February 12, 2010

An Exorcist Tells His Story

Today I have finished reading Fr. Gabriele Amorth's An Exorcist Tells His Story, which I read on the advice of one of my favorite people, an extraordinarily devout layman. Frequently shocking and sometimes frightening, you have to admit that it's an entertaining read.

The book is a collection of several representative accounts of the possessions, obsessions, and supernatural illnesses that Amorth has encountered in his own ministry as exorcist, presented thematically so as to offer the reader what he has learned about the strategies and behavior of the devil and his demons. Along the way one realizes that the book is also an extended and sustained rant against the pastors of the Church for not taking the problem of supernatural evil seriously, and for not taking up Jesus' commissioning of his disciples to expel demons.

I have to say that I have mixed feelings about the book. On the one hand, I agree with the accusation that the church does not treat supernatural evil seriously. My own experience and my brief work in the care of souls have convinced me that struggles with demonic presences and diabolical temptations are not as unusual as you might think. People just don't talk about it much, and still less do they tell priests about it, which is surely a testament to their common sense.

On the other hand, it is also my experience that many times those who complain of supernatural evil do so in such a way as to absolve themselves of responsibility. It is much easier, for example, to blame troubles in one's marriage on the presence of imps or harpies hiding in the bedroom than on denial, addiction, or the unwillingness to communicate. I once asked a spiritual director if he thought a particular temptation I was going through was of diabolic origin. He said, "What does it matter where it's from? Your task is the same."

Above all, when we are reflecting on these questions, we must be careful of the temptation to imagine the universe in a Manichean way, as a kind of raging, balanced struggle between good and evil, both of which have being in their own right. One has to look to further than Star Wars to see how easily we are charmed by this model of reality. "The Dark Side of the Force is a pathway to many abilities some consider to be unnatural," said Chancellor Palpatine. Unnatural or not, this is not the conception of good and evil taught by Christianity. Evil does not to lead to any abilities at all, but only to misery, death, and non-being.

The good news of Christianity is that there is no cosmic battle between good and evil because it's over. The Resurrection is the revelation of the victory of divine humility over the arrogance of sin. The Resurrection not only awaits us as the final, blessed, victorious destiny of creation, but has broken backwards into history in the Resurrection of Christ to snatch up into the first fruits of the new age anybody who is willing. From now until then there are still skirmishes and even souls that are needlessly lost, but the struggle itself has already been won.

As we read in the Sayings of the Desert Fathers:

A brother asked Abba Sisoes, 'Did Satan pursue them like this in the early days?' The old man said to him, 'He does this more at the present time, because his time is nearly finished and he is enraged.'

P.s. As evidence of my earnestness in this matter, I bet I'm the only priest you know who has a copy of the new De exorcismis et supplicationibus quibusdam.


Mandrivnyk said...

An excellent and very balanced post, Father. I've often been disturbed at how so many Christians seem to completely disregard the existence of evil supernatural entities - but not nearly so much, I think, about the practice of giving them way too much credit. Unless we start inviting them in, there's not much those dark critters can really do to us, at least, not of any significance... and even when we do, well, God is merciful.

The devil, or demons or whatever certainly are rather much more powerful than us, and devoted to our destruction. It's not much fun to encounter one, at least, not when you realize what it is. Still, we *are* Christians, and, as you say: the battle has already been won, and Christ is always and ever the Victor.

Tina aka Snupnjake said...

Wow. I just finished The Rite and was debating about reading this one as well. I agree, we ignore the supernatural for the most part, unless we can abdicate personal responsibility.

What bothered me about the Rite, and maybe I miss read it, was that St. John of the Cross and other saints were "allowed" by God to be possessed or demonicly harassed as a testament of their holiness....

Hidden One said...

Actually, I think two particular priests I know have it.

Granted, one of them is an exorcist.

That said, I think your bet is true in most cases.

Qualis Rex said...

Great insights, Father Charles. Two points: I once really got into it with an Orthodox Jewish man who tried to convince me that Christians are inherrently polytheists, since "we" believe in Satan, who has godly powers, although not as powerful as God, HImself. I'm sure you know the Jewish view of Lucifer, so I won't go into it. I tried to convince him that evil is not an entity, but is rather the absence of good, just as darkness is not an entity, but is the absence of light. To that end, it is not that we fear Satan as a sort of deity, but see in him the temptation to abandon good, and fear for our souls.

On your second point, I am always amazed at how many "christian" pastors/preachers perform their own excorcisms weekly at every church service. They do it so casually and flippantly that it's hard to believe they (and their shills/victims) will not be punished for mocking God in the afterlife. But to your point, they portray the opposite extreme of Christianity, as opposed to Catholicism (particularly in industrialized nations), which as you and Fr Garbriele lament seems to downplay, if not repress altogether the possibility (reality?) of demonic possession.


Elizabeth Mahlou said...

I am glad that at least one priest does have this work. My brother, years ago, experienced a very frightening possession that lasted three months. It seemed like there was no way to get him help, and the combination of daily prayer with my sister and a remarkable exchange ended it all, thank God. It has been difficult to share the experience because of the extant attitudes that such things do not happen. We are simply thankful that what had seized him ultimately fled.

Lee said...

35 yrs ago now, after dealing with all kinds of sin, unforgiveness and melancholy, I STILL found myself weighed down with some unknown something and began to suspect the worse.

By this point I knew better than to go to priests, for nothing would happen. Who wants to put himself through the embarrassment of revealing his soul and its difficulties only to have the priest sigh and say, "I must have lived too long."

