You may have read something in your local or national newspaper about “Pope Francis performs an exorcism”. Even the more sober types over at “First Things” have got in on the act.
“On Pentecost Sunday all hell broke loose in Rome. Following Mass that day, the unpredictable Pope Francis laid hands on a demon-possessed man from Mexico and prayed for him. The YouTube video of this encounter was flashed around the world, and the story caught fire: Is Pope Francis an exorcist? The Holy Father’s Vatican handlers were quick to deny such.”
For various reasons, this article (and others like it) has me tearing out my hair. Never mind the phrase “Vatican handlers” (believe me, if you’ve been following what Pope Francis is doing, the very last thing the Vatican bureaucracy has managed has been to “handle” him), never mind the repeated denials that this was an exorcism, the attitudes in this and the secular press are annoying the hell out of me (and not in a “Begone, demon of bad attitude!” fashion either). Naturally, the media allowed no chance for sensationalism to go a-begging.
The trouble is that, while the papers may have splashed headlines about demons and exorcism around, they all basically cut-and-pasted the same Associated Press article in their coverage. They also gleefully quoted Fr. Gabriele Amorth who has, to be charitable, an overriding interest in exorcisms that he sees as his particular ministry. This does not mean that he is an infallible expert on the topic, or that he is to be believed over the official statement by the Vatican that this was not an exorcism. It doesn’t help that some of the media took the opportunity to interpret the sentence in the statement that Pope Francis “didn’t intend to perform any exorcism” to mean “Pope accidentally performs exorcism.”
That’s not how it works. “Whoops! I meant to bless your rosary beads and instead I performed an exorcism on your cat. Well, these things happen!” Er, no, they don’t. Never mind that the guidelines for exorcisms include the rule of discretion and confidentiality.
“8. At the same time, an exorcism should never turn into a “show” for the faithful. For that reason, media representatives and journalists must not be allowed to attend. The success or failure of an exorcism is not to be announced or published.”
So the media was both unable to tell, and uninterested in, the difference between an exorcism and a blessing by the laying on of hands. This is no big surprise. Exorcisms, demons, curses and spiritual warfare is the stuff of horror movies; it makes for great attention-grabbing light entertainment, but to take it seriously?
To do that means you would be obsessed, in a kind of ‘unable to distinguish between fantasy and reality, living in the Middle Ages’ fashion, as they judged the pope to be suffering from obsession due to the fact that he has mentioned the devil in some of his homilies since becoming pope. This is the kind of disinterest in finding out what the beliefs really are that leads to movies like the 1999 “Stigmata”, which at least produced a wonderful review by Roger Ebert where he has immense fun doing what we fandom types on the Internet call “sporking.”
“But alarming manifestations continue: Frankie bleeds, glass shatters, there are rumbles on the soundtrack, she has terrifying visions and at one point she speaks to the priest in a deeply masculine voice, reminding us of Linda Blair in “The Exorcist.” Now there’s the problem. Linda Blair was possessed by an evil spirit. Frankie has been entered by the Holy Spirit. Instead of freaking out in nightclubs and getting blood all over her bathroom, she should be in some sort of religious ecstasy, like Lili Taylor in “Household Saints.” It is not a dark and fearsome thing to be bathed in the blood of the lamb.
It is also not possible, according to leading church authorities, to catch the stigmata from a rosary. It is not a germ or a virus. It comes from within. If it didn’t, you could cut up Padre Pio’s bath towels and start your own blood drive. “Stigmata” does not know, or care, about the theology involved, and thus becomes peculiarly heretical by confusing the effects of being possessed by Jesus and by Beelzebub.”
I have recently been edified by hearing radio advertisements for a new movie, called “The Last Exorcism Part II” – now, apart from the fact that if there is a “Part II” then the previous effort certainly wasn’t a last exorcism, this is just exactly the notion I mean – demons and exorcisms (and by extension, the kind of supernatural religious belief which takes them seriously) are fodder for B-movie horror franchises but certainly not something credible for the modern world.
