The following events are true. The names have been changed for confidentiality’s sake.
I didn’t know that it was Exorcism Time, when it came. Father Cornelius was kind of sneaky about it. I was sitting obliviously in a chair, waiting for him to get back from what I had assumed was a visit to the toilet, when in he walked carrying a huge gold monstrance with a smooth round Host in it. He lit some candles and, as casually as he could, he dragged a gargantuan white binder full of exorcism rituals across the coffee table. There would be no snack break today.
To his credit, he put and kept me completely at ease. A hodgepodge of soft yellows and browns, his office was the comforting hobbit-hole I would have expected, filled with well-worn easy chairs and dog-eared books. A pleasing smell of cigarette smoke hovered around the drapes and the upholstery. His voice, as usual, was the auditory equivalent of warm tomato soup.
I officially confessed to all the horrible sinful activity on my Big Stupid List of Things No One Should Ever Do. After my absolution, I formally asked him to submit me to the Catholic Church’s rite of exorcism.
Father began a long litany of prayers. One calm phrase after another, humbly asking God to purify me of every conceivable stain of evil. No aspect of my soul, mind or physiology was left unmentioned. I just sat in my chair and concentrated as well as I could while his warm soup voice rolled out each verse.
Then something subtle but unmistakable happened to the room. The tone of the colors shifted from wholesome and agreeable to morbid and dirty. As Father C.’s prayers continued, I began to move my hands up to my face. To an observer, it was only the unthinking motion of any man sitting for too long in the same place, no different than stretching, scratching your arm, or popping your knuckles. But it was different. It was my first experience of what I had previously only read about in books or seen in movies, the experience of having your body controlled from the inside by a will other than your own. My hands slowly covered my face, and my eyes stared wildly out between the fingers. What was in me was terrified, like a feral cat trying to stay hidden.
Father C. reached the end of that phase of the ritual. My hands slid away from my face and I could hear him gently asking how I was feeling. I said something vague, like “good…pretty good…” but the words weren’t really representative of anything.
Round 2. Father explained that the next part of the ritual would involve an invocation of each Person of the Holy Trinity. I was now expected to participate. I assumed a kneeling position, and Father moved the huge binder near me so I could read the prayers. I don’t remember the exact words, but it was something like: “I love the Father, the First Person of the Most Holy Trinity, and I desire to be with Him forever. I love the Son, the Second Person of the Most Holy Trinity, and I desire to be with Him forever. I love the Holy Spirit, the Third Person of the Most Holy Trinity, and I desire to be with Him forever.” Again: that isn’t the exact formulation, so to all you professional exorcists out there I apologize if I’m off script a little. The point is: it was a short profession of love and devotion to God, so easy a child could say it, right?
Father said the first verse, and I repeated it. No problem.
Father read the second verse, and I repeated it. Man, this was easy! Exorcisms aren’t so bad, after all!
Father read the third verse: “I love the Holy Spirit, Third Person of the Holy Trinity…” Now my turn, right? O.K. no problem, here we go: “I lo..I..I lll…lllll…” I paused; took a breath. “I love the H..the H….”
The knuckles of my clasped fingers had gone white.
“Father,” I murmured, almost with embarrassment, “I can’t read that.”
Father reassured me. “It’s O.K. You can read it.”
I turned away from the binder.
“Just try,” said Father. He read the line again, and I tried to repeat it, but couldn’t. Father kept up his gentle encouragements, and I continued trying to say the words of the ritual. I was suddenly aware that my stomach had knotted up, not like nausea, but like a fist was pushing into my gut.
Somehow, at some point, I said that third prayer of love to the Holy Spirit. I got it out. I was in a state of anxiety now, because there was no doubt that there were creatures in me who were absolutely opposed to my intentions.
Round 3. Father moved on to the next phase, but I had blanked out a little. He had to tell me to get back in the chair. I did, but the fist was still crushing my stomach. Father asked how I was feeling, but I was distracted and all I could say was “hot…burning hot…” That was true. It had come upon me all of a sudden, and I pulled off my jacket and dropped it on the floor. I felt sick and feverish.
Father was not strictly following the pages in the binder anymore, but adjusting his methods to fit the behavior of the evil spirits at that moment. I won’t pretend to understand it all. There was plenty of extemporaneous prayer to Christ, and some archaic-sounding Hebrew recitations, some Latin, too…I was a little out of it, so I could only dimly appreciate it all at the time. In retrospect it was spiritual Mortal Combat.
Things came back into focus when Father turned to me with a crucifix. It was larger than average, like something from a school room or…hey!…a priest’s office. Father’s voice was still warm soup, and he said, “O.K. now Dan, what I would like you to do now is just kiss the Holy Cross, alright?”
