salus animarum suprema lex

20 May 2011

Exorcism (Part 3): What the Rite Got Right

            This article is the third in a series of three dedicated to the movie The Rite starring Anthony Hopkins as an experienced Italian exorcist and Colin O’Donoghue as the incredulous American seminarian sent to train under him.  In the first article, I focused on the rite and celebration of exorcism as a sacramental in the liturgical life of the Church to heal those possessed.  In last week’s article, I discussed some of the deficiencies in the film itself, including its over-emphasis on the extreme cases of possession and demonic activity and its failure to show the role of doctors and psychologists in discerning true demonic possession.  In this final article, I wish to discuss some of the more realistic elements of the film, namely its portrayal of the demonic.
The portrayal of extraordinary demonic activity in the film is handled very well, as it shows, sometimes subtly, the four levels of evil activity most commonly cited by exorcists:  infestation, obsession, oppression, and possession. 
            Infestation, the most common level, is defined as the presence of demonic activity in a certain location or upon a certain object.  For example, in a given room or house, one might hear laughter or screams, smell the stench of rotting garbage, feel the temperature of the room drop, or see the appearance of blood or urine on the walls.  This may be accompanied by the movement of objects, such as pictures that fall off the walls or books that fly around the room.  This is depicted in the film when the seminarian’s room is filled with frogs.  The cause of infestation is often a previous tenant’s occult practices or satanic rituals.  The good news, however, is that this situation is easily and permanently remedied by the blessing of the room or house, a sacramental rite which can be administered by the local parish priest.  In some cases, though, what may seem like demonic infestation is actually the manifestation of a soul in purgatory seeking spiritual help.  In these cases, the best treatment is to have a Mass said for the repose of the soul of the deceased person in the room in which they are appearing.  Whether it is a demon causing trouble or a merely a member of Christ’s faithful searching for eternal rest, a blessing or a Mass ought to do the trick.
            Obsession, the second level of extraordinary demonic activity, is an intense and persistent attack on the mind of the victim.  It is the presence of absurd, random, and obsessive thoughts from which the victim is incapable of freeing himself.  The victim may have thoughts of harming himself or others, of profaning the Eucharist or other sacred objects, or of forming a pact with Satan to obtain worldly power and success.  The seminarian in the movie experiences a variation of this when he sees the vision of the red-eyed mule.  The most common cause of obsession is usually the victim’s own participation in the occult or interaction with the demonic realm.    In these situations, the victim and those close to him may think he is becoming insane, and thus true prudence is necessary.  It is extremely difficult to distinguish mental illness from obsession, and one of the only ways to do so is through the attempt and failure of medication and therapy.  If one indeed is suffering from obsession, the proper antidote is the sacrament of penance, frequent reception of Holy Communion, and a life of prayer.  In addition, some may receive help through prayers of deliverance administered by an exorcist.  Healing from these afflictions is not a kind of Christian magic but is a difficult process of conversion and growth in holiness through repentance, prayer, and the sacraments.
            Oppression, the third level of extraordinary demonic activity, is a physical attack on the afflicted individual.  Less common than the previous two, this type of demonic activity will always entail some kind of visible manifestation, such as bruises, scratches, or markings.  The young boy in the film with horseshoe bruises was a victim of oppression.  The cause of this demonic activity may be victim’s participation in the occult, or conversely, even the holiness of the victim.  There have been a number of saints in our tradition who experienced these types of attacks by Satan in an attempt to slow their progress in the spiritual life or their holy work for the salvation of souls.  Saints Catherine of Siena, Teresa of Avila, and John Vianney, to name just a few, all fought against demonic spirits in this way.  If the cause of demonic oppression is participation in the occult, one should treat it with prayer and the sacraments, as above.  If, however, the cause of these physical attacks is the sanctity of the individual, he should respond as St. Teresa of Avila did one night when awoken by a hideous beast and say, “Oh, it’s just you,” and go back to sleep.  For we must keep in mind that the power of God is infinitely greater than that of demons.
            Possession, the final level of demonic activity, occurs when a demon takes temporary control over a person’s physical body, as can be seen throughout the film.  This happens not perpetually but during moments of crisis when the demon manifests itself through the person and sometimes through the appearance of additional creatures, such as insects or reptiles.  During periods of lucidity, the victim will often be unaware of what has happened, though will be plagued by feelings of agitation, anxiety, desperation and suicide.  The cause of possession is almost always an invitation willfully given to the demonic.  As noted in last week’s article, this usually begins with some participation in the occult and grows into a more serious and harmful relationship over time.  As this relationship develops, the demon acts like a jealous boyfriend who will not let the liaison end nor let the victim put distance between them.  The only remedy for demonic possession is the rite of exorcism, by which the priest, in the name of Jesus, authoritatively puts an end to the relationship and reclaims this person for Christ.
Because actual demonic possession is rare –one well-known exorcist reported that only 10% of his cases involve possession – an exorcist must be careful to discern which cases involve true possession.  The praenotanda of the rite of exorcism aid the exorcist in this task, listing four signs of possession, which figure prominently in the film: aversion to sacred objects, supernatural strength, knowledge of unknown languages, and knowledge of secrets.  First, the victim will demonstrate a repugnance to blessed and sacred objects, such as a crucifix, a rosary, or holy images.  The one possessed will also display physical strength beyond their natural capability, such as an elderly woman who cannot be held down by four strong men.  Another characteristic of possession is extended utterance in a language not known to the victim, as would be the case for an uneducated Peruvian child fluent in Russian.  The fourth sign of possession noted in the praenotanda is the power to reveal that which is distant and hidden.  Demons, as purely spiritual beings, are knowledgeable not only about past events that happened in other parts of the world, but also about the hidden thoughts and sins of individuals.  It is not uncommon for a demon, in an attempt to halt the rite of exorcism, to begin speaking to those in the room using this knowledge.  Sometimes, the demon will even list the past sins of the priest performing the rite in an effort to interrupt the process.
Herein lies the difficulty in dealing with the demonic, they are followers of Satan, the father of lies.  By definition, those present at an exorcism are in close quarters with a skilled deceiver and must not to trust anything it says.  The insidious demon will always mix truth with lies, usually producing some kind of deceit that appears reasonable.  For example, a demon may attempt to obstruct the rite by stirring up jealousy or anger among the members on the team, taking certain facts of their relationship and subtly distorting them to arouse emotions.  Or, the demon may accuse the priest of a grave sin which lacks all basis in reality, but seems credible.  For this reason, all those helping with the exorcism are forbidden from engaging in dialogue with the demon, and the exorcist must know how to command silence of it.  The portrayal of demons as deceivers who twist the truth for the ruin of souls is very well done in the film, and is, in my humble estimation, the best quality of it.  For, the film never gives the audience enough information to know whether anything the demon speaks is true, although it always seems plausible.
Taking into consideration everything that has been said in these past three articles, would I recommend the film?  With the average ticket price to the silver screen nearing ten dollars, I have to recommend that you skip the movie and read the book, The Rite: The Making of a Modern Exorcist by Matt Baglio.  So, instead of taking your spouse out for dinner and a movie this weekend, buy a bottle of wine, invite your parish priest over for a fancy Italian dinner, and ask him to bless your home.  While he's over, be sure to sincerely thank him for making the sacraments accessible at your parish, because as most exorcists will admit, one good sacramental confession is worth a hundred exorcisms.
                  ~published on 24 February 2011 in the Madison Catholic Herald