That is the danger with this kind of sensation-seeking journalism: that the media reports make unthinking skeptics out of people. If the Church (and there’s usually no finer distinction made amongst denominations, every Christian is lumped in together) is perceived not to be able to tell the difference between mental sickness and devils, why on earth would any sane, rational, normal person ever pay a minute’s attention to any of their pronouncements? I don’t attribute any malice or ill-intent to the reporting in the style in which it is done; it is a sample of the modern mind-set. We know so much more than our ancestors; where they had to attribute disasters and misfortunes from sickness to volcanic eruptions to the active interference of evil powers, we have the knowledge of science (from physics to neurology) to explain the true reasons these things happen.
And yes, in many cases, we do. But this attitude naturally leads to one of the two opposite imbalances about the devil and the nature of evil:
(1) Don’t believe in such a thing as a personal devil, which may or may not include moving away from the very concept of evil: where outside of us is the natural world where things happen because of the physical laws of the universe and a plague or a tsunami is just as much legitimately part of it as a sunset or a hummingbird; the only meaningful distinction is that due to human responsibility and the more we learn about the inside of us, the more we either incline to ‘everything will be cured by progress’ or ‘there is no such thing as choice, we are at the mercy of our genes and blind random material forces’.
(2) Do believe in the devil, and either (i) See demons at work everywhere, to the point where having “been deep into Hip Hop” may well be a sign of demonic possession or at least leave you open to such (does the same apply to Trip Hop and does that mean I should get rid of my Portishead CDs?), or (ii) See the devil as the true hero, the rebel, the outsider, the one who breaks the stifling rules and drives the engines of change and progress. That’s an attitude that I’ve seen most recently online in an impassioned defence of Morgoth, where the writer condemned Tolkien’s view that evil is incapable of creativity and pretty much disburdened themselves of a paragraph contradicting everything put forward in “The Silmarillion” regarding his nature, motives and deeds. (Hey, I have to get my Tolkien geek cred reference in somewhere in this essay!)
This is the temptation that is presented by the Unman to the Green Lady of Venus in C.S. Lewis’ Perelandra:
“The heroines of the stories seemed all to have suffered a great deal – they had been oppressed by fathers, cast off by husbands, deserted by lovers. Their children had risen up against them and society had driven them out. But the stories all ended, in a sense, happily: sometimes with honours and praises to a heroine still living, more often with tardy acknowledgment and unavailing tears after her death. At last it dawned upon him what all these stories were about. Each one of these women had stood forth alone and braved a terrible risk for her child, her lover, or her people. Each had been misunderstood, reviled, and persecuted: but each also magnificently vindicated by the event. The precise details were often not very easy to follow. Ransom had more than a suspicion that many of these noble pioneers had been what in ordinary terrestrial speech we call witches or perverts. But that was all in the background. What emerged from the stories was rather an image than an idea – the picture of the tall, slender form, unbowed though the world’s weight rested upon its shoulders, stepping forth fearless and friendless into the dark to do for others what those others forbade it to do yet needed to have done.
…It was on those lines that the enemy now worked almost exclusively. Though the Lady had no word for Duty he had made it appear to her in the light of a Duty that she should continue to fondle the idea of disobedience, and convinced her that it would be a cowardice if she repulsed him. The idea of the Great Deed, of the Great Risk, of a kind of martyrdom, were presented to her every day, varied in a thousand forms.”
While the devil can certainly appear as an angel of light, this lack of discrimination means that you end up not knowing the difference between good and evil spiritualties, so that good is perceived as evil and evil is seen as good. It may even be that everything is seen as good, that there is no evil, just a different way, a different but equally good and holy gift. That is the troubling part of a sermon recently preached by the Presiding Bishop of The Episcopal Church, which seems to have garnered no mass media attention unlike the pope’s “obsession” with the devil in his sermons, but which caused a stir in certain Episcopalian quarters.
“There are some remarkable examples of that kind of blindness in the readings we heard this morning, and slavery is wrapped up in a lot of it. Paul is annoyed at the slave girl who keeps pursuing him, telling the world that he and his companions are slaves of God. She is quite right. She’s telling the same truth Paul and others claim for themselves. But Paul is annoyed, perhaps for being put in his place, and he responds by depriving her of her gift of spiritual awareness. Paul can’t abide something he won’t see as beautiful or holy, so he tries to destroy it. It gets him thrown in prison. That’s pretty much where he’s put himself by his own refusal to recognize that she, too, shares in God’s nature, just as much as he does – maybe more so! The amazing thing is that during that long night in jail he remembers that he might find God there – so he and his cellmates spend the night praying and singing hymns.
