Friday, October 15, 2010

The Exorcist (Part 1 of 2) : The Lecture

On Wednesday night, Montclair State University’s Newman Catholic Center sponsored a lecture by Father Vincent Lampert, who is one of only 24 appointed exorcists in the United States. I attended, because I was interested to see what the modern take is on this ancient (and perhaps antiquated) rite.

There will be 2 blog postings on this event, as my thoughts on it will not fit comfortably into one post. This post will be more of a summary of the event, and the subsequent post will address the issues raised by the theology discussed at the event. Even if you are not Catholic, you should find them interesting.

The lecture opened naturally enough with student board members for the Newman Center hawking their events, and the President of their FOCUS group (don’t remember what it stands for, but it’s basically a Catholic ministry) had to show a video advertising their next conference. Perhaps I should have expected that at a Catholic Center event, but I tend to find proselytization of this kind offensive. I even find it offensive when it’s done by followers of my own guru, so this is not about Catholicism per se. Still, it did not take up too much time, and shortly thereafter the chaplain introduced Father Lampert.

Father Lampert’s opening statement was, “So, do I look like an exorcist?” He seemed like a very grounded individual, on the level, and had an admirable sense of humor. He mentioned Pope Benedict XVI’s recent encyclical, “Caritas et Veritate” (Love and Truth), which addressed the current economic crisis in the world. Benedict suggested that our crises stem from a deeper moral crisis, with more people “turning away from God, and towards occultism and other such beliefs.”  Father Lampert suggested that he was there not to scare people with stories about exorcism and demons, but to help bring people back “to the path of God”. All of this is very reasonable for a Catholic priest to say, and is in line with Catholic theology. However, Benedict’s statement and this follow up are both problematic. But I’ll save that for my next post.

Father then went on to discuss the kinds of calls he gets for exorcisms. In many (if not most) cases, what the person needs is counseling of some sort, not an exorcism. People have things happen to them, and then decide to self-diagnose the problem on the Internet, and come to the conclusion that they are possessed or otherwise in need of an exorcist. Real possession is a very rare phenomenon. The exorcist always makes sure the person is evaluated by a mental health professional and works in consultation with such a person before even considering an exorcism.

There are 4 criteria for considering a person to be “possessed”—1. The ability to understand unknown languages, 2. Displays of extraordinary strength, 3. Elevated perception and knowledge (ability to know things they couldn’t possibly know), and 4. Strong resistance against divine influences (presumably prayers, holy objects, and holy water).

Father Lampert became an exorcist because “he was in the wrong place at the wrong time”. The previous exorcist for the Archdiocese of Indianapolis died in 2005, and the priests were avoiding the bishop, feeling certain that he was looking for a replacement. So, Father Lampert was at the bishop’s residence for a meeting, when he ended up passing the bishop in the hallway. The bishop stopped him and said, “Father, I have a favor to ask”. And he knew that he was stuck from that point onward. He went to Rome for mentoring with an exorcist there (one of the chief exorcists from the Vatican, I believe), and sat in on 40 exorcisms during his training.

The Rites of Exorcism are not easy to come by in the United States, though they are widely available in Italy for about 14 euros a copy. The Rites were one of the last documents to be revised by the Vatican in recent years—they hadn’t been revised since 1614. The doctrine of belief in demons and angelic beings goes back to 1215 and the Fourth Council of the Lateran. The Church teaching is that the Devil cannot act directly on the human soul, only on the human mind and imagination, and sometimes the body as well.  They believe that unclean spirits cannot read our thoughts; they can incite emotions and note their effects on us. Evil spirits vary in strength and specialty. How much power they have is relative to the effectiveness of the individual’s resistance. Father Lampert notes that God and the Devil are not of the same ilk—there is a difference between creature and creator, and the Devil is considered to be a creature.

In the Old Testament, only 2 orders of angels are noted—cherubim and seraphim. St. Paul extended the list to 9 orders—seraphim, cherubim, thrones, dominations, virtues, powers, principalities, angels, and archangels.  Father Lampert suggested that just as Jesus incarnated as a human, the Devil wants to mimic God by entering or influencing a human body. The word “Devil” is from the Greek diabolos (adversary), and there is also the Hebrew “Satan” or Shaitan (opposer). The term “Lucifer” no longer applies, as that was the name given to the archangel (described as winged two-headed beasts) by God. In one of the exorcisms witnessed by Father Lampert, when the entity was asked if it was Lucifer, it said, “That was my name, but no longer”.

