Beyond Our Ken

By

It’s rare that people pay a first visit to our old farmhouse without asking if we have ghosts.

I can hardly blame them; I wondered the same thing the first time I came here. It’s certainly haunted with its own past, standing there under its trees, brooding gently over vanished things like a wise old woman holding tryst with memory. It arrests me every time I pull in the drive.

If my husband is present I cut him a sly smile. We love to creep each other out occasionally in the night watches—an impishly easy task, with all these shadowy corners and creaking floorboards—and then laugh at ourselves the next morning. But he knows that I’m not fool enough to tempt fate with a bald-faced commitment beneath the very roof I have to sleep under that evening.

Instead, I usually reply with a shrug of the shoulders and an ambiguous, “We-ell…” that could go either way. If I’m feeling particularly sure of my company, I may quote C.S. Lewis by adding playfully that, “if my house is haunted, it’s haunted by happy ghosts.” Indeed, the folks who built this place over a century and-a-half ago were good, God-fearing Methodists, and apart from some serious Civil War action in the front yard, the rowdiest times it’s seen were probably Wednesday night prayer meetings in the front parlor.

But any home that’s been around for as long as ours has undoubtedly seen its share of things worth telling. The romance of an old house is its story, and it still happens from time to time that some descendant will show up on our doorstep bearing a thread of the tale we haven’t heard—or, at least, that version of it. Not too long ago, a grandson of the last generation of the
original owners came by for a visit and held us enthralled a full summer morning with a running narrative as we wandered over the lawn, down to the barn, up to the house again and through the cool, high-ceilinged rooms. We heard the old, familiar ghost stories, told with such an artful relish that Philip and I couldn’t help exchanging a few grins of genuine glee. There were flesh-and-blood accounts, as well, tales of the men and women who had once been as alive in these rooms as we are today. The old gentleman’s stories made them live once more, if only in the sudden match-flare of the telling.

But there was one story I had never heard before. We were standing on the front porch saying our goodbyes when our guest paused and looked at me with an appeal in his eyes.

“Just one more.”

We fairly begged for it, while his wife tilted her head and shifted her purse on her arm with an indulgent smile. She must have seen that eager boy-light on his face just as plainly as we did.

“Well, it happened like this,” he began, with the drawling ease of the raconteur at home in his calling, “back in the old days it’d get so hot in the summer it was just unbearable, and the folks all used to sit out here on this porch in the evenings trying to keep cool. One night my daddy was sitting with his cousin, who’d come for a long visit. They were just rocking and talking and everything was still—it was long about sunset. All of a sudden, my daddy’s cousin jumped up with a shriek and took off running towards the road. You know the old road used to come down right through the middle of your front pasture there,” he gestured with a flourish, not waiting for a reply. “Well, my daddy just sat here watching her with his mouth gaping—he thought she’d taken a sudden fit as he couldn’t see a blamed thing. And when she came back, she was crying like her heart was broken.”

“’It was my brother,’ she said through her tears. ‘I saw him standing there right at the bend, but when I got to him, he wasn’t there anymore.’

“That would have been strange enough,” said our narrator, in a voice that sent a cold crinkle up the back of my neck, “but for the fact that they got word the next day that her brother had died unexpectedly, to the very hour and moment she’d seen him standing there at the bend in the road.”

The hair stood up on my arms and I felt the goosebumps chilling down my legs. It wasn’t fear I felt so much as awe—a trembling wonder at the thinness of the veil before which we’re all disporting our lives away with so little thought for the mysteries on the other side. I walked along the drive after our guests had gone and stood leaning on the fence, gazing at the spot where so extraordinary and inexplicable a thing had reportedly occurred. A soul taking leave of an absent loved one on the cusp of its long flight? Was it really possible?

We sat out on the porch that night, long after dark, watching the fireflies kindle their elven lamps in the trees around the house and along the old, memory-haunted roadbed through the front pasture. I eased my rocking chair back and forth and then tucked my legs up under me in the cane-bottomed seat.

“Why doesn’t it happen anymore?”

I asked it soft, whispered in the warm gloom, but my husband knew exactly what I was talking about. Why do all such stories seem relegated to the distant past? Why is the average modern life so strangely insulated from the unexplained?

