The making of an exorcist (Part 1)
Exorcist is a term that elicits a range of reactions - from a wry look, a chuckle to a knitted or raised brow.
Countenance, indeed, can tell a thousand words.
That we are still grappling with Satan and his minions in an age of science and technology is deemed paradoxical, if not anachronistic. The reality, though, is irrefutable. In fact, mental health professionals are now taking another look at this ancient practice.
Debra Kelly's article, "Exorcisms may have psychological benefits" speaks volumes. She writes: "For some patients, the act of an exorcism is thought to provide a meaningful way to allow them to confront whatever demons - religious or secular - might be ruining their day-to-day lives. Called the possession syndrome, this is the belief that they are being controlled by something that has found a home within them.
"An exorcism - and an exorcist - can give a person something that a secular therapist can't: a way to heal their soul and their beliefs. Several doctors and psychologists have noted the value of suggestion; and at its most basic level, that's what an exorcism is.
"What a priest might call a possession, a psychiatric journal might call an obsession, a multiple-personality disorder, or a bipolar disorder. No one can deny that there are people who truly believe that they are being possessed by someone or something, and whether those are cases of real demons or of a psychological phenomenon, exorcism might just actually help a person confront their fears."
The exorcist, or person charged with expelling evil from victims, is very much part of contemporary society as it was during the Middle Ages. In the Caribbean, more than most societies, the spirit world is palpable, religion and superstition interface, atheism is discouraged, and faith is the ubiquitous tool to combat the vagaries of life. And this is where my quest to understand the phenomenon of exorcism must begin.
Any serious student of religion should explore the Caribbean's unique cultural fabric. Regarding exorcism, one quickly realises that a potpourri of methods are adopted, culled from practise of multiple faiths due to years of acculturation.
This syncretism formed the basis of my religious exploration. My early years as a Roman Catholic gave way to in-depth studies of Hinduism, Sufism, Patanjali's Yoga, Afrocentric religions, and several esoteric philosophies.
Throughout, cosmic duality, or the existence of good and evil, was taught. The exorcist was there to ensure that the scale of balance never tilted in favour of the oppressor. In every society, exorcism demands specialised training. The exorcist is renowned for possessing special attributes and for having been chosen by God and man to conduct spiritual warfare against a wile foe.
But for all the research, there were queries, unanswered questions, especially pertaining to mental illness and spiritual possession. For many, the theatrics associated with deliverance prayers of evangelists are not exorcisms, but triggers for hysteria and other forms of neurosis. And while such exercises can have cathartic benefits, they do not begin to explain the dynamics and multiple-layered dimensions of this complex subject.
Driven by a thirst to understand brought me full circle to the folds of Roman Catholicism and studies at L'Ateneo Pontificio Regina Apostolorum in Rome. It is there that the anthropological, psychiatric, and spiritual dimensions were taught.
It was a fascinating time but a time that I found myself at odds with the bishops, forever on the defensive as I came out in support of forms of exorcisms that I was exposed to in the Caribbean. Rome would have none of it. Theirs is a concise thesis: Unlike other faiths, full revelation was bestowed in the Christian Church, and as such, only the Rituale Romanum (Roman Rite of Exorcism) can ensure liberation from genuine evil.
With this, I disagreed. But there was another thorny issue. According to Roman Catholic doctrine, a diocesan bishop specially handpicks the exorcist. A high moral and ethical bearing is a principal determinant. The exorcist must also be an ordained priest. While a virtuous life is incumbent on every exorcist, irrespective of faiths, I questioned the prerequisite of being a priest before assuming this awe-inspiring responsibility, mindful that this was never the original tenet of early Christianity.
The Church's position is supposedly based on preparing the ideal individual for the position. This is understandable and may be the best way of weeding out charlatans and the ill equipped; however, it is also reasonable to assume that given the autocephalous nature of the Roman Church, its overriding concern was control. Having laypersons capable of commanding this office was unthinkable. All power rested in the sacerdotal class.
But research proved that this was not always the case; that the early Christians or the pre-Constantine Church did in fact permit carefully groomed laity to the order of exorcists.
Interestingly, this practice is still alive today among Old Catholics, Conservative-Traditional Catholics, and Liberal Catholics. Embedded in research, I located one such
religious body in Thusis, Switzerland, earlier this year, but not before studying C.W. Leadbeater's The Science of the Sacraments and The Complete Liturgy for Independent, Mystical and Liberal Catholics by Wynn Wagner.
I arrived in this picturesque European country not knowing what to expect. The spectacular snow-capped peaks bedazzled me as I rode over 7,000 feet into the Alps. But my mind strayed repeatedly as I pondered on what awaited me. It is there that I was thoroughly vetted by Alistair, the presiding bishop of the Holy Celtic Church and a knowledgeable figure in Liberal Catholic traditions. Before long, I became the central figure in a ritual that harped back thousand of years.
Next week: The making of an exorcist (Part 2): The Rite of Passage.
- Dr Glenville Ashby s a social critic and president of Global Interfaith Council