Saint Therese, Stella Immanuel and the Charismatic Renewal

Saint Therese, Stella Immanuel and the Charismatic Renewal August 3, 2020

You’ve surely all heard by now of Doctor Stella Immanuel, who was praised by certain conservatives for a hot minute when she said she’d cured “hundreds” of people with a certain non-FDA-approved COVID treatment, only to become a laughingstock when more about her eccentric beliefs was made known. She professes that there’s a government conspiracy to develop a vaccine against religious beliefs; she also believes that a host of gynecological sufferings are caused by people having sex with demons and astral projected witches in their sleep.  She seems to have the standard Satanic Panic beliefs about witches and demons in children’s television as well. And she is being sued for malpractice.

She also has an extremely silly prayer for deliverance from generational curses through the placenta on her website, which hits a little too close to home.

Yes, this is all very funny. It’s hilarious and I’ve been sharing a lot of asinine memes about it on Facebook. But it’s also scary, because I was raised with beliefs that aren’t too far off from Doctor Immanuel’s at all. My family were Apparition Chasers and for awhile we belonged to a community in the Charismatic Renewal.  I’m told other people have positive experiences in the Charismatic Renewal, and I don’t doubt that for a minute. But it’s a movement with very little oversight or discernment, a breeding ground for spiritual abuse, and I’ve seen far more harm than good.

I remember the nutty lady in our community with the frizzy red hair, whom everyone said was a prophet, picketing a local public school for allowing children to read Roald Dahl’s The Witches. Reading a book with “witches” in the title, according to that lady, could turn you into a demoniac. Anything could. Demons lurked in board games, Disney movies, Play Station games, goth clothing, people who drove motorcycles instead of mini vans. They could possess you if you went trick-or-treating or read a book with a vampire in it, if you played a roll-playing game or did yoga stretches.

My parents were duped into that culture by an emotionally abusive religious sister. They were far from the most eccentric people in the group– we were nearly normal in comparison to some other families. But they did regularly go to a loathsome prayer service called “healing the family tree,” and sometimes they dragged me along. It consisted of a whole unholy hour kneeling before the Monstrance, with Jesus at His meekest and most vulnerable there in the holy Eucharist, longing to be loved, but we weren’t adoring Jesus. We weren’t even talking to Jesus. We were saying “In the name of Jesus I bind and command the spirits” of this and that, retroactively forbidding them to place a curse on our family line. It was believed that all problems were caused by evil spirits that could be passed along genetically, somehow, and we could only protect ourselves by changing history– praying away the spirit of high cholesterol, the spirit of heart disease, the spirit of varicose veins, insanity, autism, flat feet and gambling addiction– those are, to the best of my memory, some of the exact words they used. Clearly nobody who was a doctor or a psychologist came close to the writing of this list. The whole thing took a full hour to say.

I was scarcely ten years old. I learned early on to take long restroom breaks when I started to panic.

I was always afraid. And I thought that that fear was piety.

I was a spectacle at school, dousing myself with holy water, showing up at the Halloween party dressed as a patron saint, developing an ever-increasing list of nervous tics to cover myself in the blood of Christ and keep the evil spirits away. I often compare myself to a version of Stephen King’s Carrie who never got a knack for telekinesis. Eventually we were taken out and homeschooled– which was actually a good thing, considering how bad the school was. I have a lot of wonderful memories from the homeschooling stage of my life. But the catechesis was still largely bad.

It took a long, long time before I found out that the devil was small.

I grew up thinking that it was Catholic doctrine that demons were enormous and enormously powerful, a force that could devour you and curse your whole family if you stepped out of line even for a moment. As if demons were the spirit that was everywhere present and filling all things instead of a better Spirit. It stressed my belief in a God of Mercy, if He really created a universe to be batted around by the whims of spirits that powerful.

It was after I was grown up that I read Saint Therese’s Story of a Soul.

I’ve always considered myself in an odd relationship with Saint Therese. My personality isn’t like hers at all– I suppose I’m like her traumatized sister Leonie, or her brash sister Celine. I am sometimes downright annoyed by the flowery style of Therese’s writing; aesthetically, I don’t like it at all. I don’t like the cutesy stories that are told of her childhood either. Oftentimes I shudder when I look at her image in a prayer card or a book, because I associate her with some of the worst memories of how hopeless I felt growing up, and how trapped I felt when I found myself in Steubenville. But I keep coming back to Therese again and again. I happened to be confirmed the year she became a Doctor of the Church, and I took her as my confirmation patron. I named my daughter “Rose” after the Blessed Mother, but also after Therese’s famous token. Therese’s autobiography was the book I happened to pick up after I separated myself from my family and began to be a grown-up.

And here was a great surprise: a doctor of the Church, a saint that Pope Pius X called “the greatest saint of modern time,” someone I could trust to tell me the truth, thought that demons were small.

She wrote that God had given her a vision, when she was a very little girl, of two demons– tiny, ridiculous little imps, who were scared of her. They ran from her. She found them cowering behind a flower pot. Evil spirits, she concluded, are terrified of human souls in the state of grace. They are pointless. She never feared them again, but dedicated her life to God with absolute confidence.

Therese is the author of that phrase I say over and over again on this blog: “everything is grace.” What does that mean? Everything requires grace. Everything is given to us as a grace. Everything, by the mercy of God, becomes a source of grace. Everywhere that you could go, everything that you could do, everything that could befall you, can become a grace.

Nothing that could happen to you could remove you from grace. If you have high cholesterol or a heart attack, or bad veins or bad feet, that can become a source of grace. If you have a mental health condition that torments you, if you’re on the spectrum and people treat you like a monster just because you’re not like them, if you’re mentally or physically disabled or just different and people make your life difficult because of it, those can be a source of grace too. If you are bullied, abused or neglected, God didn’t intend that, but He will use it as a source of grace. Even if these misfortunes happened to be caused by an evil spirit passed down through your family tree, which I doubt is the case– it’s still grace. You can still be a saint. You don’t even have to worry about it. The devil is laughably irrelevant because everything is grace.

You should do good and love your neighbor because God is good and loving and draws you up to be like Him. You should avoid things that hurt you and your neighbor because it’s bad when people are hurt. But as far as random, morally neutral activities that might cause the devil to latch onto you: that’s not something to be afraid of in the least.

I make myself sound way too confident and at ease in this post. I have a lot of learning left to do. Anyone who knows me will tell you I flash back and panic that God abandoned me to be picked at by demons, several times a week, at the silliest provocations. I’ve flashed back, mildly, the three times I tired to sit down and write this blog post. Religious trauma will do that to you. But that, too, is  a source of grace.

You don’t need deliverance prayer for your placenta.

We can all go back to giggling at astral projected witches and placenta curses. They are nonsense.

God is in Heaven and we’re safe. And everything is grace.


Image via Pixabay

Mary Pezzulo is the author of Meditations on the Way of the Cross

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