The title above makes it sound like I work for “Ghostbusters”! No. But, in another way, maybe I do.
from “The Exorcist”
Have I done exorcisms like this one? No way! I understand that demonic possession does very very rarely exist. But if I saw something like this (thank God and all the saints I haven’t), I’d get out of there as fast as my feet would carry me, and call in someone far more experienced than I, far more holy than I.
Before we proceed…
I can’t resist telling you this story: In the early ’70s when the movie “The Exorcist” was newly out. (This was in the era before Cable, when we could not watch movies at home.) At Sunday coffee hour, for some reason things were fairly quiet, when a woman’s voice was heard, excitedly exaggerating to make her point: “I would never go out and waste good money to see ‘The Exorcist’! If I want to see people screaming and cursing and doing obscene things with a crucifix, I can do it at home!” The place fell deadly silent! She was very embarrassed by it, and I am still laughing.
Actually, laughing is not a bad approach: Martin Luther said, “The best way to drive out the devil, if he will not yield to texts of Scripture, is to jeer and flout him, for he cannot bear scorn.” Thomas More wrote, “The devil…that proud spirit…cannot endure to be mocked.”
Now to get down to business:
Demons? Evil Spirits? Ghosts?
Unless we want to discount a large number of the Gospel stories, I think we must believe that demons, evil spirits exist, and that there is an “other side” of Reality that is not Heavenly. Why do so many demons appear in the Gospels? Because in the Presence of Christ our God, all Reality is revealed for what it is.
courtesy of Saint Clement Anglican Church, Seattle
If you’re of a suggestible nature… I am not suggesting here that there’s a ghost down every hall, and a demon under every bed! I have never seen a ghost or a demon or experienced anything paranormal. (Or have I…? I’ll tell you a story later.) However, I do believe such phenomena exist. There’s much evidence for it, all through history.
What’s actually behind it? We’ll talk about that later, too.
The chief question is what to do about it. When they do occur, as a line in an old Scottish litany went: “From ghosties and ghoulies and long leggedy beasties and things that go bump in the night: good Lord, deliver us.” Yes! When these situations arise, we need to have a way to get rid of whatever-or-whoever-it-is, and put peoples’ minds at ease, so they can get some sleep and carry on a normal life without fear.
The Church provides such a way.
Simple definition: An Exorcism is a prayer to cast out the devil and his minions. Satan: Go to hell! where you belong.
Here is an excellent article about Exorcism from the Greek Archdiocese: https://www.goarch.org/-/exorcism
Later, I am going tell you about three times when I had to deal with seemingly “paranormal” situations, and also tell a couple of “ghost” stories. I’m also going to leave that till the end! Sorry! but I think we need to lay a foundation first.
To begin let’s talk about ordinary liturgical exorcisms. How many of these exorcisms have I performed? So many I’ve lost count, as has any old Orthodox priest.
Exorcisms before Baptism
Before every Orthodox Baptism, the priest pronounces a series of Exorcisms of the “candidate”. In the early Church most of those being baptized were adults, and they were exorcised, because God only knows what all they had been up to that needed to be driven out. Here is a very small portion of the text, just so you can get the “feel” of it:
“Be rebuked and depart … Be afraid, come forth, and depart from this His created image … Depart to your own Tartaros …” “O Satan … we His unworthy servants command you and all the power which works with you to remove yourself from him/her who has been sealed in the Name of our Lord Jesus Christ, our True God…”
Kolovichi (Creative Commons License)
Today we still use the same Exorcisms, even with infants before they are Baptized. Why in the world would we think we need to chase Satan out of newborn babies? It is indeed because of the world. Every little child is born into a world that is occupied by an enemy. Just before His Crucifixion, Jesus said “The ruler [prince] of this world approaches…” John 14:30 Not that all things in the world are evil. Of course not. This is God’s world, and there is enormous good here, too. But there is not a single thing in this world, not a single person in this world not tainted by evil and sin, “off the mark”, distanced from God and His love. This sounds ugly, but it’s true: Every baby is already affected by evil, whether heredity, environment, demons, and soon by evil external influences.
So we perform Exorcisms and reclaim that baby (or that adult, as may be) for God: A fresh start.
