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Rites of Demons: Analytical Look at Catholic Exorcism
Real exorcisms don't involve special effects...
Throughout history the catholic church has been at the center of both love and fear due to it's many mysteries and strange traditions. To many the catholic faith seems somewhat confusing and rather complex when looking at some of their various ceremonies and attire. One of the strangest and perhaps most well known ceremonies is the rite of exorcism. The rite of exorcism has been depicted by television and films many times and in many different ways making the awareness of the rite high but the actual understanding of the particulars of exorcism very low in western society. It was because of my exposure through entertainment coupled through my lack in actually understanding the exorcism process that lead me to begin to study the subject. I wanted to learn how the Catholic church actually looks at exorcism. What I found surprised more and in some ways frightened me more than the horror films I had seen prior to my study.
Much of the information contained in this article comes from The Rite which offers a very in depth look into the life and training of an American priest who is order by the catholic church to become an exorcist. I was delighted to read the book and somewhat shocked when many of my preconceived notions regarding exorcism and demonic possession where shattered. Like many people I thought of possession and exorcism as freaky horror film involving excessive amounts of split pee soup and bodily contortion. The truth is more offensive if only a little less theatrical.
It was not until the mid nineties that the catholic church felt that it was high time that they increased the amount of exorcists within the United States. This was due impart to the global increase in requests for exorcists around the world. To answer the world's cry, the Vatican decided that each diocese must have at least one fully trained and experienced exorcist among their ranks. This is about the time that the book The Rite starts off and discusses the conflict of faith that a young priest felt when asked to travel to Rome and become a trained exorcist.
What is interesting here is that the priest that this biography is centered upon shares his disbelief in devils and satan during that time. It was not uncommon for American priests durring the late eighties and early nineties to have disbelief in satan and his demons. The story is filled with experiences that shape the aspiring exorcist's later belief that satan is indeed real and that the exorcisms serve a very specific purpose for those in spiritual suffering. For anyone that is interested in the occult or horror film pop reference/culture, this book also started the old phrases "you may not believe in the devil, but the devil believes in you". This was said during an exchange between the aspiring exorcist and his mentor just before his first exorcism.
The book is a fantastic reference point for those like myself that wish to take a more scientific or analytic approach to understanding exorcism. Rather than scouring through internet forums on possession or watching horror films, I wanted to actually conduct some research into the topic and found that while there are quite a few things that society gets a little wrong with regard to exorcism, there are a number of factors involved that many people are not even aware of.
Where the myths on devils end and their reality begins
The most incredible thing that I found in my research of catholic exorcism is the incredibly calm view held by those who are involved in exorcism. When the topic of exorcism is discussed by a catholic exorcist, it sounds more like a medical issue than a spiritual one. Possession is seen as more of a kind of sickness in that it is more of a malady than a monster. The other aspect I found intriguing was the fact that the catholic church does not take a self reported possession for granted nor will they assume that an actual possession is taking place in every claim of possession. The catholic church employs teams of psychologists (whether they be atheist or religious in preference) that will work alongside an exorcist in order to determine whether or not the individual's problems can be scientifically explained. According to the The Rite as well as the Association of Exorcists, this is so that the individual may receive the type of help they actually require. The essence of the idea here is that praying over someone who needs medical attention will only further delay their need for medical attention there by exasperating the problem rather than solving it.
Now that I have covered the systematic views of the catholic church on exorcism, I will move into a short list on the myths and truths behind exorcism. I will share what I know thus far, but if there are any questions or comments on some parts that I may have missed, please feel free to leave a comment on the bottom of the article.
Myths and Reports
I am targeting some of the aspects of how catholic exorcisms are portrayed in mainstream Hollywood.
- Spontaneous levitation of a possessed individual: This is reported but not in the same way that many people would imagine it. Often times it is not so much levitating and it is more along the lines of something violently pulling or lifting the individual of the ground. This has only been documented in very few cases and usually is nothing more than an inch or two at most.
