2016-06-30
Nearly twenty years ago, when I was a young rector on the West Coast, the Bishop of California called me called me with an unusual story about illness, spiritual possession, and evil. An interracial couple was being harassed by bizarre, untraceable telephone calls in odd foreign tongues. Hideous noises in the house kept them sleepless. Unexplainable foul odors made the couple reluctant to use some rooms in their home. The young woman, pregnant with their second child, was beginning to have mysterious physical symptoms including odd patterns of welts and burns on her body. She feared miscarriage.

Their local priest had learned that the young woman’s mother opposed her daughter’s marriage and interfered in the couple’s life. The young woman was frightened by her mother who, it turned out, was a voodoo practitioner. The mother lived in the Caribbean and was known to have cast harmful spells on others. The couple was reaching the end of their rope.

Now I am a child of the age of reason, a person whose faith is well-tempered by rationalism. You ask me how I feel, and I will tell you what I am thinking. At the time the bishop called me, I was somewhat agnostic about Satan or demonic spirits. I believed that most of what Jesus and the church up to the time of the scientific revolution described as demonic possession was now addressed by psychiatry and medicine.

I had never been involved in an exorcism before. So when the Bishop asked me to undertake an exorcism of this young woman, I looked on it primarily as a way to gain liturgical experience (“This is great, I get to use some new rituals!”) and also as a chance to investigate my own skepticism (“Is there something ‘real’ here?”).

This experience made a believer out of me. I found out that there is a realm of evil beyond this world, that it becomes personified and attacks men and women of faith. I had an experience of hypostatic evil that convinced me there was definitely something real out there. But before that critical moment came, it took about two years of performing exorcisms for this troubled family as often as weekly, sometimes as infrequently as every three months. (Incidentally, the exorcism in the William Peter Blatty book The Exorcist also took two years.)

I could smell the foul, stale odors...
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A few words about how exorcism works in my church: If you believe that you need an exorcism, you do not simply look in some directory under “E” and find the service provider you need. The Episcopal Church’s official teaching on the subject requires that a person suffering from what she believes to be demonic possession must present her case to her own priest, who will lay the matter before the Bishop. The Bishop and the local priest will then determine that there are no physical or emotional causes for the symptoms. In this case, the young woman had a thorough physical examination and ongoing psychiatric analysis.

I remember first meeting the young family and feeling my heart stirred by the wife's pain. She was desperate and was turning to me and the Bishop. I wanted to help. Little did I know how it was going to turn out, but I wanted to do something.

I began going to the family's house every week or so. As I began to minister to the couple, I became increasingly uneasy. I could smell the foul, stale odors in their home. When they explained the strange telephone calls, and reported that the only identifiable word they could discern was something which sounded very much like a Hebrew word for the "realm of death," my hair rose. I had started the exorcisms skeptical of the world of evil spirits, but that world seemed to be knocking on my door.

I saw some of the welts on the young woman's skin, I experienced the odd disparities of heat and cold in their home (an exceptionally cold room in a non-airconditioned home on a hot day), and, most of all, I saw the profound fear in the young couple. The husband was a physicist, a man used to rational analysis, intellectual inquiry, and scientific methods. Yet he was terrified of what was happening to his young wife--and, potentially, to his child. I had little evidence of the reality of these evil spirits, but abundant evidence of their effects. It was that which led me to continue.

I performed exorcisms of their house and of the woman herself. I read prayers over the woman to drive out the spirit, accompanying the words with liturgical gestures. At a number of points in the liturgy, the priest must exhale very deeply, probably imitating the divine breath that gives life in the Genesis story. I did this, and made signs of the cross (a symbol of conquering evil) over the woman. I sprinkled baptismal water on her and on the places being exorcised: water is a general symbol of cleansing, and for Christians, it is a sign of the new life imparted in baptism. In using water, touch, and gesture, it became clear to me that exorcism is a physical event. Just as evil permeates the physical world, God uses physical objects to relieve people from possession by evil spirits.

In addition to the rites of exorcism, I used other liturgies from our tradition. I anointed the young women for healing, and also celebrated the Eucharist in their home from time to time.

To a certain extent, this exorcism was done in community, as most should be. The materials I read suggested that the exorcist have a prayer partner who would agree to pray for him and for the one being exorcised at the time the rite was being done. I always used one of my Church Wardens (lay leader of the parish) as a prayer partner. I also received support and direction from some Roman Catholic clergy. I felt sustained by a community of faith.

Something grabbed my hand, trying to prevent me from completing the cross...
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I also learned that the exorcist is counseled to pray and fast before exorcisms. I went to confession more regularly during that time. I began to think of my prayer life as a way of protecting myself--as if my prayer life was a shield to protect me from evil.

It was about a year and a half into the process when I experienced the evil spirit personally. Up till then, the process had become somewhat routine. Exorcism became another engagement on my calendar, another pastoral event for which I had to prepare.

I had agreed from time to time to spend the night in the home of the family being attacked by the evil spirit. When I did stay overnight, we ended the evening with an exorcism and went directly to bed. (We would typically begin the next day with a celebration of the Eucharist in their home.)

So it was late in the evening when I was praying the prayers of the exorcism ritual. Kneeling before the young woman, I was about to make the sign of the cross over her. This sign is usually made with two hand gestures--a vertical, then a horizontal. I raised my hand and completed the vertical gesture. Then I moved my hand to begin the horizontal gesture.

It grabbed my hand. There is no other way to put it. I felt a strong pressure against my hand, as if something or someone were trying to prevent my completing the cross. I pushed against it, it yielded, and I completed the prayer. At that moment the temperature in the room became overwhelmingly high and immediately there was a series of cracking, snapping sounds moving down the wall behind the sofa where the young woman was sitting and before which I was kneeling. The room fell silent. We looked at each other and agreed that what we had heard and felt was a decisive moment in the long journey of this exorcism. It was the beginning of the end.

We continued with the exorcisms, house masses, and unction for a few months after this dramatic event. Toward the end of the second year, I told them that perhaps it was time to consider the possibility that we had done what needed to be done. The symptoms had ceased. I asked them to call me if they had more problems. Though our sessions came to a close, it was the beginning of a new awareness for me of the power and focus of evil, and the greater power of Christ to overcome evil.

In the end, it was an experience of the paschal mystery. When the couple and I began to check in with each other more casually, I came to realize that Christ had lived in this little family with me. Years later, I called the couple again. They were still doing well. I knew that just as Christ suffered there along with us, his resurrection was shared with the young woman and her family.


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