Evil exists.

“Evil exists.” I can’t use those words as the title without attribution. They are spoken by the charming social climber and as yet not known serial killer in one of my favorite movies, “The List of Adrian Messenger.”

Once again, I use my issue of the Cup to make known news that those who no longer subscribe to the Washington Post would miss. Hot on the heels of Jim Quigley’s Cup yesterday about the exorcism performed by Jesus in the territory of the Gerasenes, is an article in today’s Post about another actual contemporary exorcism. Here is the link to the article, and, as a convenience and because I don’t know how long links are active, the text.

http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/europe/the-devil-beware-father-gabriele-amorth/2014/05/12/e079aa76-38b3-4c00-8296-e5b74a5982a5_print.html

The Devil beware Father Gabriele Amorth
By Anthony Faiola, Published: May 12, 2014

ROME — The den of the Catholic Church’s best-known exorcist is an unassuming place, a small third-floor room in a home for aging priests hidden in an obscure corner of southern Rome. I walk down the hospital-like hallway on my way to meet him, and the priest anticipates my knock before it happens. The door swings open, and there he is.

The Rev. Gabriele Amorth, 89, peers up with goldfish eyes through his Hubble-telescope glasses.

“Enter,” says the diminutive priest.

I obey.

The room is stark, outfitted with a hospital bed and numerous images of Jesus and the Virgin Mary. Then there are the mementos, which Amorth began collecting after he was appointed an exorcist back in the 1980s. He has conducted thousands of spiritual cleansings since then, keeping just a few of the bits and bobs he likes to call “the stuff that gets spewed from mouths.” Nails. Keys. Chains. Plastic figurines.

“What seems to be spit turns out to be a nail,” he said with a seen-it-all tone. “I don’t give it much importance.”

His services, though in great demand, are not always needed.

“Most times there’s no actual diabolical presence, and my job lies in suggesting [to] those that come to me to live a life of faith and prayer,” he said. “And this is enough to assuage the fears of those afraid of the Devil’s ills.”
But other times, he said, “there really is a diabolical influence.”
Twice, Amorth said, he saw possessed victims levitate. “We try to keep the person in the armchair,” he said, adding that demons “do it just to show off.”
An hour later, he invites me and an Italian colleague to witness an exorcism ourselves.

His exorcism room is a retrofitted, white-tiled kitchen on the first floor of the residence, decorated with more images of Jesus and Mary. A large statue of the Virgin, to which Amorth’s eyes constantly dart, sits in one corner of the room. When we enter, he is donning a black cassock draped in a purple stole vestment and is consoling a 40-something Neapolitan housewife. Her hair is well-coiffed, and her sparkly sneakers and Bulgari sunglasses say soccer mom more than demonic host. In fact, the woman, who gives her name only as Antonella, seems perfectly normal at first.

That will change.

Unlike the speedy rituals shown in the movies, real exorcisms are more of a slow burn, often involving years of repeated rites before the big cleanse. Antonella, who drove up to Rome from Naples with her husband, Michele, for her latest exorcism, claims to have been possessed by multiple demons for the better part of 17 years.

Both she and Michele blame the affliction on a curse by a Devil-worshiping childless friend who they say envied Antonella’s fecundity as a mother of two. They knew something was wrong, they said, when Antonella began throwing violent fits after receiving the Eucharist at Mass and going into trances in which she spoke Aramaic and German — languages she said she has never studied. It would typically take three grown men to subdue her, the couple said.

After four years of exorcisms with Amorth, however, her fits have become progressively less violent. She says she has begun to view the process as a long-term treatment of a terrible disease.

“But one of the soul,” she said.

After a round of praying, Amorth, aided by three assistants, finally launches his spiritual attack.

He begins chanting in Latin, commanding the presumed devils inside Antonella to reveal themselves. Several minutes pass before Antonella reacts. She begins choking, coughing up phlegm. She moans and rocks back and forth. As if in pain, she demands that the chanting stop.

Amorth refuses, shouting, “Tell me your name!”

