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“Lincoln in the Bardo” and the Last Things

April 18, 2018


Part ghost story, part historical fiction, and 100 percent creative, George Saunders Lincoln in the Bardo fascinates with writing that is a cross between stream of consciousness, poetry, and journalistic reporting. The book offers interesting insights into human attachment to the material over the transcendent world, and also fears of death and judgment.

Set primarily in a Washington DC cemetery where Abraham Lincoln’s son, Willie, has just been interred, the story is told by ghosts who “live” here—caught between death and the next life. That’s what “bardo” means in Tibetan Buddhist spirituality: the state of existence between two lives. Since “bardo” derives from a religion that professes belief in reincarnation, it usually means two earthly lives. However, the author is not Buddhist and uses the bardo in his tale as a pause between bodily death and judgment, which leads to eternal residence in heaven or hell. Saunders describes his bardo as “somewhat like Purgatory, but less strict.” There is definitely some purification happening among these ghosts in this cemetery bardo, but in Catholic teaching, judgment comes before Purgatory. All in Purgatory have been saved, but are not yet purified to the extent necessary to exist within the divine life of heaven.

Since we’re in the Easter season, something about the Resurrection links well to this story. Bishop Barron said in a recent podcast, “An interesting lesson follows from the disquieting fact of the Resurrection, namely that this world is not it. What I mean is that this world is not all that there is. We live our lives with the reasonable assumption that the natural world as we’ve come to know it is the final framework of our lives and activities.” These ghosts truly embrace and cling to the natural world, and violently resist moving on into the transcendent realm. They are not seeking the afterlife or resurrection, but the continuation of earthly life in the natural world. In a word, they lack faith.

Strangely, the ghosts deny that they are dead, stubbornly reliving their earthly lives through their own stories, and making plans for the future after they get out of their “sick boxes” (coffins) and go back to life as it was. According to the Tibetan Book of Death: “In the bardos of death, the mind does not recognize its own nature until it passes into the next life.” 

Ghostly dialogue is interspersed with sections filled with historical observations of Abraham Lincoln’s appearance, character, and effectiveness, and accounts of Willie’s illness and death. Sometimes the book’s dialogue is like a cacophony of non-sequiturs, but Saunders defends his eclectic style by espousing a point-of-view drawn from what he perceives as God’s eyes when he said in an interview that “minds are always going, if God is perceiving a group of us.”

One scene describes a ghost who left the bardo to go on to his particular judgment. The judgment scene is not lifted right from the Catechism, but there are some elements of Catholic teaching there. Each soul first judges himself in the presence of Jesus, the just Judge, and then Jesus asks for a “confirmation” from attending angels. If the confirmation is consistent with the self-reporting, the soul proceeds to the heavenly banquet; if not, it’s off to the fires of hell. The focus on honest self-awareness and trust in the mercy of Jesus comes through in this judgment scene. Charity and love are also espoused as important values in the book. The main-character ghosts work together to get young Willie off to heaven because, as they say, the young ones can’t stay here too long or they are attacked by the demonic spirits.

But what does the Church say about spirits and ghosts? There is no doctrine that denies or confirms the existence of ghosts; however, the Church is clear that human nature includes both body and spirit. In the Bible, purely spiritual beings appear to humans, especially in the Old Testament. In addition, there are at least two instances when the disciples think Christ is a ghost, and he corrects them, but does not berate them for believing in ghosts. In Matthew’s Gospel, as the disciples are on the Sea of Galilee at night, they see Jesus walking on the water toward them and fear he is a ghost (Mt. 14:24-27). Then in Luke’s account of Christ’s appearances after his Resurrection, Jesus instructs them to touch him “because a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you can see I have” (Luke 24:36-40).

While the existence of ghosts is not negated by Catholic teaching, the Church clearly prohibits efforts by humans to contact the dead or to use practices that purport to predict the future. The Catechism states:

All forms of divination are to be rejected: recourse to Satan or demons, conjuring up the dead or other practices falsely supposed to ‘unveil’ the future.

Consulting horoscopes, astrology, palm reading, interpretation of omens and lots, the phenomena of clairvoyance, and recourse to mediums all conceal a desire for power over time, history, and, in the last analysis, other human beings, as well as a wish to conciliate hidden powers. They contradict the honor, respect, and loving fear that we owe to God alone (CCC 2116).  

A prominent Christian apologist, Peter Kreeft, who is a professor of philosophy at Boston College and a convert to Catholicism, clearly believes in ghosts. In his book Everything You Ever Wanted to Know about Heaven, he describes the existence of three types of ghosts, one from each part of the afterlife: Purgatory, Heaven, and Hell. Most of the bardo ghosts fit Kreeft’s category of spirits from Purgatory: “sad, wispy ones” who “feel little or no joy yet” because they “need to learn many painful lessons about their past life on earth.” The protagonist bardo ghosts are unhappily stuck in their own views of their lives, telling their stories over and over again without ever admitting wrong-doing, and stubbornly refusing to let go of the natural world to which they are still attached, albeit confined in the cemetery. Once they admit that they are dead, the “matterlightblooming phenomenon” occurs and they are gone, off to meet Jesus Christ, the Judge.

One of the prominent bardo ghosts is a Christian minister who, in his earthly life, had preached a predeterministic view of faith—devoid of hope, love, and compassion:

“Our Lord is a fearsome Lord, and mysterious, and will not be predicted, but judges as He sees fit, and we are but as lambs to Him, whom He regards with neither affection nor malice; some go to the slaughter, while others are released to the meadow, by His whim, according to a standard we are too lowly to discern.”

The Reverend has had a glimpse of his own judgment and is frozen in fear in the bardo. But, in the end, he puts his fear aside and, in a selfless act of love, moves on to judgment to keep young Willie away from the demonic spirits. 

Kreeft describes ghosts from heaven as “bright, happy spirits of dead friends and family, especially spouses, who appear unbidden, at God’s will, not ours, with messages of hope and love.” These types of ghosts appear in the book as an “onslaught” of happy spirits cajoling and encouraging the bardo ghosts to admit that they are dead and to go with them to the realm beyond. Each bardo spirit has his own, personal entourage of heavenly cheerleaders, saying things like: “Come with us. Here it is all savagery and delusion. You are a wave that has crashed upon the shore. It is complete. Come with us, all is forgiven.” Most bardo ghosts scoff at these spirits and say they are annoying and manipulative—trying to get them to abandon their sick boxes and float away into the unknown. Fear keeps them attached to the material “life” they know. They are unwilling to trust these spiritual witnesses who bring only happy predictions of life beyond the cemetery.

Kreeft’s last type of ghosts are “malicious and deceptive spirits” that likely “come from hell” and “respond to conjurings at séances.” These hellish ghosts are represented briefly as the spirits that take over and permanently bind passive and indecisive bardo ghosts to the cemetery grounds. The demonic spirits in the book are described as those who accept their sins “so passively, even proudly, with no trace of repentance.” 

Lincoln in the Bardo is not as much about Lincoln (Abe or Willie) as it is about the mysteries of the Last Things. It’s one author’s playful and somewhat-Christian riff on these mysteries. It’s an entertaining read, and while we as Catholics can enjoy this type of fiction, we are blessed to know the real story from the Bible and Church tradition that is based on love, not fear.