Exorcisms of Persons: Demonic Possession
As I said I would never do this. I don’t feel competent.
If a person’s behavior is inexplicably bizarre, uncontrollable, and also especially if it’s sacrilegious, the first thing to do is not to call in a priest with holy water. The first thing to do is get the person to a medical doctor to check for physical causes. If that isn’t the source, then the person should be taken to a psychiatrist to seek a mental cause behind it. Indeed, much that once was attributed directly to the devil can now be explained and often treated this way. This doesn’t mean the disorder is not of the devil. All evil is of the devil. Competent psychiatric help is just a modern way of continuing Christ’s work of driving off the devil. And then if nothing else “works”, exorcism of the person may be appropriate.
Many Roman Catholic dioceses appoint a trained Exorcist, believing exorcism is too dangerous for an unprepared parish priest to deal with.
The Orthodox Church once had a Minor Order of Exorcists. Now we have appointed prayers which may be used by any priest, who should never approach this casually. He should pray and fast and make his Confession in preparation. His job is to be the channel by which God may drive out the Evil One.
I’ve heard about a few priests and even nuns in the old countries (who I fear may be mentally unstable themselves) performing exorcisms and doing great harm to persons who may or may not be possessed. For example, in this disturbing article: https://www.cbsnews.com/news/ex-monk-gets-7-years-for-botched-exorcism/ Orthodox hierarchs are trying to put the “clamps” on this.
Here is the story of an apparently “successful” Orthodox exorcism of a Muslim woman in Egypt: https://www.madamasr.com/en/2015/07/23/feature/society/exorcism-in-cairo-the-last-chance-for-the-desperate/
Exorcisms of Places
The Church also provides prayers which any priest may use to deal with “disturbed” places – which brings us at last to:
Exorcisms of “Haunted” Buildings I have Performed
Only the last one on these three had me really on edge.
1 A woman from our parish asked me to exorcise her house. It was an older building in what had once been a nasty neighborhood, had previously been a “crack house” for drugs, so God only knows what had gone on there. The place suffered from strange noises. She was an artist who had collected of objects of art, and sometimes found them moved about though she hadn’t done it. Places in the house which were warm would suddenly turn icy cold – one of the characteristics of “paranormal” goings on. When she went out of town, friends would “house-sit” for her; none would ever do it a second time. She’d had a priest from her previous parish exorcise the place twice, and she said that helped, but there were still issues. So as part of our regular Epiphany home blessings, I said some prayers to God to drive out whatever or whoever it was and leave the place at peace, and sprinkled extra holy water into the cold spots. She reported afterwards that all was now well. I claim no credit.
courtesy of Saint Nicholas Antiochian Orthodox Church, Grand Rapids
2 The owners of an old feed mill, now an art gallery, in the town just northeast of us asked me in. They reported the same “suddenly icy cold” spots, and something else about it had them very edgy. So I did what was appointed. Later they said the cold spots were gone.
3 I should mention first that all that the folks involved here were “normal” business people, not the sort who were looking for spirits here and there. Instead they were frightened.
After weekday Matins we used to go to a coffee shop located in an old building in downtown Cedarburg – which, for whatever it’s worth, is reputed to be one of the most haunted towns in Wisconsin. I overheard some of the baristas talking about how scared they were to go down into the basement. I was curious and asked what was going on. They said there were sometimes footsteps on the stairs when nobody was there, and a couple of times they had seen a man who wasn’t there sitting at the foot of the stairs. I asked the owner if this was accurate. She said it was. So I asked “Would you like the place exorcised?” She said “Yes. But if you think we have problems, go talk to the man in the shop next door” – which was in the same building.
courtesy of Saint Basil Greek Orthodox Church, Chicago
So I did and asked the same question. He answered: “Yes! “What seems to be the problem?” I asked. He said, “Well, the footsteps come up the stairs and then up the aisle here. And one night I called my wife and said ‘You won’t believe this. On one of the clothing racks, at one end the hangers and the clothes are all swinging wildly back and forth, while at the other end they all are absolutely still.'”
