APPARITIONS – From the Ontario Catholic Paranormal Research Society of Toronto, Canada.

Posted on January 29, 2012


By: Demetrius (Co-Founder of the OCPRS)

            Paranormal experiences with the afterlife have been part of the overall human experience throughout history. How such experiences have been defined, or continue to develop depends on what people choose to believe. The Ontario Catholic Paranormal Research Society has always approached the paranormal experience through Christian perspectives. Although the central focus of the OCPRS is a Christian perspective, other systems of belief are examined in order to identify and classify the type of paranormal phenomena taking place – preternatural or supernatural. Since the most popular subject belonging to paranormal activity deals with the afterlife, most of the OCPRS’s pursuits have dealt with “ghost” phenomenon in one form or another. This article is aimed at helping others acquire a better understanding of what it is the OCPRS explores, and in doing so may be helpful to others in their own approaches to “ghost” phenomena.

            Having already addressed some aspects of spirits in previous articles – identified as either demonic manifestations or the spirits of the deceased – it now becomes necessary to expand what has been identified. Human sensory perception has remained largely problematic in identifying and classifying the spiritual world. On one hand there is spiritual discernment discussed at great lengths among the Holy Fathers of the Church. The spiritual discernment mentioned here has much to do with the distinction between the spiritual senses and the carnal-minded; between the miraculous and “magic,” the divine and demonic. On the other hand there are also the sciences of our modern era. Both approaches can, and do, provide insights into “ghost” phenomenon. The term Apparition often appears in the essays and other works of both the Church and paranormal researchers alike. There is, however, a problem with the usage of this word in terms of how it is applied to “ghost” phenomena. The word itself comes from the Latin, apparitio, and means “to appear.” Most, if not all, dictionaries often associate ghosts to apparitions. In most dictionaries, the most frequent and foremost example used to explain the word, Apparition, is ghost, spectre, phantom, and so forth. The most basic impression applied to this word provides a very biased context. Such definitions suggest that an apparition is just another word for ghost. The problem with most definitions making such impressions is that the word is reduced to denoting – or comes to symbolize – a misguided image of a spiritual experience. To be precise, what occurs is a misguided image of “ghost” phenomena.

            At times, language itself is steered by popular culture, and in turn so are beliefs and perspectives about the afterlife. In various circles of paranormal research and the occult, the term Apparition does not present a problem to the “ghost” phenomena found in popular culture. The evidence to this statement is supported by the fact that modern spiritualists, psychics/mediums, and others have adopted and made use of this term to identify a phenomenon conforming to their respective belief systems. Television programs promoting the paranormal and other occult belief systems have only served to strengthen the use of language to promote non-Christian views about the afterlife. The problem here is how language in our modern era has reduced and sidelined the Christian perspective. The outcome is a misleading view on the subject of the afterlife.

            As mentioned, the term Apparition is also found in a variety of works provided by the Church. If someone were to take the standard definitions of the term Apparition previously explored and apply them to what are generally known as apparitions of the Virgin Mary, a very misguided view may occur. What is often ignored by most people is the simple truth that the Church has grown through its experiences. Today, those experiences of the Church are unjustly explored as subjects falling under the study of paranormal phenomenon. The crude scrutiny applied against the miraculous events belonging to the Church has been largely owed to the language of secularism. While this has certainly occurred through popular culture, the Church continues to maintain the truth of its experiences. Through the Holy Spirit, God glorified through His saints, the angels, and through other miracles, the experiences of the Church have amassed a very strong understanding of the spiritual world. Whether people accept the experiences of the Church or not those experiences stand as a testimony to the truth – of humanities spiritual growth towards God.

            Certainly, the experiences of the Church are not confined to secular definitions, but unfortunately they are ignored. Secular definitions often take what is miraculous and reduce what is divine to the same paranormal phenomena to which demonic manifestations are responsible. What an apparition is and how it is understood through the experiences of the Church provides a broader and richer understanding of those experiences thought of as paranormal. For instance, the Church does not define an apparition as a ghost. Just as the Latin meaning suggests, Apparition is an appearance. However, it is an experience not confined to the sense of sight alone. The corporeal apparition is but one aspect of such an experience. Here, there is something that can be seen, but not everything that can be seen is necessarily corporeal. In some cases, what is thought to be corporeal is actually incorporeal; is immaterial, having no physical substance, but is seen nonetheless.

