By Steve Rice
Since I’ve been at St Timothy’s, I have been approached about demonic activity three times. To the surprise of many Episcopalians, we do have a liturgy for exorcism, but it is not published or handed out to parish clergy. Such a rite can only be performed under the permission and guidance of the diocesan bishop. I have never performed an exorcism, nor am I looking to.
If such a rite were necessary, secular professionals are brought in, physicians, psychiatrists, etc., to rule out any medical cause. When the Church takes demonic possession seriously, she takes it seriously. The role of the parish priest is to do a bit of triage. We try to rule out the obvious and recommend general solutions before bringing the bishop in.
The three cases I have dealt with have all been different. One was from a man who called concerned about the activity of a stepchild. The kid was disrespectful and unruly. The child was throwing things and screaming at him. After hearing more of the story, my professional opinion was that this man, who had never raised a child before, was dealing not with a demon, but with an 8-year-old. But I did give some basic, general suggestions in the event there was something more and I told him if it got worse to call me back. This was the priestly version of take two aspirin and call me in the morning.
Another case, I believe, was genuine, not possession but attacks. I won’t say more other than it was successfully addressed with certain prayers and spiritual disciplines.
The third case was many years ago. A father called me about his son, who was having horrific, tormenting visions. This wasn’t a case of a father not knowing anything about children or teenagers; he was honestly concerned. So I went to their house to talk to them, and the young man was clearly upset by the images and he clearly wanted them gone. Again, I’m not going to go into too much detail because I don’t want you to focus more on the mechanics of the process than the larger point.
When I went to the boy’s room, the walls were covered with posters from horror movies. In the corner was a video game system. I looked at the games and they were all, every one, violent. No wonder he was plagued by horrific visions. He had surrounded himself with them. Add a clinical diagnosis of obsessive-compulsive disorder and you have a young man who cannot escape from images of horror.
What images do you surround yourself with? What voices do you hear more than others? What are you feeding your mind?
Demons are like lightning. They prefer the path of least resistance. While possession is something the Church takes seriously, the vast majority of the time, we are willing to do the heavy lifting ourselves.
The way to combat the onslaught of images, words, and ideas that will hurt our soul and drive a wedge between our relationship with God and each other is to deny them any room in our heart, mind, and soul.
I don’t think we pay enough attention to this. The spirituality of the Old Testament is full of calls to remember God’s faithfulness through specific images. Especially as the Hebrews were about to enter the promised land, which was not an empty land. It was occupied by other peoples and nations, and those peoples and nations had their own practices and ways, they had their own images and voices that would turn the Hebrews away from the image and voice of God.
So today, as an example, we hear of the institution of a liturgy for the harvest in the promised land. When the person brought a portion of the first fruits to the priest, he had to recite the story of the Exodus, of God’s deliverance from the land of Egypt where they were slaves. This was done to keep the image of the Exodus and the voice of God’s promise constantly in their thoughts and upon their heart.
And then in dramatic fashion, Jesus is in the wilderness for 40 days fasting and praying after his baptism. We have to remember that the Judean wilderness was not like Yellowstone National Park — it was a desert, desolate and barren. The desert is the earth stripped down. It reveals everything. It’s an image of Lent — where our prayers and disciplines strip us down to reveal the truth about our sin and our need for grace.
The Devil tempts Jesus three times, and each temptation comes with a dramatic image: turn a stone into bread, for I know you are hungry; throw yourself down from the pinnacle of the temple and let the angels save you; and seduce the people with your power. And finally, rule the world.
Bread. Temple. Kingdoms. Indulgence, vanity, and power. If we were to categorize all the images and voices and messages that we are constantly bombarded with, both internally in our own temptations and externally in the messages from society, would they all not fall in these three categories? Indulgence — do what you want and as much as you want; vanity — it’s all about you; and power — you are in control. They are ubiquitous and, frequently, overpowering.
Jesus was tempted in order to show us how to resist what is often irresistible. We counter the images of indulgence, vanity, and power with the images of self-denial, prayer, and obedience.
One does not live on bread alone.
Worship the Lord your God and serve only him.
Do not put the Lord your God to the test.
What images do you have in your home? Do you have an image of Jesus? Do you have multiple images? What voices do you listen to? Do you listen to any holy voices? Do you protect times of silence so you can hear the quiet voice of God? Do you pray outside of Sunday? What do you read? Do you read the Bible? What do you do with your body? Is it a temple for the Holy Spirit?
If someone were to enter your life and look around at all the images and listen to all the influential voices, would they say, No wonder you are angry. No wonder you are anxious. No wonder you are afraid.
In the letter to the Ephesians, St. Paul says simply, “do not make room for the devil.” Fill your mind, heart, and soul with holy thoughts and images and evict the images that tempt us with indulgence, vanity, and power. Evict them because there is no more room.
The Rev. Steve Rice is rector of St. Timothy’s Episcopal Church, Winston-Salem, North Carolina.