Putting the “Ghost” Back in “Holy Ghost”

It was a dark and stormy day when I, burned on Roman Baroque, searched out and found the one (non-Italian) Gothic-style church in Rome on the banks of the Tiber. The delightful, creepy, and unexpected non-architectural treasure? The Museo delle anime del purgatorio.

The Purgatory museum was fascinating to Protestant-me, featuring everyday items like prayerbooks, aprons, and tables with finger and handprints burned into them: tangible proof of the fiery souls in Purgatory who had come from beyond the grave to leave behind evidence of their continued existence and need for prayer.

Protestant-me’s mind was also whispering, So, ghosts, right? This is the Catholic version of ghosts. 

I am not here to solve the place of ghosts in the spiritual landscape of Christians, but I am here to talk about the curiosity of the Holy Ghost.

One of my writers group friends about this time last year brought in an illustrated book called “Adventures of the Holy Ghost” featuring the Holy Ghost as – you guessed it – a Charlie-Brown-style ghost, which I thought was a) adorable and b) thought-provoking. Because really, when you think about it – the Holy Ghost?

Of course, no one is advocating that the Holy Ghost is an actual ghost in the commonly accepted definition of the term – i.e., the soul of a dead person stuck in the in between of life and death. But hey, while we’re on the topic, let’s talk about that. Because what is a ghost?

Friends, let me take you on an etymological journey. (Source here if you want to check it out.)

  • The Old English word gast is a translation of spiritus  – both have the meaning “breath”.
  • Gast itself has its roots in Proto Indo-European words with the meaning “amazement”, “fear”, and/or “fright
  • The connotation of Old English gast as it moved into Modern English ghost was “supernatural being”, and applied equally to what we today think of as ghosts as it did to the Holy Ghost. This remained the case until the 14th century, when it took on more the meaning of the former… but still remained in use in the Bible.
  • It wasn’t until the 19th century that most translators started preferring to use “Holy Spirit” to disassociate the connotation. Curiously over here in my own Episcopal Rite I, we’ve clung to our Germanic/Old English etymological roots (and… their connotations.)

In summary – “Ghost” in its most basic connotation is a supernatural being that inspires amazement, fear, and/or fright. Still equally applicable to “disembodied soul of a dead person” and “Holy Ghost.”

It’s the juxtaposition that I find so interesting. The Holy Ghost is the source of life – literally the breath of life, hence you have the Greek pneuma → translated to the Latin spiritus → translated to Old English ghast. As Christians, we believe that the soul is immortal (and also in the resurrection of the body, but that’s another subject.) The soul itself is cast by its own etymology for us as the breath of life. So as it turns out, the dichotomy of dead person/source of life between the ghosts of dead people and the Holy Ghost isn’t so dichotomous.

We could all use a little more of the supernatural in our lives, and I don’t think that’s at odds with being a Christian and living out a Christian life. No matter how often you study the doctrine of the Trinity, you’re still going to come up short on ways to describe the Holy Ghost, which is as it should be – because our understanding of God as humans must necessarily be limited. I love the ancient connotations of “ghost” pervading our talk of the Holy Ghost and how diverse they are, from Hollywood to Hamlet to fairy tales. And I love how ultimately, we have to put both on a spiritual plane that, as embodied human beings in a physical plane, is beyond our ability to understand.

Dead men roaming the earth as disembodied souls? Fiery souls in purgatory leaving behind burning fingerprints? Jesus leaving behind the Holy Ghost to haunt the world after his death, resurrection, and ascension? 

Creator of all things visible and invisible. Give me some of that pneuma.

Happy haunting season, y’all.

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