This weekend, a group of American Catholic leaders are meeting in Baltimore to discuss how “to prepare more priests and bishops to respond to the demand” for more exorcisms. The article in the New York Times makes it clear that the Catholic church is responding to a demand from the laity, and that they carefully screen people to separate those needing psychological care from those who are truly possessed. I have many issues with the theology and practices of the Roman Catholic Church, but I’m inclined to take them at their word here.
Jason Pitzl-Waters at The Wild Hunt has this piece on the conference and what it means for Pagans. He expresses some concern that an increase in talk about Satan may lead to yet more confusion of Paganism with Satanism and trouble for all of us. That’s not an unreasonable concern.
What I find most interesting are the comments from Pagans, many of whom take a very skeptical, materialist view of the matter. It seems odd that people who regularly call to the Spirits of the Elements and Directions, who pour offerings to Nature Spirits, who worship every god and goddess known to humanity suddenly turn into Humanists when the subject of Christian entities is brought up.
I understand much of what has been called “demon possession” is mental illness and should be treated as such. Yet there are cases in many cultures and traditions that are better explained by malevolent entities than by mental illness. There are instances where exorcisms do work (and plenty where they don’t, but that doesn’t mean they’re all bogus).
If there are spirits in the world (nature spirits, spirits of the dead, gods and demigods), it is naïve to assume they are all advanced beings who wish us well. Some humans are pretty nasty people – if their spirits hang around our world, it’s reasonable to assume that at least some of them would enjoy harassing the living. The tales of our ancestors speak of gods and goddesses who harm humans (the Greek Furies come to mind). And what of the thought-forms we create (intentionally or not) when we are angry, jealous, or spiteful?
I have not experienced possession first-hand, either as a victim or as an exorcist. But I have done house cleansings, for myself and for others. In one there was a dark energy (I won’t call it an entity, but it might have been) so strong even I could locate it. Another felt “dirty,” as though the residue of stress and arguments had built up over the years and needed to be cleaned out. The cleansings all helped – the atmosphere of the houses became brighter, cheerier, and less fearful.
I once discussed exorcisms with a minister in the Church of Religious Science. She had done a few exorcisms, which she described as intensive versions of the “prayer treatments” practiced in Religious Science. But the one she talked about most was the exorcism she couldn’t do. A young woman who was a recent immigrant from Mexico came to see her about a spirit that was troubling her. A Catholic priest had tried and failed to get rid of the spirit. The Religious Science minister couldn’t either. But she put the woman in touch with a traditional healer in Los Angeles (the minister called the healer a brujah – I don’t know if that’s a correct use of the term or not) who successfully performed the exorcism.
When I told this story to a friend who had just completed a degree in anthropology, she said “the trick was to find a shaman from the right tribe.” It makes sense that different cultures would respond to different exorcism techniques, but I didn’t think to ask whether it mattered to the malevolent spirit or to the victim. Or to both.
I think we are wise to be skeptical when someone claims “the devil made me do it.” Mental illness is far too common in our world, and we need to be quick to recognize it and treat it with appropriate therapies and when absolutely necessary, with medication. But there are times when a person or a place is suffering from what is best understood as malevolent entities and energies. I wish the Catholics good luck in helping their tribe deal with this problem. We Pagans need to be ready to help our tribes as well.