For this current roundtable, we have been asked, “What are your thoughts on exorcisms?”
I actually perform a number of exorcisms each and every year. That’s because everyone who is received into the Church also receives an exorcism. That’s not something our parish came up with; it’s something that Orthodox Christians have been doing for at least 1800 years.
But it’s not very dramatic, either—at least, not in the way that folks often expect. Four prayers are read, and, OK, the wording in those prayers is really intense; in fact, the priest actually addresses the demon. Here’s a sample:
Be forbidden! For I forbid thee by Him that walks upon the waves of the sea as though dry land, and Who forbids the storms of the winds; Whose glance dries up the deeps, and Whose interdict makes the mountains melt away. For it is He Himself that now forbids thee through us. Therefore, be afraid, begone, and depart…
The person who is being prayed for is then asked to renounce “Satan, all his works, all his angels, all his service, and all his pride”, and then that person is directed to spit on the Devil—and, yeah, folks actually spit during the service.
So the service is certainly powerful, but, in the twenty years that I’ve been participating in these exorcisms, no one howls; no one has levitated, and no one has yet spewed a green, gooey, guacamole- like substance around the room. And that’s really what folks expect with an exorcism: lots of special-effects, just like in all those horror movies or in those supposedly first-hand accounts of demon possession.
Now the absence of those supernatural fireworks doesn’t mean demons aren’t real; they most certainly are. It simply means these evil creatures are a lot more active in our lives than we would like to believe. In other words, we tend to think that as long as we’re not galloping around on all fours asking for Zuul the Gatekeeper then the demons aren’t messing with us. But the truth is that they are constant and malevolent presence in our hearts and minds and souls.
Of course, at this point, some of you who are reading this column are shaking your heads in disbelief, and you’re thinking (or, if you’re reading this before you’ve finished that second, calming cup of coffee, you might even be yelling): “This is the twenty-first freakin’ century! How can this guy still believe in demons?”
That’s a very, very common reaction; you hear it all the time when the subject of exorcisms comes up. But, as Samuel Jackson once famously said, “Allow me to retort.”
OK, I promise, that’s the last movie reference. But the truth is that you can’t actually be a Christian in any sense of the word that is at all connected to history and tradition and deny the existence of demons. I know there are lots and lots of very sincere and committed folks out there who regard themselves as followers of Christ Jesus and who also regard demons as a relic of a pre-scientific world-view. However, if you are one of those folks, then you also have to regard the New Testament as a relic of that same pre-scientific world-view because demons are an integral and undeniable part of the New Testament. But if you don’t have the New Testament, then you’re just left with being very sincere and committed—and, don’t get wrong, that’s an admirable thing to be; however, it’s not the same as being a Christian—at least, not in any way that’s connected to history or tradition.
And as for the whole ‘This is the twenty-first freakin’ century’ line, since when does truth have a shelf-life? If something is true, then it’s just as true in the twenty-first century as it was in the second century.
However, before we got side-tracked on the whole ‘do demons really exist’ issue, a lot of you were probably wondering how these evil creatures actually influence us.
A good way to track that influence is to think about those areas of your life over which you have little or no control. We don’t like to focus on those areas because we don’t like the feeling of being powerless, but we all have them: some of us drink too much; some of us can’t put down the cigarettes; some of us can’t walk away from the porn; some of us spend way too much money; some of us gamble; some of us tell lies that we don’t even have to tell. But the common denominator in each and every one of those problems is a lack of control; we can’t tell ourselves ‘no’; we can’t make ourselves do what we know we need to do.
But when we have that kind of chaos in our lives, that’s also a sign that the demons are present.
Now, notice, I did not say that the demons cause our self-defeating behaviors or that they are the source of our addictions. We may abuse prescription drugs because, as far back as we can remember, we have felt frightened and insecure, and the drugs keep us from feeling that way. We may sabotage all of our relationships because our parents taught us that we are un-loveable, and so we are just acting out what we were taught. But the demons can sure take advantage of all that disorder, and they can use that energy to generate more confusion and more pain and to deprive us of even more control.
And that’s why everyone who is received into the Church also receives an exorcism. Because in Holy Orthodoxy, we recognize that the demons are real, and we understand that they are constantly at work in our lives.
So if you recognize yourself in any of that, if you’d like to regain some control—and some dignity—just let me know. I’d love to talk to you about what the Church has to offer.