An earthquake opens the doors and sets them free, and now Paul and his friends most definitely discern the presence of God. The jailer doesn’t – he thinks his end is at hand. This time, Paul remembers who he is and that all his neighbors are reflections of God, and he reaches out to his frightened captor. This time Paul acts with compassion rather than annoyance, and as a result the company of Jesus’ friends expands to include a whole new household. It makes me wonder what would have happened to that slave girl if Paul had seen the spirit of God in her.”
I won’t attempt to construct my idea of what Bishop Jefferts Schori’s theology of the devil may or may not be, but you have to agree that that is a unique interpretation of the possession of the slave girl and St. Paul’s interaction with her. Whether or not we are to accept that this is indeed demonic possession and not mental illness or some form of psychic abilities, the conclusion drawn is that she was exhibiting an alternate and equally valid spiritual path, a beautiful, holy gift of spiritual awareness.
Most of us probably fall somewhere between these two stools: we acknowledge that the devil exists, but we don’t much think about his activities and we feel faintly embarrassed by the notion of praying for grace to resist temptation as coming from outside ourselves.
It’s a form of pride: sure, I may be a sinner in this, that or the other way, but I hold the key to my own improvement by my own effort (and maybe a push from God). That I may be susceptible to the influence of a malign spirit – isn’t that the kind of unsophisticated, old-fashioned Bible-bashing that led to things like the witch-hunts and the hysteria about curses and black magic? “The devil made me do it” – that’s a lazy excuse for the kind of person who refuses to accept his own responsibility; it’s the kind of half-ironic, half-joking thing you say when you mean “Okay, I know what I did wasn’t so great, but it’s not that bad and it wasn’t really my fault.”
I don’t like the idea of praying for help against the devil. I am quite prepared to admit I’m a sinner, but in the same way that I admit to bad habits. The idea that I’m not in control – that makes me uncomfortable. That’s why it’s a good idea to have us all renew our baptismal promises at the Easter Vigil on Holy Saturday. That’s why it’s a good idea to keep the bit about:
Priest: Do you renounce Satan?
All: I do.
Priest: And all his works?
All: I do.
Priest: And all his empty show?
All: I do.
See, the thing is, the devil is not important. He’s already defeated. He may be winning individual battles but he’s already lost the war. We can be tempted, we can fall, we can be lost, but the devil is not the equal and counterpart of God – not the yin to his yang, not the Angra Mainyu to his Ahura Mazda, not the Dark Side of the Force which is necessary to bring balance. Call him Satan or Lucifer, his counterpart is Michael the Archangel, and he is the unjust servant defeated by the victory of Christ over sin and death. If we’re twitching at the idea of the mediaeval devil with horns and a tail, the archetypal devil with red tights and a pitchfork, good! Those images are meant to be mocked, are meant for us to laugh at – the devil is not a majestic, tragic, Byronically brooding figure. He has lost the good of intellect and his former beauty, and all that remains is the malice of “misery loves company”. One of the best depictions of the devil in popular culture I have seen is in an obscure television show called “Brimstone” which ran for one season in the late 90s.
That devil wasn’t above (or below) such petty acts as tearing out the last few pages of a book so the reader wouldn’t know the ending, or tying the shoelaces of a sleeping man together so that he’d fall when he got up. He had pretensions of grandeur, but as no deed is too small for love, so no deed was too small for the petty bullying of wanting others to be pricked by unhappiness.
This is what Pope Francis is getting at in his sermons about the devil and temptation, but much more importantly sin and grace and God’s forgiveness and mercy.
“Today we ask the Lord for the grace to understand that we are sinners, but truly sinners, not sinners broadly, but sinners with regard to this, that, and the other thing, concrete sins, with the concreteness of sin. The grace to not become corrupt: sinners, yes; corrupt, no! And the grace to walk in the paths of holiness. So be it.”