Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Interview with the Exorcist

At an Association for the Study of Esotericism conference I once attended a lecture discussing "Faux Catholicism" in an academic context. The term was used in the presentation to refer to the various images and ideas that have been associated with Roman Catholicism in the media but which have little to do with the real practices of the Church. One of the most enduring of these ideas is the Hollywood presentation of the Rite of Exorcism, which in the 1973 film The Exorcist shows Linda Blair levitating, exhibiting telekinesis, and twisting her head 360 degrees while under the control of a possessing demon. "Faux Catholicism" doesn't stop there either, including everything from the John Carpenter film Prince of Darkness in which a group of Catholic priests secretly tend to the essence of Satan trapped in a magical vessel to comic treatments like the telekinetic levitating nun in The Blues Brothers.

The real Rite of Exorcism is of course not much like it is usually portrayed in the movies, but it is nonethless an important part of the Roman Catholic spiritual system, one of the last remnants of a priestly magical tradition that also may have spawned traditional grimoires like the Heptameron in which the operator is practically assumed to be a Catholic priest or monk. It is still practiced to this day by a small group of specially trained priests that the Vatican is hoping to expand.

CNN has an interesting interview up with Father Gary Thomas conducted by Tom Foreman. Father Thomas is considered one of America's top exorcists and the inspiration behind Hollywood's latest take on exorcism, The Rite. I have yet to see the film, though given my love of just about anything paranormal or occult I probably will at some point. It stars Anthony Hopkins, and according to Thomas presents a relatively accurate depiction of exorcism compared with most other films of the genre.

“First of all,” he says, “it was very emotional for me. I found some of those scenes very riveting. I found some of them very profound. They’re very accurate. That’s what I’ve seen in real life.”

That’s saying something. "The Rite" is chock-full of heaving, cursing, ranting characters, who, according to the screenplay, are possessed by Satan, people who one moment seem fine and the next are raging against all that is holy.

And yet, Thomas says people who fear that very fate come to him constantly. “Well, often times they’ll begin the conversation with ‘Father, I need an exorcism.’ And my answer back to them is, ‘I don’t do them on demand.’”

That's a very good thing, considering that even the Church acknowledges that most of the time cases that look like "possession" are simply manifestations of untreated mental illness and every case is evaluated carefully by mental health professionals in an effort to rule these out before any exorcism can be performed. As is stated in the Church's general rules concerning exorcisms:

Especially, he should not believe too readily that a person is possessed by an evil spirit; but he ought to ascertain the signs by which a person possessed can be distinguished from one who is suffering from some illness, especially one of a psychological nature. Signs of possession may be the following: ability to speak with some facility in a strange tongue or to understand it when spoken by another; the faculty of divulging future and hidden events; display of powers which are beyond the subject's age and natural condition; and various other indications which, when taken together as a whole, build up the evidence.

Unsurprisingly in some of his comments Thomas exhibits one of the most common blind spots of Christianity, which is the idea that the Christian Church offers some sort of special protection to its followers that other religions do not. While it's true that a Christian who completely accepts the teachings of the Church is not going to engage in any occult or magical practices that do carry some genuine risk of exposure to hostile spirits, it's also true that with an intercessionary priesthood many parishioners do little to no real spiritual practice of their own. So such individuals are going to be less likely to come to the attention of a hostile spirit, but at the same time should such a situation ever occur they will probably have no defense against it - aside from calling in an exorcist.

"A lot of folks dabble in the occult, or they will be involved in practices that … classical Christianity at least would consider to be idolatrous. People can get themselves involved in Wicca, or people will go see some sort of fortune-teller, or people will go to a séance, or they can go and they can learn how to channel spirits. …"

A vision of politician Christine O’Donnell fills my head and I interrupt. “But a lot of people would tell you up front, ‘I’m just playing around.’”

“Right. Absolutely. And it’s not,” he says, noting that those who feel adrift from the church and from others of faith are more likely to be drawn in. “Demons are always looking for human beings who have broken relationships.”

Simply put, Thomas believes just as surely as a person can summon God through prayer, through other rituals, the devil can be called, too.

As a magician I'm well aware that both angels and demons can be summoned using ritual methods, though I think that the existence of "the devil" as defined in Christianity as a single "big bad" remains an open question. Hostile spirits can take all sorts of forms, and in my experience there doesn't seem to be a single entity behind them all. That should not be taken to mean the Rite of Exorcism doesn't work, however - I was asked in the last exorcism thread if the methods used by Roman Catholics and ritual magicians would be similar, and they in fact are. Both work by summoning divine forces whose presence hostile spirits cannot tolerate. The main difference aside from specific technical details is that thanks to their univalent theology many Christians believe they have cornered the market on such forces, whereas ritual magicians work freely with forces outside the Christian pantheon whenever appropriate.