Antonella writhes in her seat, hissing, “No! No!” She shakes her head, her eyes rolling to the back of their sockets. In an altered voice, she says, “I will not!”
“Tell me your name!” Amorth repeats, until finally she spits out a name: Asmodeus, a demon from scriptural lore.

“How many are you?” the priest demands, repeating the question as Antonella grunts and shakes her head violently.

Finally, she responds defiantly: “We are five!”

Amorth begins making the sign of the cross on her forehead, prompting her to recoil. The chanting and blessings go on for several more minutes before Antonella calms down. Ten minutes later, she comes around as if from a dream. She opens her eyes and slumps in her chair.

After his bout with the demons, Amorth simply shrugs.

“That,” he says, “was a light one.”

What are we to make of this? First, it would seem that Hollywood depictions of exorcisms, while exaggerated, are not far off the mark. Clearly the technical advisors to the movie directors were drawing on a body of experiences. Second, if we are not to discount such articles as this as complete fabrications – just the latest from a vast propaganda machine for Catholicism – then there is something here that evidences existence of a dark spiritual world. Why does it not show itself more often in the form of demonic possessions such as recounted in this piece? I’m recalling Screwtape’s words to Wormwood in “The Screwtape Letters” by C. S. Lewis. When Wormwood is wanting to get his human subject to commit great and dramatic crimes, Screwtape tells him that all that matters is to move the subject away from God, away from the light and into the darkness, and that murder isn’t necessary if playing cards will do the trick. Perhaps we are all possessed in our own small and not so small ways.

One thing has always puzzled me. Why do exorcisms seem to be the province of clergy in the Roman Catholic Church? Are there Anglican clerics to do this too and we just keep quiet about it, not wanting the secular world to think we Anglicans are spooky in that way? Do any of our seminaries teach this? In our baptismal rite, our statement of belief is clear enough in the reference to renouncing “Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God.” But do we fully realize the depths of what we are saying when we recite these words as baptism candidates or sponsors or when we hear them again and again as witnesses?

I close with a line from The Great Litany. “From all evil and wickedness; from sin; from the crafts and assaults of the devil; and from everlasting damnation. Good Lord, deliver us.”

Ron Hicks, Parish Verger, St. Alban’s Episcopal Church, Washington DC, 13-May-2014.

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3 Responses to Evil exists.

  1. Dr. Judith Farr says:

    I found this essay by Ron’s very interesting. I was received into the Episcopal Church in 1963, having been reared in Roman Catholic schools where I was on several occasions spoken to about demonic possession. It was quite frightening to me as a child of eight and nine when it was suggested that one of the features of possession was the devil’s ability to make one “levitate” after Holy Communion & float above the altar. My dear mother ‘s cook, who lived with us, was a devout Presbyterian lady & she was shocked that I should be exposed to “such nonsense.” (I must say that I remained afraid to receive Communion for several years until a priest urged me to pray that I not be visited by the devil in that fashion. ) I recall that we always uttered a prayer at the conclusion of the Mass, begging to be kept safe from “Satan, who roams the world, seeking the ruination of souls.” Do I believe in demonic possession now? I certainly believe in evil. But Is mental illness caused by demonic possession? Scripture certainly appears to suggest this but, like so much else in the Bible, are such Scriptural passages in which devils are cast out through prayer intended as metaphoric, emblematic of the power of good over evil? If God exists, must the Devil, His adversary, exist? Am I being a Manichean, i.e., a heretic by Canon law? I don’t know any of the answers to these most exquisite and challenging questions!

  2. Lindy says:

    We should talk- I wrote a paper on exorcism last semester and learned a bit about it in our church. Very interesting to me!

  3. Yes, Ron, there are Anglican clerics who do this, too. We don’t talk about it much, but they are out there. As one who gives little shrift to talk of demons, tending to see it as an easy way for people to avoid responsibility for their own decisions, I was made to re-think that after a series of extended conversations with one such priest. The careful discernment of what might be a psychiatric issue from what might be something else was particularly compelling.

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