The Most Perilous Job
You would not recognize them on the street. They look like everyone else with one difference, their eyes. If you took a close look into them, you would see they appear sad, even tortured. They are often quiet men, introspective, unassuming and occasionally preoccupied. They belong to a club although they rarely meet. Part of the reason is there are so few of them. These are, after all, modern times. These are times of great technological advances. Smart cars, GPS systems that make it almost impossible to get lost. These are times where there are medical miracles, with more on the way. Yet what they do represents a time long forgotten, a time before we had all this marvelous technology. What they do is practice something considered medieval. They are relics of the past. Yet, few as they are, what they do is needed desperately. They are exorcists.
No, I am not talking Deliverance Ministers who free people of their negative attachments by the thousands. No, that is not what an exorcist does. What they do is look Satan right in the eyes and agrees to do battle with him or his legions. Of course, they have no power over them whatsoever. No human does. How can a mere mortal fight against an almost all-powerful enemy that can take on just about any shape it wants and use supernatural powers and the wisdom of the ages to defeat these men. Yet these men are themselves, vicious fighters, despite having no power of their own, despite their quiet, unassuming demeanor.
They face criticism when they announce their professions, those who are willing to do so that is. Most don’t. It is just simpler that way. No one wants their profession knocked or belittled. However, the majority of people do not believe in dark, supernatural forces. Of course these men do. So too are the ones they have liberated. Many don’t believe in God either. Again, these men do, although they wrestle with their faith constantly. So these men keep quiet about what they do. Their superiors prefer it that way because their occupation attracts the mentally ill, the crackpots and the misinformed. They must fear the press who have a field day when they find out about an exorcism. So just what do they do, why did they choose such a profession and why do they continue to do it? These are three very distinct questions and must be closely examined if you are to take away anything from this article. To understand why they chose to enter this field, one must first look at what they do.
The ritual of exorcism was designed to free people from Satan himself. It is used more on his lackeys. An exorcism can be done on a person or a location. Both have their dangers although a house exorcism is easier and safer than dealing with the possessed. The problems aren’t exclusive to the exorcism itself. These men have placed themselves in Satan’s crosshairs. Once they start, they are marked men and they will pay a price for their work.
A house exorcism is simply recitation of prayers, at the completion of which, they house should be cleared. However, it is not necessarily easy or a one shot deal. It can get hairy for all those who are in the house. There should be as few as possible unless the exorcist believes one person may be in the process of becoming possessed. Your standard outward manifestations may occur, such as objects being thrown at anyone and everyone, foul stenches and so on. There is danger to the exorcist because he will be targeted. However, clearing a house is easier and often more successful than driving a demon or devil from a person. There, on top of everything else, the exorcist must be protected against physical attack be the possessed person; he also have to be aware of attacks against his team. Then of course, there can be attacks by an enemy that cannot be seen. How do you fight what you cannot see?
Before an exorcism, doubts set in. Doubts about whether they person really is possessed. There are doubts about their worthiness to do a job that carries such risk and causes terrible physical and emotions pain to all parties involved, especially to the possessed and the exorcist. There are doubts that maybe the deniers of Satan are right. There are doubts about their own faith. They have plenty of time to think about this during the “black fast” they do. That consists of three to five days of denying themselves of food while devoting as much of their time as they can to prayer. They must try to alleviate their doubts. Before an exorcism can be performed, mental illness must be ruled out. In this day and age, one must be a fool to doubt Satan’s existence for the alternative is to believe than man himself is inherently evil. Perhaps he is. The doubts about unworthiness are harder to overcome. Everyone sins. Exorcists are no exception. While the Roman Ritual states that only a devout, pure man should perform the ritual, the truth of the matter is that it is God who banishes the demon, not the man.
When the hit movie, “The Exorcist” came out, there was a wave of hysteria. Many people were so frightened they became ill. Churches, priests and Bishops were overwhelmed with complaints that ranged from allowing a movie like that to be shown, (as if they had a say in the matter) to the belief that either they themselves were possessed or someone, usually their spouse was. That continues to happen every time a demonic possession type of movie comes out. The point is that “The Exorcist” did several things: It scared the hell out of people and it made people aware that there are indeed exorcists.
The movie, of course was sensationalized. That is what made it so scary. It was based on a diary that was kept by a Catholic priest that William Peter Blatty somehow got hold of.The book “Possessed” by Thomas B. Allen is much more accurate but far less frightening. People like frightening so little was made of this movie.