So how common is genuine possession, anyway? Jason Miller and I have argued in the past over the relative frequency of magical attacks, which includes attacks by spirits - I think they're rarer, he thinks they're more common. According to Thomas, out of the self-selected group of people seeking exorcisms 4 out of 5 have experienced some form of abuse rather than possession by hostile spirits. That would at the very least mean true possession is rare, though I freely admit that it's difficult to draw any conclusion from that statistic regarding magical attacks in general.

Thomas says fully 80% of the people he meets claiming demonic possession have actually suffered some kind of abuse. An exorcism, he says, is the last step in a long process.

“I have a particular situation now,” he says, “where I think this particular person is suffering from a very unique psychological disorder, but she’s also been exposed to satanic cults, and I want to make sure that what we’re dealing with … is satanic or if it is psychological.”

If this "Satanic cult" was anything like most of the ones out there I'm guessing this person's problem is psychological. I know, that's condescending of me. Over the years I've been reminded by a number of commenters that there are serious occultists who consider themselves Satanists and do real magical work, but most of the time when a group calls itself "Satanic" it's made up of heavy-metal fans or goths who wear a lot of black and don't do much of anything besides try to shock their peers with how evil they are. I don't personally think that real demons pay such people much attention.

Even when an exorcism is prescribed, it often must be repeated. Judging from Thomas' comments, it takes something of a trained eye to decide whether it is even working.

I'd like to hear more about this, how Thomas can tell if an exorcism is working. I some ideas how I would do it, but I'm wondering how similar his methods are to the ones that I would try. Some of it is of course hard to explain, like feeling a change in the spiritual environment of a room, but I would expect behavioral clues as well given that there are particular behaviors that are thought to be signs of the possession itself. In the interview Thomas explains some of what he has seen in his many years performing exorcisms.

"Sometimes the person's head will begin to move in very rigid ways. Sometimes their eyes will roll. Sometimes there will be epileptic-like seizures," Thomas said. "Occasionally people will take on kind of a body language of a serpentine look, and they'll begin to stick their tongue out and use their tongue in ways that would look snake-like, and they'll coil up in a snake-like position."

“And these are things that you have seen in real life?” I ask.

"I have seen that," he said with a wry smile.

One of the biggest questions raised by skeptics is whether or not people engaging in these behaviors could simply be acting. It's a valid question, since odds are that anyone seeking out an exorcism is going to be steeped in a milieu that treats both Satan and demons as real and constant presences in the world. The social construction of a supposed constant demonic threat is more than enough to set up a psychological framework in which a person might act out in ways they consider appropriate to an exorcism. Based on his experiences, though, Thomas explains that he doubts this to be the case.

"I don't think they're acting out in a conscious sense,” he says, “because many times … they don't remember the experience itself.”

What’s more, he says, occasionally the person will do something that defies explanation.

"Sometimes the person will begin to speak in a language in which they have no competency in.”

Meaning, for example, someone who knows no German might start speaking precisely and accurately in that language. Thomas says he has witnessed that, too.

Unfortunately for Thomas, his first point that people don't remember the experience doesn't prove anything from a psychological perspective. Under hypnosis a person can behave in stereotypical ways - "act like a chicken" for example - and not remember a thing. Being able to speak a different language, though, is quite interesting. I'd like to see more detail on some of the cases involved in case, say, study of or exposure to the new language as a child might have been missed, but barring such an oversight sudden ability to speak a different language would be a pretty impressive piece of evidence if it could be well documented.

Thomas says there are about 50 Catholic exorcists in the United States, and that’s not nearly enough. He’d like to see one exorcist in every parish. But until that day, he does not mind explaining over and over what exorcisms are really all about.

“It's a healing ministry. It's not hocus pocus. It's not smoke and mirrors. It's not magic. But I think if we don't respond to people who come in their very troubling moments, I think it diminishes us as a church."

As a matter of fact, I agree with most of that last statement. With one obvious exception, of course - the Rite of Exorcism is clearly a perfect example of Christian magick.

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Jason Miller, said...

Hey, we completely agree again!

Great Post

Scott Stenwick said...

Thanks! Just when I was saying back in February that there weren't a lot of news stories to blog about, March came along with a whole bunch of potential items.

Anyway, I've been feeling like the magick blogs have been a little slow lately aside from your energy debate with Patrick, so I'm trying to step up my game a bit and get more articles done and posted. I'm glad you're enjoying them.