So I brought vestments next time, along with holy water and my Euchologion (priest’s book of prayers for particular occasions), and a few other people came along, for which I was very glad. I sprinkled holy water profusely, praying that whoever or whatever it was would be set free and be at rest. The people at the coffee shop reported later that they’d had no problems after that. I never heard the results in the shop next door, though I noted that he sold the place not long after. Of course, there could have been other reasons for that.
What’s really going on here?
Some would attribute all these phenomena to overactive imaginations. Yes, that may account for much. People get excited or frightened, and the imagination runs wild. We’ve all experienced it. But that doesn’t explain everything.
An example: One of my favorite authors, historian Steven Runciman (who was greatly sympathetic to Orthodoxy), wrote that while reading in a library many years ago in Thailand, he looked up and saw a woman dressed in very old-fashioned clothing, who then vanished before his eyes. He was taken aback and asked the library manager about it. “Oh yes”, he said, “many people have seen her.”
I think I told you a while back about C.S. Lewis appearing twice after his death.
Claimed to be an authentic image of “The Brown Lady” who haunts Raynham Hall, Norfolk, England, 1937
How to explain it? Here are some possibilities, not mutually exclusive.
1 Perhaps these are actually ghosts, spirits of people who can’t leave and move on, for some reason. Poor souls.
Or perhaps not always “poor” souls. A trustworthy woman from my former parish told me this: Her mother Barbara and father Jim owned a dry cleaning shop. (I had met Barbara, who seemed a very down to earth sort of person.) Jim died. Barbara took some time off to recover and left the shop in the hands of their assistant. A day or so before she went back to work, Barbara looked up and there stood Jim, who asked “Barbara, are you alright?” She responded “Yes, I’m alright.” And he was gone, almost before she had time to be startled. She went back to work. Their assistant said, “Barbara, the strangest thing happened to me the other day – I don’t think you’ll believe it. I was here in the shop. I looked up and there stood Jim. He asked ‘Is Barbara alright?’ I answered ‘Yes, Jim, Barbara is alright’, and he was gone.” Barbara said, “Yes, I believe it!” This, I think, was a very faith-affirming, life-affirming “ghost story”, or whatever it was.
2 Perhaps these are demons, evil spirits trying to drive people up the wall.
3 Perhaps they are what are called poltergeists, “playful spirits” (well, kind of) which have long been reported – said by some to be “partly fallen” angels, caught in between.
4 Or maybe sometimes what we’ve got here is “nobody at all”.
I think this is my original theory, based on something extremely odd that happened while I was in Anglican seminary nearly sixty years ago.
My apartment-mate had bought a “stereo record player”, as we called them in those days. To show it off he invited a group of our friends in, and played “The 1812 Overture”, which as you know ends with a great cacophony of guns and church bells and loud music. All were properly impressed, so then we set about having a small (I emphasize “small”!) glass of wine, when suddenly we heard faintly “The 1812 Overture” again. He checked: the stereo was not turned on, the disc was in its jacket, the table was not turning. Where was it coming from? The radio was not on. We checked in the hall: nothing there, neither upstairs nor downstairs. We listened out in the “Close”: nothing there. So where was the music coming from? Finally we located the source: inside the room, just above the radiator! * The Overture concluded, still faintly, and that was it. This was such an inexplicable impossibility that we all were edgy for several days. It never happened again.
- Young readers, ask an old person to explain radiators.
from cogdogblog (Creative Commons)
I, the former science major, needed an explanation. The only thing I’ve ever come up with is this: Could there be some kind of natural way of recording, “replaying” sounds. So perhaps when people hear ghostly footsteps in the hall night after night, there’s actually nobody there. Could this apply even to visual paranormal events, such as what Runciman saw in the library in Thailand? However… that would not explain Jim coming back to ask about Barbara, would it? Or the late C.S. Lewis sitting there in the living room of J.B. Philips and giving him some helpful advice.
And so (here it comes again): “It’s a mystery!” – from which, Good Lord, deliver us. Except not from Jim and C.S. Lewis, God bless them.
If you have any thoughts or observations on the subject, please comment below.
Now, would anyone like to talk about UFOs? Me either.
Next Week we’ll start a series on the Our Father.