Is it because we’re all inside watching TV? “Distracted from distraction by distraction”? Or have we grown too old and wise as a race to admit that there are things in this world—things Scripture is silent on and Science can’t explain—that we will never understand till we shake off this mortal coil? As Christians we are fortified by the promise that we’re peering through a glass on the eternal verities, that God in his grace has given us a view from a window the world can’t see. But it’s a dark glass, and things pass before it that our time-bound vision just can’t distinguish yet. Like a character in a George MacDonald fantasy, we’re all growing into our eyes and learning the meaning of a dual citizenship. We’re learning to see what’s at the end of our nose.

I’m no theologian, but my guess is that modern Christianity has lost much of its romance simply because we think we’re already there. We’ve talked the mystery out of it and we’ve slapped a tidy label over the imponderables. Anything that can’t be explained is suspect or tossed on the rubbish heap. We have lost our fairy birthright of the What-If.

What if souls were really permitted impossible leave-takings? What if there was life out there in the star-hung heavens, in another galaxy than our own? What if the scrim were really so thin and time so nonlinear that one could experience a sense of place deeply enough to actually share it for one fleeting moment with the ones who had once loved it as they do—or at least catch the rustle of a silken skirt in the hallway behind them?

I’m not making a case for ghosts, of course, but for the mere character of a God who can do anything. Who is more fierce, more wildly tender, more untamed and untrammeled than our craziest dreams could make him out to be.

Not different than what our Bible so faithfully tells us, but more.

We’re all trembling on the brink of a wildness that is terrifying and exquisite beyond anything our earthly experience could prepare us for. But I have to wonder if God doesn’t occasionally drop hints of the surprises he has in store: glimpses of a goodness we couldn’t bear even if we were able to conceive of it.

A few years ago I had the inexpressible privilege of watching at my grandmother’s deathbed. I was holding one of her tiny hands, still so lovely and ladylike yet strangely ashen with a marble pallor. My mother had her other hand and Daddy was at her head. I will never forget the peace of that place or the curious sense of joy that kept tugging at my grieving heart. I remember there was an April breeze coming in at the open window, lifting the sheets lightly and fanning wet cheeks, and the day outside was pale and silvery, as if too much sunlight would be an insult to our sorrow. We had been there for hours, noting the least change and talking quietly about the things we loved best about her, when suddenly I was completely overwhelmed by the thought of how beautiful it must be to die surrounded by those who love you so dearly—to be escorted thus from one love to Another. What a crown to a life, wiping away all the ravages of suffering and disease and leaving only beauty and blessing in its wake.

I saw the tired features relax; an unmistakable calm came over the dear face that had been agitated by Alzheimer’s for so many years. It was incredible—like a healing before our very eyes.

And it was then I knew beyond all doubt and misgiving that there was a Presence in that room: a Glory that would be our undoing if it were fully revealed. The air was heavy with it, yet not oppressed; I looked at my mother and I knew that she sensed it, too. I have heard people speak of such things; I have read of it in books. But I know now what their accounts have been fumbling for. I could never explain it to another. But eternity was so, so near. Or, rather, a curtain was lifted, wavered a bit, and I saw how near it’s been all along.

It was an experience that marked me for life and I thank God for such a peep behind the scenes, fleeting and fragmentary as it was. But we can’t dwell in such sublimities, of course, or we’d be no good for the ordinary blessedness of the common hours. To live unceasingly aware would be, as George Eliot so prudently put it, “like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence.”

It is good for me, however, when I find myself too “well-wadded with stupidity,” to be shaken out of my complacent notions of a safe universe and a tame God by a nudge of the incomprehensible.

Even if it’s only a bump in the night that makes me think that the lights can stay on upstairs just this once.

Profile photo of Lanier Ivester

Lanier Ivester is a “Southern Lady” in the best and most classical sense and a gifted writer in the most articulate and literal sense. She hand-binds books and lives on a farm with peacocks, bees, sheep, and the governor of Ohio’s leg. She loves old books and sells them from her website, LaniersBooks.com, and she’s currently putting the final touches on her first novel, as well as studying literature at Oxford.