  1. If you'll allow me to add to this... Beyond possession is another level, to which St. John of the Cross refers in Dark Night. It is the soul-to-spirit contact which is so horrible an experience it can last only a moment. This is a lot worse than possession, in which "only" the body and internal senses are controlled by the devil. Thus, terrifying as possession is, it is not the worst experience a human can have of the devil.

    Also, it is important for some people to know that sometimes participating in occult activity is not always the way to get possessed. Blessed Miriam of Jesus was possessed as part of a spiritual trial, and we could safely assume that she was in the state of grace at the time.

  2. With regards to your second point about being possessed even though one is in a state of grace, I agree. I have heard of that.

    However, I have never heard of the state "beyond possession" to which you refer. Where can I read more about that? Do any of the more common books on exorcism refer to this? Also, I wonder how it would be possible for a demon to take control of one's spiritual faculties. I was also under the assumption that demons could touch anything material (e.g. external senses, internal senses, etc.) but not one's intellect or will.

  3. I'd agree with you in that demons can't touch intellect and will. But insofar as this deeper horror than possession is concerned, I'd like your interpretation of St. John's Dark Night Book 23, numbers 8-9, especially where it states: "This terror is a greater suffering than any other torment in life. Since this horrendous communication proceeds from spirit to spirit manifestly and somewhat incorporeally, it surpasses all sensory pain. This spiritual suffering does not last long, for if it did the soul would depart from the body on account of this violent communication." Frankly, this sounds a lot scarier than having one's body and internal senses manipulated because it's kind of the opposite of contemplation- the soul's contact with God.