Exorcism is the expulsion of evil spirits by commanding them to depart. The expulsion is often done in the name of a deity, saints, angels or other intercessory figures.
Exorcism comes from the Greek horkos, meaning “oath,” and translates as adjuro, or adjure, in Latin and English. To “exorcize,” then, does not really mean to cast out so much as it means “putting the Devil on oath,” or invoking a higher authority to compel the Devil to act in a way contrary to its wishes. Such compulsion also implies binding. The Anglican pamphlet Exorcism (1972) states, “Christian exorcism is the binding of evil powers by the triumph of Christ Jesus, through the application of the power Demonstrated by that triumph, in and by his Church.” Exorcism rituals often begin with the Latin words, “Adjure te, spiritus nequissime, per Deum omnipotentem,” which translates as “I adjure thee, most evil spirit, by almighty God.” Jesus, who cast out devils, did not exorcise, because he did not need to call on any higher authority than Himself.
Violence both physical and spiritual often dominates an exorcism. Furniture bangs and breaks, waves of heat and cold pour over the room, horrible cries emanate from the victim and often the victim suffers real physical pain and distress. The Devil seems to revel in spitting, vomiting (see Allotriophagy) and other, more disgusting bodily functions as well. Spiritually, the Devil and the exorcist battle for the soul of the victim, and while the Devil hurls invectives, the exorcist counters with the strongest demands for the Demon’s departure, vowing pain and penalty if it does not comply.
Exorcisms may also include the physical beating of a sufferer to force the Demon to depart, or throwing stones at the possessed person. In extreme cases, such as that of Urbain Grandier in Loudun, the possessed person is killed and burned, or even burned alive, to remove all traces of the Devil’s evil. Such punishments imply that the exorcist does not believe the victim suffered innocently at the hands of the Devil, but rather that in some say he or she invited trouble. As late as 1966, members of a fanatic cult in Zurich, Switzerland, ritually beat a young girl to death for being “the Devil’s bride.”
Priests and ministers perform most exorcisms, but clairvoyants and spiritualists also expel evil spirits. The ritual is not nearly as important as the exorcist himself (or herself); such talent is a gift that should be developed. The exorcist must be convinced of the victim’s possession and have faith in the power of the Lord to work through the exorcist.
Usually he is engaged in the active ministry of parishes. Rarely is he a scholarly type engaged in teaching or research. Rarely is he a recently ordained priest. If there is any median age for exorcists, it is probably between the ages of fifty and sixty- five. Sound and robust physi- cal health is not a characteristic of exorcists, nor is proven intellectual brilliance, postgraduate degrees, even in psychology or philosophy, or a very sophisticated personal culture. . . . Though, of course, there are many exceptions, the usual reasons for a priest’s being chosen are his qualities of moral judgment, personal behavior, and religious beliefs — qualities that are not sophisticated or laboriously acquired, but that somehow seem always to have been an easy and natural part of such a man.
The exorcist as victim.
Although most accounts of exorcism concentrate on the sufferings of the victim and the machinations of the Devil, little has been said about the effect on the exorcist. Yet an exorcist assumes a heavy risk when fighting evil. Not only can the ordeal go on for weeks, maybe months, but the exorcist must be prepared to have his entire life bared by the paranormal knowledge of the Devil. Secret sins are blurted out and ridiculed, and the Demons may even mimic the voices of long-lost loved ones.
Becoming possessed himself ranks as the greatest danger to the exorcist, especially if he suffers from guilt and secretly feels the need to be punished.
Father Jean-Joseph Surin, Jesuit exorcist to the nuns at Loudun, became possessed while ministering to Jeanne des Anges after the death of Grandier. Reared in a cloister, Surin practiced self-denial during his early years as a priest, denying himself food, sleep and social contact. By the time he went to Loudun, Surin suffered from poor health, severe headaches, muscle pain, melancholy and attacks of depression and confusion. Unlike many of his fellow Jesuits, Surin firmly believed that Sister Jeanne and the others were truly possessed.
On January 19, 1635, Surin experienced his first possession, and by January 7 of the next year, the Demon Isacaar- on — devil of lust and debauchery — had left Sister Jeanne and entered Father Surin. Leviathan and other Demons also tortured the priest. In May 1635 Father Surin wrote of his torments to his friend Father Datichi, a Jesuit in Rome:
Things have gone so far that God has permitted, for my sins, I think, something never seen, perhaps, in the Church: that during the exercise of my ministry, the Devil passes from the body of the possessed person, and coming into mine, assaults me and overturns me, shakes me, and visibly travels through me, possessing me for several hours like an energumen. . . . Some say that it is a chastisement from God upon me, as punishment for some illusion; others say something quite different; as for me, I hold fast where I am, and would not exchange my fate for anyone’s, being firmly convinced that there is nothing better than to be reduced to great extremities.