- Bodily contortion/self mutilation: This is considered somewhat common if you include cases in which extreme strength is reported as well. Granted, the terms I have used may make you think of intense scenarios but in reality, biting oneself and leaving a mark can be considered self mutilation. There are cases in which individuals have down as little as rip of their own finger nails to attempting to chew out their own tongues. Bodily contortion is considered another strange aspect of possession as well which ranges from full joint rotation to the unhinging of a possessed individual's jaw.
- Actual individuals "coming through" during the exorcism: Encase this one needs a bit more clarification, there are some films that show possessed individuals as randomly speaking in between grunts or raspy demonic forces. Most films use this to express the internal struggle that an individual is feeling during the course of the exorcism. In many cases reported by catholic exorcists, this is not the case. Often times the individual is in a strange somnambulatory state at the end of which they have no memory of the events that occurred. While some possessed individuals report having seen the demon possessing them in a dream or in the physical world, they are few claims to actually physically fighting them during possession.
- Physical altercations between priests and possessed individuals: This does in fact happen but not to the degree that some may think. Exorcists will often times have another priest in the room with them in order to restrain the individual in the event that they attempt to remove themselves from the chair during the course of the exorcism or attack the priest. There are reports of priests being injured during such proceedings.
- Spontaneous manifestations: I understand that the label to this bulletin is a little vague, but this is one of the few aspects of exorcism that is still the subject of some confusion for many individuals within the catholic church to this day. At times during an exorcism, bodily fluids and or strange foreign objects may manifest throughout the course of the exorcism. Most of the reports of such occurrences claim that these items where wretched from the possessed individual. This may sound similar to the old mediums of the early twentieth century who claimed to produce ectoplasm seances, however I can assure you that what is listed is a little more complex than ectoplasm (which was later proven to be nothing more than regurgitated cheese cloth). Some of the items reported to have been vomited were live toads, black iron nails, rocks, knives, and black bile.
- Demons speaking to the priests: This is actually a very important factor in exorcism for the priests. It is said that in many exorcisms the demon will threaten the priest by claiming it will posses him next if he continues the exorcism or denying the priest has any true faith. Priests are instructed to not speak to the demons and to focus on the rite. Communicating with demons is strictly prohibited due to any interactions being considered vile and dangerous.
- Priests being attacked by a demon after an exorcism: Yes, this is considered an actual problem. An exorcist is required to maintain a strong connection to the catholic faith as well as a strong reliance on God in order to remain protected from any kind of retribution the demon may after an exorcism is completed.
- Does knowing the name of a demon actually matter: The catholic church does in fact teach it's exorcists to request the name of the demon in order to cast it out. This along with the spontaneous manifestation of bodily fluids/objects is on the list of unknowns for the catholic church. Little is know as to why the name has power, but it is required in order to complete the exorcism. As a side note to this, it is reported that many of the same demonic names come up over and over again during various exorcisms around the world. This has lead some catholic theorists to the idea that the name of the demon is more of a label or categorizing tool rather than an actual name.
The world contains more than meets the eye
At the heart of all of this information is the soul of what I am trying to share which is that there is more to this world than meets the eye. As shown above, the catholic church takes the exorcism rite very seriously which is reflected in their training, practices, and their association with psychoanalysts. Not all of the information I have listed comes solely from the book The Rite. That said, the book offers fantastic insight into the world of demonology and exorcism. Please be advised that the book is much different than the movie and the movie has nothing to do with the biography given in the book.
I understand that some of this information may be hard to swallow if not downright impossible, but remember that throughout history faith was often one step ahead of science in quantifying or dealing with subject matters that were later to be defined outside of religion. Possession is a phenomenon that we have no true way to measure or understand. Much like consciousness, it something that happens or exist internal that is intangible but also incredibly real for those experiencing it. There are certainly many theories surrounding possession and catholic practices regarding exorcism, but we may never truly know why or how possession takes place or why exorcism seems to be the only way to remedy it. For me possession is another example of how strange this world can be as well as how much we truly do not know about the world around us. If there is anything that I missed or you feel is misrepresented, please feel free to comment below. I hope you enjoyed this brief look into the world of catholic exorcism.