Confronting hell with holy water
THIS YEAR a Muslim holy man living in Lancashire was jailed for life for torturing and killing a young woman of 20 in an eight-day ritual exorcism.
She was systematically starved and thrashed and died after bones were broken in her chest and throat. The girl believed herself to be possessed by a ghost called John Wayne.
In London, two lanes of the busy North Circular road were cordoned off and traffic diverted to allow a spiritualist to exorcise the spot where a young man died. The local authority gave permission for the midnight ceremony "to release his spirit".
These sensational stories always seem to find their way into the headlines around the same time as the release of popular films about the occult. No wonder the publicity sends shivers down ecclesiastical spines.
Perhaps this sensationalism explains why any exploration of the subject is so often met with a guarded response.
Not every diocese has an exorcist. Nor does the job-holder's name appear in any year book. Clearly, exorcism is not a task all relish or have the right psychological make-up for.
This approach is very different from Rome in 251 AD, where the practice grew of treating all mental defectives and epileptics as if they were possessed by the devil, The reigning Pope, Cornelius, appointed 52 men as exorcists and doorkeepers to stay with these victims during church services, to keep them quiet.
By the 17th century, witchcraft delusion reached a peak. Convents, the most famous being that at Loudon, in France, were bristling with nuns believing they were possessed by. demons, and too often their luckless confessor was caught up in charges of witchcraft.
But what do we mean by the word exorcism? Text books explain it as the expulsion of an evil spirit by a command, ritual or prayer and supnoses the theory of the inhabitation or infestation of a human soul or a place by evil spirits.
At the root of exorcism lies belief in the power to transfer a spiritual being from place to place by ritual acts and words. In the Gospels (Matthew 12:27 and Luke 11:19) Christ refers to exorcism as a well known fact.
Certainly, for one priest in the Arundel and Brighton diocese, there is no doubt about the presence of evil spirits. Fr John not his real name was a young man, his name down for the Anglican ministry, when with his family he moved into the Sussex house that was to be host to bizarre and frightening events. From the day the family took over the house to the day they left, nearly three years later, unexplained happenings took place: "Fires broke out, often half way up the curtains, chandelier lights started swaying, the central heating turned itself off, the fire brigade was called out on numerous occasions. There was a definite presence in the house, the atmosphere was cold," says Fr John.
The theory that unexplained events are linked to one particular member of a family, often a young person, was disproved, he says. The pattern would continue even when different people were literally hundreds of miles from the house.
His parents called in an Anglican priest for help. They then turned to a Catholic priest, a travelling missioner of the diocese.
With his bishop's approval, he came to the house, celebrated Mass and sprinkled every part of the house with holy water, praying as he did so for the demons to be cast out.
Eventually Fr John's family moved out. Whether the spirits persist is not known, but there have been local rumours about the sound of bugles coming from the house.
Of this experience, Fr John says: "I fmd the more people know about the subject of supernatural happenings, the less dogmatic they become. It defies understanding. It was also the occasion of family contact with a Catholic priest but it was not the cause of our eventual conversion."
The Anglican Canon Dominic Walker, a religious superior and chairman of the Churches Christian Deliverance Study Group, has cast out evil spirits thousands of times. It is to this organisation that both Anglican and Catholic priests, nuns, doctors and psychologists go for training in "deliverance ministry", the preferred term to exorcism. Cardinal Hume is supportive of its work.
Such trained people are attached to an Anglican diocese, but again their names are not publicised. What they all have in common, says Canon Walker, is wisdom and life experience.
"We try and get away from magical trinkets, the trappings more associated with films about the occult," says Canon Walker. "Prayer is such a strong medium, every time you say that part of the Lord's Prayer `deliver us from evil', you are in fact asking that evil be cast out. So many people who go to a priest and say they are possessed have no Christian framework on which to base anything. We see many New Age victims and when something out of the ordinary does happen, things get difficult for them.
"If, however, a deliverance minister does believe there is something amiss, they will first counsel the per
son. Much of the possession syndrome is down to stress, the sufferer feels taken over. Then will follow a psychiatric opinion. If there is ground for doing more, then with the Bishop's approval we take steps to command the evil to go out of the person, but it is done in a healing context, with prayers and perhaps anointing."
Healing people is now a major part of the Study Group members' work. When Canon Walker began,17 years ago, poltergeists spirits which make their presence known by noise
took up most of his time. The chaos they caused in a home hurling pots, switching lights on and off, causing fires and foot steps were often a reflection often of the turmoil the family or one of its members was experiencing, he explains.
Today he is more likely to counsel someone like the elderly Catholic priest who believes he was ritually abused as a child.
Fact or breakdown? Discovering the truth and then allowing a troubled soul to find peace is perhaps the hardest task of all.