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.