Surin continued to be ill and tormented throughout 1637 and 1638, and by 1639 he could no longer dress himself, eat without difficulty, walk or read and write. In 1645 Surin attempted suicide. He would have probably died had not the kindly Father Bastide taken over as head of the Jesuit College at Saintes, where Surin lived, in 1648. He brought Surin back to health step by step, giving him the love and attention Surin had never experienced. Eventually Father Surin was able to walk again, and to read and write; he even attained enough inner strength to preach and hear confession. He wrote of his experiences at Loudun in his memoirs, Science Experimental, and finally died, peacefully, in 1665.
The setting of an exorcism.
There is a special connection between the spirit and its possessing location, most often the victim’s bedroom or personal place. Anything hat can be moved is taken out, such as rugs, lamps, dressers, curtains, tables and trunks, to minimize flying objects. Only a bed or couch remains, accompanied by a small side table to hold a crucifix, candle, holy water and prayer book. Doors and windows are closed but cannot be nailed shut as air must be allowed to enter the room. Doorways must be kept covered, even if the door is open, or else the evil forces inside the room could affect the vicinity outside. Modern exorcists also employ a small tape recorder to validate the procedure. The priest-exorcist wears a white surplice and a purple stole.
Exorcists usually are assisted by a junior priest chosen by the diocese and in training to be an exorcist himself. The assistant monitors the exorcist, trying to keep him to the business at hand and not be misguided by the perversions of the Demons, and provides physical aid if necessary. If the exorcist collapses or even dies during the ritual, the assistant takes over.
Other assistants may include a medical doctor and perhaps a family member. Each must be physically strong and be relatively guiltless at the time of the exorcism, so that the Devil cannot use their secret sins as a weapon against the exorcism. According to Martin:
The exorcist must be as certain as possible beforehand that his assistants will not be weakened or overcome by obscene behavior or by language foul beyond their imagining; they cannot blanch at blood, excrement, urine; they must be able to take awful personal insults and be prepared to have their darkest secrets screeched in public in front of their companions.
Rites of exorcism.
Rituals vary from a spiritual laying-on of hands by a clairvoyant exorcist, taking the entity into his or her own body and then expelling it, to the formal procedure outlined in the Catholic Rituale Romanum. Salt, which represents purity, and wine, which represents the blood of Christ, figure prominently in exorcisms as well as strong-smelling substances such as hellebore, attar of roses and rue.
Members of many faiths — Hasidic Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Protestant Christians and Pentacostal Christians — practice exorcism, but only the Roman Catholic church offers a formal ritual. In India, Hindu priests may blow cow-dung smoke, burn pig excreta, pull their or the victim’s hair, press rock salt between their fingers, use copper coins, recite mantras or prayers, cut the victim’s hair and burn it or place a blue band around the victim’s neck to exorcise the Demonic spirits. Trying another tack, the exorcist may offer bribes of candy or other gifts if the spirit leaves the victim. Early Puritans relied solely on prayer and fasting.
The official exorcism ritual outlined in the Rituale Romanum dates back to 1614, with two small revisions made in 1952. Cautioning priests to make sure a victim is truly possessed before proceeding, the rite includes prayers and passages from the Bible and calls upon the Demons, in powerful Latin, to depart in the name of Jesus Christ. While no two exorcisms are exactly alike, they tend to unfold in similar stages:
1. The Presence. The exorcist and his assistants become aware of an alien feeling or entity.
2. Pretense. Attempts by the evil spirit to appear and act as the victim, to be seen as one and the same person. The exorcist’s first job is to break this Pretense and find out who the Demon really is. Naming the Demon is the most important first step.
3. Breakpoint. The moment where the Demon’s Pretense finally collapses. This may be a scene of extreme panic and confusion, accompanied by a crescendo of abuse, horrible sights, noises and smells. The Demon begins to speak of the possessed victim in the third person instead of as itself.
4. The Voice. Also a sign of the Breakpoint, the Voice is, in the words of Martin, “inordinately disturb- ing and humanly distressing babel.” The Demon’s voices must be silenced for the exorcism to proceed.
5. The Clash. As the Voice dies out, there is tremendous pressure, both spiritual and physical. The Demon has collided with the “will of the Kingdom.” The exorcist, locked in battle with the Demon, urges the entity to reveal more information about itself as the exorcist’s holy will begins to dominate. As mentioned above, there is a direct link between the entity and place, as each spirit wants a place to be. For such spirits, habitation of a living victim is preferable to hell.
6. Expulsion. In a supreme triumph of God’s will, the spirit leaves in the name of Jesus, and the victim is reclaimed. All present feel the Presence dissipating, sometimes with receding noises or voices. The victim may remember the ordeal or may have no idea what has happened.
- Ebon, Martin. The Devil’s Bride, Exorcism: Past and Present. New York: Harper & Row, 1974.
- Huxley, Aldous. The Devils of Loudun. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1952.
- Martin, Malachi. Hostage to the Devil. New York: Harper & Row, 1976.