30 Comments

  1. Tim

    Great read – the painting featured really sets the mood and illustrates your essay well. It’s one of my favorite Andrew Wyeth works.

  2. Bri

    I very much enjoyed this beautiful post. I recently read the book “Same Kind of Different as Me” – a completely different kind of story, but one which at times also causes one to consider those “peeps behind the scene.” Here’s to nudges and bumps!

  3. Profile photo of Ron Block

    Ron Block

    @ronblock

    Lanier, beautiful. I will never forget the look on my mother’s face when she was standing at the veil. Her eyes hadn’t tracked anything for hours, though they were open. I was sitting at her face as she laid on her side, and we were singing “Jesus Loves Me” when she suddenly looked up above my head, to my left; her eyes opened as wide as I’ve ever seen them. I had never till then seen just how blue her eyes were, the blue that is in the straight-up sky on a clear day. Her mouth opened wide (it had been shut for hours), and she stared in wide-eyed wonder. My wife said, “She has goosebumps on her arms!” She stared like that, as we sang and praised God, for a good twenty seconds, shut her eyes tight, closed her mouth, and gave a big smile. Forty seconds later her heart stopped. It was a gift to experience. Afterwards the Presence hung upon the place for the whole day. The hospice worker said she had rarely seen a going-home like that one.

  4. Rebekah

    Very beautiful, sweet friend! You gave me goosebumps, things to think about and tears in the course of a few paragraphs: excellent job. Keep scribbling …. keep naming your gift.

  5. Jonathan Rogers

    This is fantastic, Lanier.

    I went to see Tree of Life last night. A lot of that movie is devoted to putting everyday life–the water from a sprinkler, the light sifting through the leaves of a spiraling live oak, a baby learning to talk–in a cosmic, even a transcendent context. There are these long, long sequences that look like something from a planetarium movie–somehow fascinating and stultifying at the same time–and then spang up against it are these scenes of small-town Americana, and eventually you realize that the light of a supernova is the same as the light of a Fourth of July sparkler, and that both are lit with the light inextinguishable. Or, as you put it, “We’re all trembling on the brink of a wildness that is terrifying and exquisite beyond anything our earthly experience could prepare us for.”

    That movie also has CGI dinosaurs, which Pete Peterson doesn’t seem to have a problem with.

  6. caleb

    “…my guess is that modern Christianity has lost much of its romance simply because we think we’re already there. We’ve talked the mystery out of it and we’ve slapped a tidy label over the imponderables. Anything that can’t be explained is suspect or tossed on the rubbish heap. We have lost our fairy birthright of the What-If.”

    This is just excellent stuff; exactly the kind of thing I’m always hoping to find when I come to the RR.

    I’m often amazed at how quickly the life gets sucked out of any “What If” kind of topics in Christian circles. And I seem to notice it more and more of late. Many seem to like everything placed in some kind of neat catagory where a standard answer can be slapped on it as soon as it pops up. I don’t want to sound unkind, but too much of Christianity is just plain boring, and that makes me sad.

  7. Wendy

    So beautifully written Lanier ~ I remember being at my Dad’s bedside hours before he passed away and feeling those same things – the overwhelming ‘knowing’ that I was right at the edge of his ‘to be absent from the body – present with the Lord’ moment. You put my exact feelings into words – thank you precious friend….

  8. Brian

    “I’m not making a case for ghosts, of course, but for the mere character of a God who can do anything. Who is more fierce, more wildly tender, more untamed and untrammeled than our craziest dreams could make him out to be.

    Not different than what our Bible so faithfully tells us, but more.”

    These lines rang for me. I’ve suspected for awhile that Christianity was true, as far as it was concerned, but that there is something bigger; that there is truth that is somehow outside the realm of the Bible or our religion. Thank you for this post.

  9. Sir Jonathan C. Andrews

    I needed this in my busy day. A reminder of the Mysterious. That is the name I shall call Him this week The Great Mysterious One. You draw a picture in a way that speaks to my senses. I’m going to sit on the porch tonight instead of watching TV. After I’m done typing I’ll say out loud, “I do not have this world mapped or figured out and many more adventures await”.

  10. ljjasper

    Lanier – Thank you for your view of the world and the richness of your words. Beautifully written….

