Ed Tomlinson describes how a general loss of belief in the supernatural is further demonstrated by a growing trend of scepticism about exorcism
There are times when certain themes, previously unconsidered, will crop up repeatedly for no dis-cernable reason. This has happened to me following an invitation to join the diocesan exorcist team. More than ever I am pondering the role of the supernatural within faith. How much should the realm of ‘the paranormal’ enter our lives and minds as Christians? Wherever I seem to turn, this question is before me. Thus, in spooky harmony with my musings, the theme was raised twice in the July edition of New Directions! Arthur Middleton gave us a timely reminder that a priest’s vocation must be rooted in the mystical and not merely viewed as an exercise in bureaucratic management. Meanwhile Digby Anderson warned of the dangers in treating the supernatural as ordinary within worship, reminding us that Mass takes place not only on the earthly plane, but also in the heavenly realm.
Good and evil
Anderson does well to remind us that Mass is a mystical occasion at which divine ‘irruption’ is made possible. Here the altar, like mountains of old, becomes a thin veil between heaven and earth and the power of the supernatural breaks into our natural lives. This is a truth rooted in the Roman Canon, in which the priest prays: Almighty God, we pray that your angel may take this sacrifice to your altar in heaven. Then as we receive from this altar the sacred body and blood of your Son may we be filled with every grace and heavenly blessing.
Having highlighted this supernatural element to Christian worship, Anderson laments that modern believers have lost sight of it. He asks, even of self-professing Catholics, ‘do they really behave as if they believe? …the queue for communion does not look like people ‘in fear and trembling’ at what they are about to receive… Of course we think something good is happening on the altar.. .but we don’t look, behave or talk as if we have just tasted another world.’
This loss of belief in the mystical carries over to our understanding of the world itself, manifested in our approach to good and evil and the reality of heaven and hell. Which theological college in Britain offers a course on the reality of angels and demons, explaining the difference between principalities and powers? Where do the newly ordained receive education on the difference between the formal rite of exorcism and the more usual prayers for deliverance? The world’s rejection of mysticism, and its over-reliance on fact, is all too evident in the modern formation process. Perhaps this explains why Fr Middleton finds so many managers and not enough priests today? As Anderson and Middleton argue, we should not underestimate the seriousness of de-bunking the mystery of faith. Once we have lost grip on the supernatural, it is only time before enlightened, non-mystical minds profess salvation a heresy and orthodox Christology is rendered obsolete. Cue the latest statement from the consistently heretical Katharine Jefferts-Schori, for if hell does not exist, and demonic forces are no longer reality, what matter our personal behaviour?
In the ministry of exorcism (an aspect of priestly life which I have never sought but frequently encountered) one detects, more acutely than ever, a worrying trend of disbelief in clergy. The casting out of demons may have been among Jesus’ main tasks, but it is largely overlooked in modern church life. Thus while most dioceses have retained exorcists, they tend to favour a psychological approach over a supernatural one. Indeed Common Worship doesn’t even offer a full-blown exorcism rite, relying instead on ambiguously worded prayers of simple deliverance. Does this not imply a reluctant acknowledgement in the presence of evil but a refusal to accept the spiritual reality of demonic possession?
I first encountered such scepticism on placement at a psychiatric hospital during my time at theological college. Having been informed of the damage done when ‘loony Christians’ expel imaginary demons from the psychiatrically sick, I turned the question on its head. No doubt such damage occurs, and is lamentable, but what happens if we rationalize mental distress as only biological in origin? What if people are demonically possessed, as in Jesus’ day? Would not a clinical approach be ineffectual? And is not the term ‘personality disorder’ merely a psychologist’s label for dark and difficult cases impervious to psychiatric help? The look I received suggested I belonged in the mud huts of Africa!
Having just read The Rite by Matt Baglio, I note the problem is not exclusively Anglican. Baglio chronicles a sceptic RC priest who nevertheless took his training as exorcist seriously. His experiences led him to reappraise his world-view Baglio concluded that the African who instinctively believes in spiritual forces may be more, not less, advanced than his/her Western relations.
Perhaps we should all re-read Scripture with greater attention to matters supernatural? It will not only reveal a history in which a living God irrupts into this world for the sake of humanity; it will also demonstrate how God’s own Son cast demons from the lives of many. If souls really can be overtaken by forces, wholesome or destructive, what might this say about our world and calling?
Many snorted at +John’s suggestion that the devil lurks in Church House, but I suggest that scorn is unwarranted. C.S. Lewis warned how the devil delights when we refute his existence, and I am certain that same devil manipulates many unwitting souls involved in the destruction of faith in our day.
To de-mystify Christianity is to change the faith forever. We who claim Catholic credentials must consider what we actually state in our belief in a real presence. We must then extend this supernatural worldview to the rest of life. Then we might just fan the flames of a truly spiritual revival, centred on a loving God who irrupts into this world in which forces exist beyond our grasp and comprehension. It might also positively affect the way we approach the altar, bringing dignity, awe and respect to worship.