Maybe it’s the relentless rain, or Ankhie’s relentless insomnia. Maybe it’s the full-frontal media assault of apocalyptic fantasy and catastrophic fact. Maybe it’s because last night, wide awake at a very late hour, I channel surfed into a broadcast of The Exorcist in Spanish. Although I could only understand every 10th word, those iconic, cinematic, and terrible, terrible images were so compelling that I watched anyway, riveted.
William Peter Blatty’s 1971 novel and the award-winning 1973 movie that followed are largely responsible for bringing Exorcism into public consciousness . However, the casting out of demons and/or evil influences has existed in some form throughout history and across cultures. It is still practiced in Afro-Caribbean Shamanism (Obeah), Haitian Vodou and Santeria, as well as other similar traditions. Wiccans sometimes refer to home-cleansing rituals as “exorcisms”, and even practicing occultists perform banishing rituals to expel the very entities that they call upon for assistance.
Yet Exorcism proper necessitates a belief in one beneficent God and the absolute evil of Satan, and that belief is most actively present in Christianity. The rite is historically associated with Catholicism, although there are a few non-Catholic Christian sects that offer exorcism as a “service”. It has become increasingly popular among Evangelicals who see the devil’s hand everywhere in a dissolute society. One need only to be a parent to sympathize, just a little, with this point of view. The speed with which contemporary culture is changing has left many feeling lost and abandoned – as though some unseen and ill-intended force is controlling societal change. A physician friend tells me of a patient, one unassuming elderly woman, who performs regular exorcisms and frequently invites the good doctor to come along. The woman, it seems, is part of a small congregation that travels the Northeast ridding all sorts of folks (from varying faiths and socio-economic groups) of all sorts of demons. The devil and his minions are everywhere, undermining morals and addling brains. Where a psychiatrist might see schizo-affective disorder, the exorcist sees diabolical possession. Where a techno-savvy teen sees instantaneous and limitless connection, a traditionalist sees uncontrolled and unfiltered influence. The devil’s work, in these cases, is all in the eye of the beholder.
Perhaps that is why Catholic exorcism continues to fascinate (if you don’t believe me, check the recent releases on dvd or the marquee at your local Cineplex). It has the weight of history and tradition behind it, and the power of absolute authority. Whatever your opinion is of the Church, it is a formidable institution, and it takes its rites and offices very, very seriously. Catholic exorcisms are rare. An extensive list of criteria must be met before the rite is even considered, and then all other possible conditions and causes must be ruled out. The Church, rocked by decades of scandal and hemorrhaging parishioners, does not want to look foolish, or archaic.
Still, the rite exists, it’s foundations firmly rooted in the beliefs, liturgy, and politics of the Middle Ages and Renaissance.
With all this spinning in my brain it is probably not surprising that the first book I grabbed when I hit Weiser Central this morning was The Devil’s Scourge: Exorcism During the Italian Renaissance, by Girolamo Menghi (translation and commentary by Gaetano Paxia). It is a heady read.
Here is a bit from the introduction by Paxia:
The 16th century was a century of crisis in the Church; the Counter-Reformation found some utility in exorcism practiced with theatrical liturgical forms. It was useful for the Church to spread the news among the people that the devil flees from the relics of saints, from exposed Eucharist, and at the priest’s commands.
One delicate question always remained, however: When do we know that a person is truly possessed by the devil? In case of demoniacs, Menghi felt that he was facing two personalities: that of the possessed person and that of the devil ruling within. The demon tended to annul the other part of the double personality – a metaphysical aspect despotically cancelling out reality. The demoniac wavered between awareness and unawareness of the phenomenon. He remained stunned, spellbound in the predicament, but longed to be free of the tormenting delirium. Exorcism, as seen by the Church, was a sacrament, effective ex opere operato – that is, it acted independent of the virtue of the person administering it.
According to Menghi and other authors of his time, victims of diabolical possession exhibited seven main signs.
- They, the rudis, speak or understand languages previously unknown to them.
- They reveal things that they would normally not know, or predict the future.
- They demonstrate a physical force well beyond their normal capacity.
- Normally good, conscientious people show hatred toward priests, the sacraments, everything sacred, parents, friends, and so on.
- With no apparent cause, they sink into the darkest melancholy and depression (many writers particularly insist on this aspect).
- In a rage, they blaspheme and invoke the devil’s assistance.
- They vomit knives, keys, pieces of glass, or other objects.
A number of authors fervidly complete one anothers’ accounts of the devil, arriving at a sort of convergence: devils are supernatural, but they are absolutely involved with human realty. Humans are destined to be put to the test by temptation, by the subtlest, most unfathomable snares of the devil…
…Since exorcists are facing a true enemy of God, they are allowed to use scornful words. Furthermore, they must take great care in asking the devil questions; they must not do so in the spirit of curiosity, but only in order to better manage a confrontation with the Evil One. They may ask the devil if the monstrous presence in that creature of God is the work of a single devil or of a legion; they may investigate in order to discover why that person has been chosen instead of another; they may inquire as to when and how to put an end to the torment; and they can ask what saint can be invoked in a particular case. They may ask the devil’s name, and the name of his commander.
In praying, exorcists must enounce some fundamental truth of faith, such as the belief in God One-in-Three; humbly, they will kneel, and bow, and strike the ground three times with their head, as a sign of adoration for the Holy Trinity.
Menghi notes that exorcists customarily adopt res sensibiles, such as relics of saints and crucifixes. They should do this with extreme caution, however. They must bear in mind that devils often pretend at first to fear these sacred objects. If the objects turn out not to be true relics, the devil will ridicule them as futile objects, bringing incalculable spiritual harm to those present, who often lose faith in true relics as a result. The res sensibiles that exorcists have always used, says Menghi, include exorcised olive oil, salt, and water….
Everything that the demoniac touches must be exorcised or blessed: bedding, clothing, food, the entire dwelling. There may be cases calling for the person to abandon the dwelling, for the devil contaminates everything with which he comes in contact. Any evil instrument must be burnt.
Seven rites of exorcism are presented in full in the text that follows. They are elaborate, intense, exhausting – and it somehow feels wrong (and – forgive me – unlucky) to reproduce any one in part here. Ankhie was raised a Catholic – I offer this by way of explanation and in the spirit of full disclosure – and part of me still cleaves to the superstitions of my upbringing. Tarot cards I’m fine with, but I leave the words of diabolic banishment to those that know what they are doing.
For further reading:
An excellent New York Times article on the revival of exorcism in the Catholic church.
The Catholic Encyclopedia on Exorcism
A ReligionNews blog post on the growing popularity of non-Catholic exorcism.
Possessed by Thomas Allen (re. the real-life inspiration for The Exorcist)
Come Closer by Sara Gran (fiction – that will scare the pants off of you…. if you like that sort of thing…)