Demonic influence is said to be of 2 types, the “ordinary” and the “extraordinary”. The ordinary is the regular temptations we face in our lives. The extraordinary is of 4 different types: 1. Infestation (curses, haunted houses), 2. Oppression and/or physical attacks (often on those striving to become closer to God), 3. Obsession (intense and persistent attacks on the mind), and 4. Possession (temporary control of the person’s body and consciousness). Possession usually occurs during a time of crisis in the person’s life, when they are vulnerable to having their consciousness cut off. Their eyes may roll back, their jaws drop, and they may start foaming at the mouth and growling.

How does possession occur? According to Father Lampert, either directly or indirectly, and the Church considers 4 possible ways to invite possession: 1. Occult ties, 2. Curses, 3. Dedication to the Devil, 4. A life of hardship (and presumably a weak psyche as a result). With regard to the first way, he cites everything from crystals and Tarot cards to black magic rituals. He says that occult practices are considered idolatry, because you are seeing help from a spirit other than God. He quotes Deuteronomy 18—a theological slippery slope in my opinion, but again, I will save those comments for my next post.

There are actually 2 kinds of exorcism—imperative and supplicating. Anyone can perform a supplicating exorcism, which involves prayers  of deliverance to God to release the person from the demonic influence. Only trained exorcists are supposed to do imperative exorcisms, which address the demon directly with the authority of Christ.
In the fine tradition of list-making, Father gave us yet another list of the 10 preparations/steps for exorcism, and 12 questions you ask a person to determine if they are possessed. The first list is a matter of procedure and somewhat obvious . What I didn’t know is that exorcisms always take place in a sacred space—the notion of doing an exorcism at the victim’s home is apparently false. The 12 questions were rather interesting—they look at things like psychological history and drug abuse, but largely seem to center around one’s interest in the occult and affiliation with anyone who engages in occult practices—they include psychics and fortunetellers on that list.

At this point, Father Lambert opened up the floor for questions. I did not stay for the whole Q&A period, just long enough to be irritated by remarks about yoga and Reiki (which he suggested they should avoid, because they conjure up spirits). I understand that he has to toe the line of official doctrine, but if you really don’t know a topic, just say you don’t know, rather than make a sweeping generalization that may create problems for those who use those techniques. Neither has anything to do with conjuring spirits or appealing to spirits. He also brought up the “3 AM hour mocking the death of Christ” bit. If that’s part of doctrine, it’s just ridiculous. But it may well be that is the case. Besides those 2 questions, I could get behind his answers to the questions that were presented. One young man started with, “Hi, Father, I shook your hand before.” The priest responded, “Yes, I won’t wash it for a week.” (Points for the excellent reply). The last question I heard as I was leaving was, “Do you think Glenn Beck is possessed?”which generated a lot of laughter. Father Lambert said that he does not spend his time watching such negative shows, which drew applause. To be fair to the questioner, Glenn Beck has all the physical signs of possession—eyes rolling back, foaming at the mouth, jumping around and grunting like an animal. It ought to be considered.

On the whole, it was an extremely informative evening, and I don’t wish to give the impression that I have a quarrel with Father Lampert personally on points I disagreed with; I have no doubt that he is accurately reporting the Church’s position in all of his remarks. It’s the Church’s position, and ignorance about many of these things, that I find problematic. In the next blog post, I intend to address 2 things:  the Church’s conception of the occult and those who are drawn to it, and the Church’s conception of Eastern religious practices. If the Church wishes to have a legitimate future, it’s something they will have to reflect on themselves.

1 comment:

Maryl Gray said...

I would like to theorize that watching programs such as Glenn Beck's cause and invite demonic possession. I believe the evidence is quite apparent by the behavior exhibited by the narrow minded individuals after watching said programs.
If you want to create a bad "vibe" just try and listen to that poison for a while. It's positively toxic.