conversion story speech that I posted last year, though I did add some new elements. You can listen to it at the embedded player below, or download the full MP3:
If you’d like to download the MP3 it to listen to it later or play on your iPod, here’s the original file. Right-click on that link and choose Save Link As.
Hope you enjoy it!
© 2011 Jennifer Fulwiler – All Rights Reserved
Oh man, was I in a terrible mood a couple days ago. It was bad. I’d had two nights in a row of getting very little sleep because the baby had been fussy, then had one of those days where even my smallest ambitions were thwarted: I wanted to freeze some leftovers, and out of the ten thousand containers and three thousand lids in my Tupperware drawer, I could not find a single matching set. I wanted to banish the stircrazy kids outside for a while, but it was 107 degrees. I wanted to get the mail, but it was 107 degrees. Did I mention that it was 107 degrees? Anyway, whatever. The point is that it was one of those days where everything that could go wrong went wrong.
So you know what that meant, right? I’m exhausted. I’m having the worst day ever. The weather is miserable. I’m miserable. Thus, it is obviously time to evaluate my entire life, as well as the state of the world, and make judgment calls about how it’s all going!
I went through the usual process: It started with creating a detailed list of everything that’s wrong in my life, followed by some ruminations about every time anyone has said or done something that annoyed me over the past six months. From there I went on to reliving all my recent failures, reprioritized my list of pet peeves, and closed the brainstorming session with a Top 10 list of people whose lives are better than mine.
My husband came home about the time I was wrapping up, which was perfect timing since obviously I had to share all of this with someone else. I was not content to wallow in my own misery. Nay, I had to make sure that I had agreement and confirmation from someone else about how horrible everything was. So as soon as we got the kids to bed, I sat down with my husband to give him my Why Everything Sucks presentation, stopping just short of including PowerPoint slides.
But here was the problem: I knew that he was going to think that I came up with all these negative takes because I was tired and in a bad mood. Obviously the fact that I had had five hours of sleep in the past 48 hours and had faced one frustration after another had nothing to do with my apocalyptic conclusions, but I knew I’d have my work cut out for me convincing him of that fact.
And so when we sat down to talk, I brought my intellectual A-game. I did not appeal to emotion once. I did not make a single statement that was not backed up by concrete evidence. When my husband offered counterpoints to make the case that life was actually pretty great, I always had a solid, fact-based comeback. I calmly crafted a careful step-by-step analysis of the terribleness of my life, including perfectly logical extrapolations about how said terribleness would only increase in the future. It was reasonable. It was evidence-based. It was linear. And it was completely wrong.
After we chatted for a while, my husband kindly offered to take on extra nighttime duties with the baby (despite having a busy work schedule the next day) so that I could get some extra sleep. I took him up on his offer, while assuring him that that wouldn’t matter AT ALL in terms of my outlook. Nope. I would stand by every single thing I’d said this evening. Catching up on sleep would make no difference — after all, all of my conclusions were based on reason.
I woke up the next day refreshed and energized. I got great sleep, went out for a quick jog before my husband left for work, and came back feeling in tip-top shape both physically and mentally. And, whaddaya know, I didn’t feel like my life was so terrible anymore. The problems that I had detailed the night before were still there, and they were legitimate problems, but their scale and scope seemed entirely different now. Though I still saw all the same details here in the light of day, looking at the from a new perspective changed my entire perception of the overall situation. In fact, I was perplexed at how I could have been so gloomy the night before.
When I looked back on those ridiculous ideas, what was most interesting to me about it was that I’d used reason to get there. It reminded me of the back-and-forth we had with PZ Myers and his atheist readers a couple weeks ago: one of the subtexts of that debate was, Is reason the only thing you need to deduce the truth? Myers & co. seemed to think that the answer is yes. But I think that what happened when I was tired and having a bad day is a good example of why the answer is no.
Granted, my conclusions about my life were far stupider than theirs are about religion (I actually don’t think atheism is stupid at all), but the same principle is at work: reason won’t get you all the way to the truth. Knowing the truth takes more than just intellect; it requires the right disposition of the heart as well. If your soul isn’t in a state of openness, it’s easy to unintentionally disregard some data, to fixate on the wrong angles, to be right on the details but wrong on the big picture. If you’re not seeking the truth with peaceful humility, you’re not seeking the truth at all, no matter how rational your thought process is.
I think this is an important lesson here in the age when reason is held up as the pathway to all wisdom. It’s certainly a necessary component of any good decision making process, but it’s not the only component. It needs to be accompanied by the right spiritual and emotional states. Because, as I found when I was lamenting my tragic first world life, sometimes you can be perfectly reasonable and still be wrong.