At the time I was heavily involved in the Catholic charismatic renewal and was trying to do my bit to effect an ecumenical rapprochement with Protetant Pentecostals...so I was attending their meetings. Just to give you an idea, once their pastor, working with nothing but the Holy Spirit and the Song of Songs gave a series of talks very reminiscent of St. Bernard. They were also into deliverance ministry. I went to their Bible Camp in Northwestern Minnestoa for six weeks, and ended up being prayed over and finally delivered in very dramatic fashion from spirits that had plagued me for years.

They were anything but flip. They knew what they were about and they helped me enormously.

They didn't require any absurd psychiatric evaluations, etc, for they had the spiritual gifts necessary to cut through to the truth of the matter, and the knowledge and power of how to deal with it.

From there my real life began- marriage, children, happiness- and now I have a Carmelite nun for a daughter. Without their ministry, my life would still be a dark and tangled mess.

The result is that I take much of the lore about exorcist priests with a grain of salt. At least in my view, a exorcisms (deliverances, whathaveyou) should absorb as much of a ordinary priest's time as it did in the life of Our Lord.

Also, it is very effective (and I have done this myself in connection with leadership in a charismatic community decades ago) rather than to attempt a big hairy exorcism ( in the words of a friend) simply to lay hands on a disturbed person and pray that the Lord would send his light and drive away the darkness. He does!

I realize full bore possession is a different more serious business requiring trained exorcists, but there are far more evil spirits than exorcists, and it is the power of the ordinary Christian to deal effectively with them both in others and in himself. But this requires instruction, at least a modicum of it.

Qualis Rex said...

Lee, I read your post but maybe because I'm not in tune to Protestants, Charismatics or Pentacostals etc, I really don't understand a lot of what you are saying. What I did get was a sense that you feel you were unable to get what you were looking for within the One True church, and that a simple "laying on of hands" from a heretic cured you of whatever was bothering you and now you're happy.

Personally, I find this repugnant (note: not discrediting whatever you went through or your perceived cure). But ultimately, what you are saying, if I got it right, is that no priest could help you (at least that's how you felt) so you found what you needed outside the church.

My take on it is this; the devil has tricked you into thinking the good you needed was indeed to be found outside the church. "Pentecostal renewals" are IMHO filled with demons and agents of Satan who convince people's ego that they have the power to do perform "miracles" and feats simply by calling on the Holy Spirit or saying the word "Jesus" a million times, when the reality is it is much deeper, more complicated and serious than that. Yes, ordinary Christians are called to battle evil daily, and one of the most pervasive and harmful vehicles for evil is lies; all of which come from Satan, the father of lies, and which are manifest in the heresy of Protestantism.

I really apologize if this sounds harsh, but this really is incredibly serious business we're talking about. I do not repudiate or deny whatever grace or gift you believe you received through the heretic (this is ultimately between you and God, and He will use whomever He wishes). What I do rebuke in the name of the Most Holy is whatever convinced you that you needed to look outside the church to find it.

Lee said...

Qualis Rex, You write:
"What I do rebuke in the name of the Most Holy is whatever convinced you that you needed to look outside the church to find it."

You do WHAT in the name of WHOM???!!! What incredible, breathtaking chutzpah THAT is, to say nothing worse.

Your post reminds me of a statement of Robert Benigni concerning some of the professors he encountered when in an Italian seminary: "There are some people who know everything- but that's all they know."

Some day when you have the time take a look at, ponder and absorb the Decree on Ecumenism- an official document of the One True Church, btw. It says among other things: "Catholics must joyfully esteem the truly Christian endowments from our common heritage which are to be found among our separated brethren. it is right and salutary to recognize the riches of Christ and virtuous works in the lives of others who re bearing witness to Christ,sometimes even to the shedding of blood....Nor should we forget that whatever is wrought by the grace of the Holy Spirit in the hearts of our separated brethren can contribute to our own edification."

If you take the view, as I did, and do, that our separated brethren living in the Spirit of Christ are in fact united with the Church, although imperfectly, then I did not look outside the Church.

Calling these separated brethren heretics is no longer in the diction of the Church, by the way, and I am sure you will want to bring yourself up to speed.

You write, "What I did get was a sense that you feel you were unable to get what you were looking for within the One True church, and that a simple "laying on of hands" from a heretic cured you of whatever was bothering you and now you're happy."

As they used to say in WWII, "Was you there Charlie?" It was anything but simple. It was hair-raising, prolonged and difficult.

And the result was far more than simple happiness, but inner, spiritual, moral and emotional freedom that made a normal life possible.

It was not at all a question of not feeling that I could find any help within the official boundaries of the Church, but of knowing full well, based on many experiences.

Among these were something like 25 invitations to our prayer meetings issued to various pastors and priests over a course of 2 to 3 yrs...producing one visit. In other words we persistently sought spiritual direction from the Church, and it was not forthcoming. My distinct impression was that priests a) did not want to affect their ecclesiastical reputations by associating with us, and b) did not feel they had any guidance they could offer us in any case. They had not been trained in mystical theology and did not themselves have the charismatic gifts that we needed. If they knew nothing of the Holy Spirit, how were they going to help me in a struggle with evil spirits?

At any rate, I wish you well, but you haven't got the slightest idea what you are talking about.

Brother Charles said...

All right, friends. I'm closing the comments for this one.

Let's pray for each other, resist giving the devil any chance to work on us through our disagreements, and give thanks for the economies of grace, in all their manifold complexity, that have found each of us.