So just what does happen during an exorcism? Well, if you subtract the 360 degree head spin and the buckets of pea soup, just about everything else does indeed happen. The thing is they almost never happen in one exorcism. Tables and occasionally people do levitate; foul smells drive people from the room, furniture, if any is left in the room (and shouldn’t be) may go flying around. That is the sensational stuff, the stuff that makes it exciting for the movie goers.
In reality, at many exorcisms, nothing happens. It may on the second one. Sometimes, all hell breaks loose and the exorcist must take control immediately. He cannot afford to show fear. Contrary to what most people believe, an exorcism is not a one and done deal. It may take several exorcisms over the course of many months to rid someone of a demonic entity. There are those occasions where a single exorcism is successful but that is not the norm. How does an exorcism work? It is always best that a Mass be said in the house prior to the exorcism. That increases the odds of a successful outcome. If you can get the possessed to accept the consecrated Host, you are that much ahead of the game. Next, the possessed is led to a room that should have been stripped down to nothing but a bed and a small table for the priest. Whenever possible, the exorcism should be in a Church but that is rarely the case. Everything should be taken off the walls. The fewer projectiles in the room, the safer it is. The devil has weapons enough without us supplying the ammunition. Once the exorcism begins, it starts with the Litany of the Saints and continues on from there. There are strict guidelines but also room for using what seems to be working. For example, the Ritual consists of several Bible verses as well as Gospels. Well, if the exorcist discerns that a particular Gospel affects the demon more than another, he has the freedom to use that particular one.
During the Ritual, he is going to be attacked. Those attacks may be physical; they may be mental. One is left to wonder which are more long lasting. In his book, “Hostage To The Devil”, Malachi Martin lists five stages of an exorcism. He calls them the “pretense” which is where the demon hides. Then you have the “presence” where you know the demon is around. Then there is the “voice.” This is where the demon speaks. Hopefully only the exorcist has to endure this part. The next is the “clash” where the demon and exorcist engage in a battle of wills. Finally, there is the “expulsion,” where the demon is driven out and everyone lives happily ever after, hopefully anyway. Unfortunately, the exorcist is not included in that.
So what really happens that is so terrible? For openers, the possessed must be restrained lest the exorcist gets himself killed or at least seriously wounded. That is why there are assistants and there should be at least 2 priests. Today that is rare. Good luck finding one. A doctor should be present as well, as there are dangers to the possessed. There is almost always plenty of screaming, horrible blasphemies against the Church, God and everyone in the room. If you have a secret you don’t want exposed, expect everyone in the room to hear it and it will usually be an extremely exaggerated version. The demon will outright lie and he will tell half-truths. A good exorcist, in his pre-exorcism meeting with the team will tell everyone not to believe anything they hear in the room during or after the ritual. Just the same, some people hear a half-truth and they let it get to them. In that pre-exorcism briefing, the exorcist will also inform the team that they are to have no conversations with the demon under any circumstances. Once a demon gets inside your head, you are in a world of hurt. Amazingly enough, sins that have been confessed and forgiven are off limits to the demon, as if they never happened.
Demons and devils will do anything they can to stop an exorcism. They may try deafening sounds, moving furniture, vile language, incredible stenches that make people gag or vomit. They may try filling the heads of all those in the room with horrible thoughts. If they sense a weakness, they will go for it. If there is something you are ashamed of, something that haunts you, expect your head to be filled with it. They even resort to parlor tricks. They may set off you smoke alarms, knock pictures from the wall, hurl objects at you. The exorcist is most vulnerable to these attacks. He may be physically attacked by unseen forces. His head is going to be filled with all kind if horrific thoughts. The horror they see is very real and it does not end with the exorcism.
Should several be needed, he will be attacked during the time between exorcisms. Any doubts he has about himself or his ability will be magnified ten fold. If the exorcism fails, he will feel it is all his fault. His faith will be sorely tested. Perhaps the worst part is that all he endures, he must do so alone. He will not speak of the atrocities to others, not even fellow priests. He must suffer in silence, talking only to God for few others would believe anything he has to say. Most fellow priests know nothing about exorcism and there is a growing segment that does not even believe in the devil’s existence. Yet, he will persevere. While some of his assistances may not return for the next exorcism, he surely will unless Satan has found some way to side track him. That may be in the form of an illness, car trouble or a host of other diversions. Trust me, he will be back. And so will the demon.
How Does An Exorcist Fight?