Well, Dan Lord has no problem kissing the Holy Cross. In fact, I keep a small pewter crucifix on my desk and I was in the habit of kissing the little silvery feet of the Corpus every day. Just the day before I had kissed that crucifix. But now, as Father presented the Holy Cross to me I turned away and said bluntly: “It’s not working.”
“It’s not working.”
It was my voice, people—there was no demonic howling, no trippy vocal effects. My voice. But not me.
Father firmly, but calmly, in the name of Christ, demanded to know the identity of this spirit.
Father asked again, perhaps thinking this answer was an evasion, but he got the same answer: “It’s quiet.”
Ladies and gentleman, I simply cannot adequately explain just how colossally wacko it is to hear words coming out of your mouth that you yourself did not formulate or intend. Father now realized that this particular spirit was obeying Christ with its answer—it’s basic nature was quiet—like the quiet of a black widow, or of a serial killer in a dark cell. I had invited him in years before by taking an Oath of Silence in jest. It was an absurd, anarchical act that I thought was frightfully clever at the time, intended to piss off people around me. I made a solemn show of it, took the Oath, and refused to say a word for about two weeks, then got bored and gave up on it. But the spirit didn’t leave, see?
Don’t take oaths casually, my friends. Remember in A Man For All Seasons when St. Thomas More’s beloved daughter, Margaret, is trying to convince him to take the king’s fiendish new oath of allegiance? “Say the words of the oath,” she pleads, ”and in your heart think otherwise.”
Her dad knew better, though. “An oath is made of words!” he tells her. “When a man takes an oath, Meg, he’s holding his own self in his hands.” Actions have consequences, whether you mean for them to or not. Be careful what you swear to.
In Christ’s name, the Spirit of Quiet was cast out. I could hear Father Cornelius making strained sounds, and I learned later that the exorcism caused him bodily pain—not uncommon, I’m told.
Mr. Quiet was not alone, though. Turns out I had a little poker table full of evil spirits. Father identified the next one as Wild Man Spirit—I had been accompanied by it since high school. It was a fierce, chaotic devil that helped me to gain the status of Craziest Guy At the Party, and, boy, was he present in my antics as frontman for my band, Pain–for instance, I used to hurl my body to the stage floor repeatedly during the last measures of one of our songs. People loved that, but even without the cheering the blood and bruises gave me a thrill.
Wild Man still wasn’t the worst, though. As I sat in a kind of upright paralyzed position in my chair I could hear Father relentlessly praying. He was also seeing things—don’t ask me to explain it; I don’t know if he was having interior visions or if he saw horned ghouls swirling around the office. I just don’t know. But right then he “saw” another member of my infernal poker club. He said its name: “Pan.”
You’re thinking the same thing I was, right? Pan? The cute little goat-legged guy from Fantasia? I don’t get it, either. All I know is that there was an utter pall of evil over the room now, and Father said: “I’m looking at it right now.” He was staring over my shoulder at the time, and I was not ABOUT to turn around. Father chanted intensely in Hebrew, and then in Christ’s name he cast Pan out. Asmodeus was next–he was from my days with the hip pseudo intellectual pagan girl. Baal was cast out after that. There were others, too, but I don’t remember their names.
The whole thing took a total of about four hours. My temperature dropped back to normal, my stomach unclenched, and the room once again became a snug, pleasant hobbit’s office. Though, to be fair, if we’re going to stick with the Tolkien metaphors, Father Cornelius strikes me a little less as a hobbit now and more like the White Wizard himself.
I drove home, sporadically breaking into tears. Do you know what I felt? I felt free. That’s what I kept saying to myself: I’m free. And I was. I am. That doesn’t mean I am now a living, walking saint, of course—the great battle of Christian discipleship goes right on until death. At last, though, that feeling of trying to do bench presses with invisible weights on my arms is now totally gone. I’m free!
But some caution is in order here. Father Cornelius himself repeated the warning to me more than once. Although the spirits are out, I have to be careful for the rest of my life not to get mixed up in any activity that would effectively invite them back in, because if they come back and find their previous home “swept clean and put in order” it will be much, much worse for me than before. Check out Luke 11:24-26 to see what I mean.
Anyway, I’m free. For the first few weeks after my liberation my wife stayed in a state of delighted shock over the changes she could see in me. I am no longer hectored by shadowy chimeras at night; I used to respond to things with ridiculous over-the-top explosions of Incredible Hulk-style wrath, but not anymore; I sleep peacefully at night. I can say with genuine humility that I can finally see myself advancing in Christian virtue.
“Too long have you sat in shadows and trusted to twisted tales and crooked promptings,” said Gandalf to Theoden in The Two Towers. “Breathe the free air again!”