            According to the Roman Catholic Church there are three varieties or circumstances identified to apparitions when they occur. In other words, how, when, and why apparitions manifest are important in order to understand what an apparition is. Besides the corporeal apparition that appears to the human senses, there are also two other circumstances by which apparitions occur: imaginative apparitions and intellectual apparitions. The imaginative apparition is one that occurs as an image and takes place through the imagination and not the senses. Such an apparition is admittedly influenced by a natural – sometimes supernatural – agent, and the imagination creates the image which appears. Then, there is the intellectual apparition. The major difference between the intellectual apparition and the other two categories is that there isn’t necessarily any recognizable image which imparts a sense of understanding. Instead, there is a presence which imparts a sense of understanding or effect. The three varieties of apparitions are not necessarily separate from one another. Many apparitions may consist of a combination of the three. It is important to recognize that an apparition is understood as much more than an image, than something which merely “appears.” Interestingly, an apparition is not identified strictly as a ghost, but as an experience.

            Examples found in the lives of various saints have demonstrated a variety of apparitional experiences ranging from what is Holy to demonic manifestations. The experiences described among the various lives of the saints help to further explain how the word Apparition can be defined. Like all paranormal phenomena, some experiences are benevolent while others are evil. St. Anthony the Great experienced a series of apparitional experiences stemming from demonic manifestations. From the Life of St. Anthony:

“But changes of form for evil are easy for the devil, so in the night they made such a din that the whole of that place seemed to be shaken by an earthquake, and the demons as if breaking the four walls of the dwelling seemed to enter through them, coming in the likeness of beasts and creeping things. And the place was filled with the forms of lions, bears, leopards, bulls, serpents, asps, scorpions, and wolves, and each of them was moving according to his nature. The lion was roaring, wishing to attack, the bull seeming to toss with its horns, the serpent writhing but unable to approach, and the wolf as it rushed on was restrained; altogether the noises of the apparitions, with their anger, were dreadful.”

The apparitions described here inSt.Anthony’s experience take on both a corporeal and imaginative aspect. On one hand, the demons “seemed to enter” through the walls but perhaps did not literally do so. However, the demons were described as taking the forms or “likeness of beasts” and did make noises heard by the saint. The apparitional experience mentioned here provides a possible combination of circumstances to which apparitions are understood.

            Apparitions are not always demonic. The next example is that of St. Dionysius of Zakynthos who is known in the Orthodox Church as the “walking saint.” Many people have claimed to have seen St. Dionysius walking. In many eye-witness accounts, he is described as a living man, and not as some sort of ghost. Most certainly, the non-Christian definition of apparition would suggest thatSt.Dionysius is some sort of ghost, but this is not the case. During such sightings, the tomb in which St. Dionysius rests is said to be impossible to open. When the tomb can be opened, observations of the body revealed that the slippers on the body appeared to be worn thin. It is as if they have been worn by much walking. Whether the body of the saint actually leaves the tomb or the sightings of him are incorporeal apparitions, the worn slippers serve as a testimony to an apparitional experience. It is worth mentioning that the apparition of St. Dionysius is accompanied by miracles thereby distinguishing the saint from the malevolence recognized in the apparitions of demons.

            Other apparitions identified to the Church can be found in the Bible itself. The Apostle Paul wrote of the numerous times that Christ had appeared following His death and resurrection. From 1 Corinthians 15:5-8,

“…that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time…Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also…”

Perhaps with this biblical example it becomes necessary to point out the differences between the Church and secular definitions in regards to the term Apparition. Christ did not appear as a ghost, but in the fullness of His humanity and divinity. However, the Gospel of Luke 24:37-39 describes the confusion between a ghost and the apparition – appearance – of Christ:

“But they were terrified and frightened, and supposed they had seen a spirit. And He said to them, “Why are you troubled? And why do doubts arise in your hearts? Behold My hands and My feet, that it is I Myself. Handle Me and see, for a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see I have.”

The appearance of Christ was not a ghost, but the disciples did at first believe this to be the case. The common perception of ghosts – the spirits of the dead – is not a recent development, but runs throughout human history. The disciples themselves beheld the image of Christ and confused Him for what they believed could only be a ghost. The modern and secular definition of the term Apparition maintains a very ancient belief in the spirits of the dead becoming ghosts. Yet, in the apparitional experiences belonging to the history of Christianity, apparitions do not define the dead or the living, but simply an appearance belonging to extraordinary circumstances.