You have read that an exorcist is an ordinary man, sinful and with no powers of his own. So how does he fight? His biggest weapon is his faith but I must qualify that. I have told people that if faith is all I have, I’m dead meat. That usually draws looks of consternation and occasional gasps. Keep in mind that faith is a powerful thing but it can be fleeting. That is in the human part of us. No, faith alone does not do it for me. Belief does. I don’t just have faith that God is with me; I know He is with me. The prayers are extremely powerful and God hears those prayers and that is what affects the demon. And affect the demon, it does. Prayers and Sacramentals such as holy water, a crucifix, holy oil and salt. These are all weapons that cause a demon to writhe in agony. The exorcist is the vehicle used by God but he is given these powerful weapons to use at his discretion.
Before continuing, a point needs to be made here. Since it is God who does the work and the exorcist is the vehicle, why can’t lay people perform exorcisms? Today more and more do because it is so difficult to find Clergy willing to help. What must be remembered is that the Clergy have an advantage. Their religious training, experience with evil and their special devotion to God gives them some additional power. They know what to expect and they are less likely to panic when things go bad. Most layman do not realize that exorcism is only part of the process. As you will see in the next section, there is a price to be paid. The layman does not expect that and has substantially more difficulty dealing with it. Thus it is best left to those who have made vows to God to send the Holy Spirit to him and have promised to endure whatever suffering comes his way for choosing this role.
While the ritual alone takes about 40 minutes, the actual exorcism may take several hours. It is often a war of attrition. The exorcist must try to obtain the name of the demon, his time of leaving and to name his gateway into that person. Some debate takes place over this issue. May feel it is not necessary because you can’t believe anything a demon has to say, so why trust that he is telling the truth. However, much of what we know about demonic possession has come from these questions. On top of that, the demon wants this information kept secret so if you can get him to reveal this information, you have essentially won a small battle and weakened him. However, the exorcist must be extremely careful not to engage in idle conversation with the demon. He can easily be thrown off track this way and open himself up to disaster.
For example, he must never issue a challenge the demon personally. That will be his end. He must insure that all commands are given in the name of God. Failure to do so can also have serious consequences. He should demand a sign that the demon is leaving because the demon may choose to hide to end the ritual.
The most dangerous part of the exorcism comes during the “Clash” because that is where the exorcist and the demon battle each other directly. Again, it is a battle of attrition, a battle of wills. The demon will fight hard, using everything in his powerful arsenal and the exorcist must exhort him to leave the possessed one. This clash can last for hours; it can last for days.
Win, Lose or Draw
Do all exorcisms work? The sad truth is no. Sometimes not enough time was invested. In other cases, the priest was simply too old and tired to give it all the energy it needed. Although he will never agree with this, it is not his fault. Some possessions are meant to continue for purposes only God knows. To the exorcist, in his own mind, the blame lies squarely on his shoulders. He should have done this, not done that. He didn’t pray or fast long enough. He is not worthy to serve God and this was God’s way of telling him that. It sounds insane but that is just a touch of some of the things he must endure.
When he wins, although he will feel pleased for the family or the person he liberated, many doubts will still linger. Exorcisms sometimes seem to work for a time. Then the problem returns. We could fill a book with the reasons why but this is not the time or place for that conversation. He may know this is his last exorcism. He may know there will be at least one more, perhaps several. He will perform the ritual again if his Bishop asks him to. He will walk away in an exhausted state, hoping he can build up his strength before the next one, if that is to be. A piece of him will have died, more sadness will fill his heart. It has a cumulative effect. With each one, the sadness increases because he is well aware that there are many more suffering individuals crying out for help but with nowhere to turn. His eyes will get a little darker, a little sadder. His step may slow. He will wait for the retaliation. He will feel dirty after the exorcism. After one, I felt filthy both on the outside and the inside. I sat in silence for an hour listening to the Ave Maria. Then when some of my strength returned, I took a shower. I wanted to open my mouth and have the shower flow into my mouth and clean my internal organs. Yes, I felt that dirty.
If there is one great debate, it is this: which causes the most retaliation, winning or losing. The answer, I suspect, depends on the exorcist. Make no mistake, whether he wins or loses, he is going to pay a price and it is a dear one. The horrible things he has seen replay over and over in his head, night after night. The hideous things he has heard will also replay nightly. He will see shadows wherever he is. The demons will never leave him alone. Not completely. He knows he has to have eyes in the back of his head. An attack may come from the living as well as those beings that have never lived, at least as we know living to mean. I’ll give you a few examples of retaliation. One involved sitting on a deck on a warm summers evening. Three of us were sitting there. Across and to my right was a large market umbrella being held in a 40 pound cast iron stand. According to both witnesses, the umbrella lifted up, moved to its left and turned directly towards me. I never saw it coming. It caught me full force, toppling me and the chair I was in. The cast iron stand hit me squarely on the ankle. It would hurt for months. This occurred the day after a successful exorcism. The day after another exorcism, one of my ferrets was found dead. She had been fine that morning, playful as usual. She was also young.