    I was surprised by your words… I’ve never read anyone’s words that more accurately describe my own experience sitting beside my Dad’s bed as we waited for him to exhale his last breath in this world. I have many times tried to put words to the experience, the sense that I could almost feel and hear and taste and smell something beyond this life. As if the door to the eternal was ever so slightly cracked and a glint of glory spilled out into the dark room… I remember being unsure if what I experienced was “real” or not. It seems I am not alone as you have captured this sense so wonderfully. My Dad had not spoken for DAYS as he lay in bed. There were no signs of life except for a quiet labored breathing. I had just read him a passage of scripture (Ephesians 3:14-21) when clear-as-a-bell he spoke one last word… he said “Amen”. Less than a half an hour later he exhaled the air from his lungs as I struggled to take in the sweetness of the air, the depth of the sorrow, the inexpressible joy I felt, the gift of his final word…. I so clearly remember the privilege of accompanying him to the slightly cracked door and saying goodbye. It’s been more than 15 years and I still remember that small “glint” as if it were yesterday.

  11. J.H. Friedrick

    Thank you for this mind-stretching post!

    I was reminded of the scene in C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce where he suggests that the souls of people are so much bigger than their physical selves. I was also reminded of G.K. Chesterton’s rampant imagination in the essays of Tremendous Trifles. I think the reason that those authors continue to bring insight through their works is that they understood that we can’t always understand. The wonder in Wonder is that it’s wonderful. The difference between the ocean and a pond.
    I’ve been convicted recently that I need to be aware/mindful of things that are beyond me but God allows (and even helps) me to see.

  12. Paula Shaw

    Thank you, Lanier. This was lovely and beautiful. I lived in house much like this for many of my growing up years. We had some “occurrences” go on as well. Hair raising, yes.
    As I read about your Grandmother’s passing, I was taken back to April of ’10, when my husband’s mother went to be with Jesus. It was April, funny enough, and the day felt the same way you describe. We’d been sitting vigil since the early morning, our boys had come to say goodbye to the grandmother they loved so dearly, but couldn’t bear to watch go from this world to the next. The evening was wearing on, and God kept nudging me to sing to her. I felt really silly about doing that because my singing voice had been injured by a stretch injury to a vocal nerve. So, as I sat there struggling with God, and the emotions of watching this beautiful, lovely, and very loving woman pass into the arms of Jesus, I finally succumbed to God’s leading and sang her all time favorite song to her: “Oh Lord, You’re Beautiful”. As I finished the last chorus, she breathed out peacefully and slipped into the arms of God. To witness such a beautiful healing was breath-taking and awesomely painful. She had suffered from the same debilitating illness as your grandmother. And in an instant the look on her face was of total beauty and peace. Awe-inspiring, to say the least. And God also healed me in regard to my own hatred of, and sheer loathing of my “new voice”. Magic moments. God moments. Too awesome to ignore, and yet so simple and pure. Of course He would heal us. Of course He would do it in whatever way WE needed it. Of course.
    Thank you again for sharing your wonderful gift of writing with us. I could read your writing forever. Totally beautiful!

  13. livingoakheart

    Caleb said:
    Many seem to like everything placed in some kind of neat catagory where a standard answer can be slapped on it as soon as it pops up. I don’t want to sound unkind, but too much of Christianity is just plain boring, and that makes me sad.
    .
    And often people mistake the artificially-boring bits for the actual, real, exciting truth, which leads to people saying ‘church is boring’ and things of that nature. What’s even sadder is that some christians actually believe that’s all there is, and they would find it more interesting if they were more spiritual; when in reality, it’s as exciting as riding a lion, or tricking a dragon, or changing the world.

  14. caleb

    LIVINGOAKHEART: “And often people mistake the artificially-boring bits for the actual, real, exciting truth, which leads to people saying ‘church is boring’ and things of that nature. What’s even sadder is that some christians actually believe that’s all there is, and they would find it more interesting if they were more spiritual; when in reality, it’s as exciting as riding a lion, or tricking a dragon, or changing the world.”