            There are, however, instances of the spirits of the dead appearing to the living who do not represent the angelic or saintly variety of apparition. Nor do such apparitions stem from demonic manifestation. Instead, the spirits of the dead can appear under certain circumstances serving God’s purpose, and such incidents have been recorded by Church. Here, the ghost phenomena recognized to popular culture does indeed share similarities with what the Church has acknowledged in regards to the spirits of the dead. It is perhaps here that most people tend to simplify what an apparition is. Regardless of such confusion, the perspectives of the Church may once again help define apparitions beyond the limitations of popular culture. From the Orthodox Church, the story written by Photios Kontoglou’s The Great Wager Between Believers and Unbelievers, a visitation from the spirit of a dead man is described. The spirit reveals how and why he has appeared where he says, “I have not come; I have been sent.” A condemned spirit appeared to a living person for the purpose of serving God’s purpose – to confirm the fate awaiting unbelievers in the afterlife. In Roman Catholicism, there are similar accounts of souls returning from purgatory who request prayers (prayers for the dead). The apparitions of the dead known in Christianity are not the same sort of “ghost” phenomena recognized by modern spiritualists, paranormal researchers, psychics and other mediums. When the spirits of the dead are recognized to apparitional experiences, they are simply one set of circumstances among many. The spirits of the dead do not define what an apparition is.

            Having examined the broad range of circumstances understood to apparitional experiences found in Christianity, it becomes clear that the term Apparition means precisely what the Latin root of the word actually means: to appear. Yet, this is in itself oversimplified. What “appears” is associated to extraordinary circumstances having to do with spirituality and the physical senses, although this aspect isn’t always entirely clear. Despite the broad range of experiences recognized to the term Apparition, it continues to be defined by popular culture and stirs images of ghosts (strictly, the spirits of the dead). The danger through such a limited definition is that non-Christian belief systems further reinforce the idea of an afterlife populated by ghosts and promotes an ambivalent view of the afterlife.


            What then can be said of the word, Apparition? How can it be defined in order to help people understand the spiritual world as it interacts with the material world? An Apparition is simply an experience between the spiritual and material world. It is indeed a manifestation perceived through the senses and/or sometimes through the soul. In itself, an apparition influences the mind and heart of those who perceive it. It is not a natural experience according to mankind’s fallen condition, but is supernatural. St. Isaac the Syrian’s Second Homily addresses some concerns regarding such experiences where he writes,

“The perception of spirits with the eyes of sense always brings harm, sometimes greater and sometimes less, to men who do not have spiritual perception. Here on earth images of truth are mixed together with images of falsehood.”

What an apparition is depends on the ability to discern between the various circumstances previously described. St.Ignatius Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises mentions,

“We ought to note well the course of the thoughts, and if the beginning, middle and end is all good, inclined to all good, it is a sign of the good Angel; but if in the course of the thoughts which he brings it ends in something bad, of a distracting tendency, or less good than what the soul had previously proposed to do, or if it weakens it or disquiets or disturbs the soul, taking away its peace, tranquility and quiet, which it had before, it is a clear sign that it proceeds from the evil spirit, enemy of our profit and eternal salvation.”

Spiritual discernment is the only real way anyone can identify what an apparition is. To simply perceive something does not identify what it truly is. The carnal-minded individual attempts to interpret the spiritual world in a material way. However, there are many saints who have managed to spiritually discern the spirits largely due to their spiritual maturity. Even with spiritual maturity, the senses are limited to material interpretations. The hagiography of St. Martin of Tours is an excellent example of such spiritual discernment. An apparition claiming to be the Christ appeared to St. Martin. The apparition wore royal purple garments, and a crown, surrounded by golden light. However, St. Martin did not believe the apparition and told it,

“The Lord Jesus did not say that he would return in purple and with a crown. I will not recognize my Saviour unless I see Him as He suffered, with the stigmata and the cross.”

Following these words, the apparition vanished and the demonic deception was exposed. Here, the spiritual discernment of St. Martin looked beyond what his eyes and mind showed him. Yet, it was his spiritual maturity allowing him to perceive the falsehood of the image. Due to such examples of spiritual discernment, the Church does not define visions or apparitions according to their appearance alone, but according to their purpose and outcome. This is not achieved according to definitions of language alone. Just as the Holy Bible teaches,

“Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits, whether they are of God” (1 John 4:1)


            The spiritual views belonging to the Church are not absolute. The Church is much more open to science with all its achievements. Science serves a purpose and has helped break down superstitions, and this is something the Church values. Why science is mentioned last, here in this article, is for the purpose of concluding with a rational frame of thought. Not everything unusual is supernatural. Instead, there are many instances of preternatural phenomena. Here, science attempts to provide explanations to the unknown, which do not presently have rational explanations.

            Unlike popular culture, the secular adaptations of language do not always denote – come to symbolize – ideas, but do have various connotations whereby the word can take on a different meaning. Within the confines of science, the word Apparition is not as limited in its definition as it is throughout popular culture, of paranormal interest. Science has indeed explored “ghost” phenomenon, and although the Christian perspectives are nowhere to be found in such views, not surprisingly the non-Christian belief systems have themselves been somewhat tolerated. Despite such bias, science has provided some reasonable definitions which help broadened the human experience of “ghost” phenomenon.