After an unsuccessful exorcism, the demon told me he would indeed give me a sign. When I went to my car, I found the Blessed Mother statue had melted. It was not a hot day and that statue had survived some tough weather unaffected. Once when driving home after another failed exorcism, one done on the same person, I felt a presence in my car. Suddenly it got cold. It was 92 degrees out but I was forced to turn off the air conditioning. Within ten minutes, I had the heater on full blast and still the car was cold. I was praying my Rosary at the time and I guess the demon didn’t like it. I continued anyway. I could go on and on but I think you get the idea. The retaliation can last for a lifetime. There are those who feel that the real target in an exorcism is not the possessed, it is the exorcist. The possessed is simply the vehicle used to entrap the exorcist.
Yet despite this sad reality, the exorcist will not blame God for he was well aware of what he was getting into when he chose this particular part of his ministry. The Church prefers “a man of mature years,” a euphemism for an older priest. It is necessary too but only to a point. The younger priests, those precious few who believe in exorcism, run the risk of getting into serious trouble. Too much testosterone causes younger priests to challenge the entity. That must never happen and the older priest knows this. Never forget, the exorcist has no special powers over demons and devils. His only power comes through God the Father, God, the Son and God, the Holy Spirit. It is the Trinity that has power, not the priest, He is just the vessel used. A young priest may show “tombstone” courage, getting himself into a battle that becomes personal. However personal it is on the demons part, the exorcist cannot allow that to happen. It is a well conceived trap and metaphorically speaking, once stepped in, iron claws crush the leg of the exorcist. At the same time, the exorcist must be physically strong enough to endure what could be a long and arduous battle.
Why Would a Priest Accept Such an Assignment?
This is a complicated question because there are probably as many reasons as there are priests. If one were to generalize, it would be fair to say they have a calling. It sounds like an over simplification but it is as good an answer as you will find. These men feel the need to serve God by facing off against His enemy. They have no illusions about the work. They will never receive praise for their work. Exorcisms only make the newspapers when someone, usually not a priest, conducts an exorcism that results in the death of the one believed to be possessed. The Church keeps exorcisms close to the vest, sometimes for good reasons, sometimes for bad ones. The man who accepts this assignment will spend his life living in obscurity, never recognized for the horrendous battles he has fought. There are no worldly rewards, no pay raises; there isn’t even acceptance from his peers. To the exorcist, that is how it should be. He knows this going in. What he does is between him and God and that is the way it must be in the world we live in today. Becoming an exorcist is the best way of saying to God, use me as you need. It is the ultimate sacrifice he can make.
We have taken God out of everything, or nearly everything. When God is taken out, something else is going to fill the void. That is something that should be considered but as stated earlier, few believe in God and even fewer believe in the devil. So what do we expect? To be religious today is to ask for ridicule. No, we are not tossed to starving lions anymore; we are simply criticized and ostracized. It may be less painful, but it is a sad time to live in. We pass laws saying that if you get pregnant because of your own lack of personal responsibility, you can simply have the baby killed. We live in a society with virtually no moral values and eventually we will pay for that, far more than we realize. Demonic possession may not seem so rampant now but give it a few years. Then again, maybe it is more rampant that ever, judging by our laws. Let’s hope we can keep a few exorcists around, just in case.
Why Do They Stay?
This is an easier question to answer than the preceding one. They stay because there is a need for them. They stay because they have a great love for all of God’s children and they do not like it when those precious children of God are being bullied. Someone has to stand up for them. They stay because they are already in the crosshairs of Satan. Once you have seen the darkness, you never again see the light in the same way. These are marked men and they will forever be tormented so they may as well fight back whenever they can, partly because they know they can. Not everyone can do that job. It does not make them special, only different. The voices, the shadows, the horrible images remain. They are confronted to some extent on a daily basis. Most exorcists age quickly. Many die at a relatively young age. Some retire to places of rest, Holy ground where they live out their remaining years among the solitude of their minds, praying every day for those who have taken their place and reliving every horror they experienced. No, they never forget what they saw and heard, especially those things which only they saw and heard.
They have fought evil at its most ferocious and they did so for God. No, they were never rewarded on earth but that was never where their reward was meant to be. That comes later when they get to meet the person they fought for. There they will find their reward. There they will be acknowledged.
© 2007 T. Cooney