    Agree, and well said. What I should have said is not that too much of Christianity is boring, but that too much of what _passes for Christianity_ is boring. That is what I was trying to get at. It’s amazing to see the most wonderful message in the world stipped of its wonder so often times.

  15. Debra Henderson

    Thank you so much for sharing these wonderful stories Lanier, Ron, LJ, Wendy, Paula…it is a rare and beautiful privilege to glimpse the eternal in the temporal – awe inspiring – hope restoring!

    Lord knows our human minds cannot absorb glory let alone fully describe it to others. I love John’s account in Revelation 1… well it was kind of like this…there’s really no way to describe it, so all I can do is compare it to what I have words for, but that really doesn’t do it justice. Thank you all for putting into words the glory you have witnessed, it gives us all hope!

    Our seven year old son died of brain cancer a couple years ago and his passing too was beyond description…so peaceful…yet such a long, dark winter night. When the dawn came a bald eagle flew over our home and I felt the Lord gave me this scripture: Exodus 19: 4 “You yourselves have seen… how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself.” It gave me so much comfort. I’m deeply thankful the Lord meets us where we are in such personal ways.

  16. Timothy

    Lanier. A very beautifully written piece. One that touches so many little places of “oh yes” and brings vigorous head nodding. I know your story of the young man on the roadside was just a part of your essay but it made me want to tell you something I was privileged to share in of a few years ago. My parents were always confirmed atheists even to the point of mocking those who did believe. (my father anyway) They were children of the depression and lives of hurt and fear. My father was a stern and easily angered man and often struck out in that anger in very hurtful ways. It was pretty much the only emotion we saw from him. When he was in his early eighties he became ill and went into the hospital. After some tests they told him he needed treatment for a few maladies. He didn’t want to have anything done and signed himself out of the hospital. About the time he went into the hospital he started having episodes where he would be overwhelmed with emotion. The slightest mention of love, sadness or longing would send him into uncontrollable fits of anguished crying. He called me at work while he was in the hospital and I didn’t know at first who it was as he was crying so hard. Anyway, this part of the story is another complete tale but this is enough to set the stage. Over the next 2 weeks he continued in these episodes with the whole family there. I believe Jesus lifted him above the darkness so he could see how his life had affected those around him. He didn’t turn away but embraced it, as painful as it was, and did his best to repent and set things straight with his family. Unfortunately, mom couldn’t find much peace with him. I think there was some “too little too late” going on but she wouldn’t talk about it. He finally lapsed into a short coma and we went into a death watch with one of his three sons always with him. He lasted another two nights. He died at 3:17 AM. The next morning we waited for my mother outside her bedroom to tell her he was gone. When she came out she was smiling and we knew she already knew. We told her anyway and she said “I know, he came to me as he left last night at about 3:15. He said: I am well loved, I am content.” We knew Jesus had allowed him to do that to help bring her to the knowledge of His love for her. Thanks again for sharing your thought and insights. You have a beautiful and adventurous heart for God.

  17. Paula

    This is lovely. I often wonder if our modern minds miss the mystery of God (or dismiss it) because we have decided we are just too intelligent and practical for all of that. But Aslan isn’t safe. And our dual citizenship is a reality, even now. Thank you for the reminder.

  18. Candy

    So lovely, the tears are brimming over. We are ever on holy ground, carelessly scuffing and kicking the dirt in our worn, battered sandals. Your words remind me to kick off my sandals and tiptoe in awe! Thank you.

  19. Lanier

    Greetings, all, and thank you so much for your gracious comments. I’m sorry I haven’t replied sooner–we’ve been out of town. But I did want everyone to know that I’ve read each one of them (multiple times, often with chills running up my arms and a lump in my throat) and treasured your candor and generosity. Thank you for receiving my words with such grace, and for engaging with them with stories of your own. I’m really awed by the encounters with God and holy insights that have been shared above, and blessed beyond words to be a part of this community. God bless you all…

    Under the Mercy,

    ~Lanier

  20. Amber Leffel

    Thank you… Always… Thank you. Today especially (in these last several days) I’ve been needing the curtain pulled back… So wounded by so much pain all around me, I see, and — gently whispers the God that I Know (and that knows me), just a breath of His Name. Yahweh… Present. Thank you.

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