            Where the paranormal is concerned, science has had a strange and often conflicting history. “Physical Research” – as it was first known – was carried out by many scientists who for whatever reasons wished to examine the paranormal. Today, such a relationship has been largely abandoned by most reputable scientists. Those who continue to explore the paranormal scientifically are at odds with their research due to the lack of physical evidence. As a substitution to physical evidence, philosophical approaches are often blended with New Age belief systems. Here, an attempt to provide answers to the unknown still depends on one form of spirituality or another, but under the guise of science. This is most dominant in psychology and what has become known as parapsychology. Although the purpose of this article is not to draw out criticisms against the questionable applications of science in the field of paranormal research, it is worth considering the problems inherent in scientific approaches to the supernatural. For now, it is important to keep in mind that science does not provide absolutes in regards to the supernatural. Why then is science mentioned here? As stated earlier, science can provide answers and can help broaden the definition of Apparition.

            Throughout this article the expression “apparitional experience” has been used to help describe the examples belonging to the Church. In the field of psychology, the same expression exists, but is used differently. In the previous definitions used to define the perceptions of the Church, an apparition is not strictly a ghost. Unlike the Church, the science of psychology has taken the term Apparition and used it in substitution to the term ghost. Although the concept of ghosts is not put aside entirely, the substitution of one term for another serves to avoid the implications of what one term signifies over the other. Semantics may be an inherent problem to such substitutions, but the definitions applied in psychology are somewhat different from what is common in popular culture in regards to ghosts. According to psychology, Apparitional Experience is defined as: the apparent perception of a person or object without there being any physical stimulus. Here, the definition is somewhat ambiguous in itself. The definition does not necessarily acknowledge that something like a spirit is being perceived through the senses, but only that what is perceived lacks physical stimuli. What then is the science of psychology suggesting about the afterlife through such a definition? The fact of the matter is that psychology is not trying to define the afterlife, but is defining a common human experience. It is the experience in question, and not the world views applied to those experiences which are examined. How those human experiences with apparitions are explained depend on many other circumstances recognized through mainstream sciences, especially medicine and psychiatry. What is perceived in any such apparitional experience often falls under hallucination, or the phenomena of Pereidolia.

            Hallucination is most commonly defined as the perception of visual, auditory, tactile, olfactory, or gustatory experiences without an external stimulus and with a compelling sense of their reality, usually resulting from a mental disorder or as a response to a drug. Many practices found among a variety of religions make use of drugs to induce an apparitional experience, which ultimately amounts to a hallucination. It is important to be aware of the fact that such hallucinations are not necessarily delusions, but occur for the purpose of providing the senses with stimulation to something which is otherwise not there. The question which arises from this understanding is whether or not the apparitional experience is real or not. Unfortunately, the question of reality cannot be answered here through the scope of psychology alone. In the case of mental illness, hallucinations are not induced through drugs, but through a variety of other conditions. It is also important to note that in hallucinations associated to mental illness, the apparitional experience does not always take on circumstances classically recognized to ghost phenomena. In some cases it may. For such reasons, the apparitional experience can be explained as a hallucination where drug abuse or mental illness, have been established in an individual. Do hallucinations provide a rational explanation to the apparitional experiences known to the Church? Perhaps in some cases there are strong parallels between hallucinations caused by drugs or mental illness. As for the majority of apparitional experiences presented by the Church, the answer is no.

            Pereidolia does not properly fall neatly under the umbrella of apparitional experiences, but it is worth mentioning due to the fact that sensory perceptions can be examined against what one believes they have seen or heard. The term Pereidolia is defined as the phenomena of extracting significant meaning from vague or limited stimulation. Unlike hallucinations, the phenomenon of Pereidolia consists of material stimulation. Many apparitions of the Virgin Mary have been reported by people who have interpreted images as bearing the likeness of the Blessed Mother of our Lord. Some of the more odd examples are appearances of the Virgin Mary on the bread of a grilled cheese, or even a tortilla shell. Obviously, the apparitional experience defined by the Church are not reflected in such cases, but this does not prevent people from believing in what they perceive. On the other hand, psychology points out such circumstances as being owed to Pereidolia, and rightfully so.

            Having briefly examined some examples stemming from science, or at least the science of psychology, there are some rational explanations to apparitions. These examples do not explain all apparitional experiences, but do provide a starting point from which paranormal phenomena can be explained as either: natural, preternatural, or supernatural. As for what an apparition is according to science, there really is no absolute definition falling under any of the disciplines. What people are left with is faith. Where that faith is placed may either expose people to false views concerning the afterlife, or lead them towards salvation through Christ.