There are books that make you feel as if everything you know is uncertain.D. W. Pasulka’s American Cosmic is such a book.Its subtitle, UFOs, Religion, Technology, only pauses at the brink of the rabbit hole down which this study will take you.Over the years I admit to having been jealous of colleagues who’ve been able to make an academic career stick.The credentials of a university post open doors for you, even if you’re a professor of religion.Pasulka has opened some doors here that I suspect many would prefer to have kept closed.This is a compelling book, threading together many themes tied to religious studies.There are things we might see, if only we’ll open our eyes.
Although immediately and automatically subjected to the ridicule response, UFOs are a fascinating subject.This book isn’t about UFO religions—of which there are many—but rather it connects this phenomenon to the study of religion itself.In Pasulka’s related field of Catholic studies, there are those anomalous accounts of saints who did the impossible.Like UFOs, they are subjected to the ridicule response, making serious discussion of them difficult.Might the two be related?As you feel yourself spinning deeper and deeper down that hole, technology comes into the picture and complicates it even further.Pasulka was a consultant on The Conjuring.I’ve written about the movie myself, but what I hadn’t realized is how media connects with perceptions of reality.Yes, it has a religious freight too.
Every once in a while I reflect that my decision—if it was a decision; sometimes I feel certain my field chose me—to study religion might not have been misplaced.Perhaps all of this does tie together in some way.American Cosmic is a mind-expanding book that assures me all those years and dollars learning about religion weren’t wasted after all.I had a discussion recently with another doctoral holder who’s been relegated to the role of editor.We both lamented that our training was in some sense being wasted on a job that hardly requires this level of training.Still, if it weren’t for my day job I probably wouldn’t have known about this book, and that is perhaps a synchronicity as well.Life is a puzzle with many thousands—millions—of pieces.Some books are like finding a match, but others are like informing you that you’ve got the wrong box top in hand as you try to construct the puzzle with the pieces you have.If you read this book be prepared to come close to finding the white rabbit.
Funny thing about freedom of speech.It doesn’t really exist in a capitalist system.Words, I suspect the powers that be know, are extremely potent.Any system that brooks no rivals will insist on silencing dissidents.And not just on a national scale.Several years ago I was interviewed by a Catholic magazine for an editorial position.I was between jobs and this looked like a good fit; in fact, the woman who arranged the interview told me that if this position didn’t work out they’d likely be able to find a different one for someone with my particular skill set.When the power that was interviewed me, however, he noted that I had a blog.“If we hire you, you’ll need to take it down,” he said.It would confuse readers who might think I was speaking for the Catholic Church.My candidacy did not proceed.
In a job I would eventually get, in academic publishing, a similar concern was expressed.Although I hold an earned doctorate from a world-class research university, my opinions might be mistaken for those of some true authority.Problematic.This issue keeps coming up.I write fiction and publish it under a pseudonym.Sometimes I think about coming out of my literary closet, but the issues pour in hard and fast when the door’s opened.What would those who read my nonfiction (both of them!) think?Would I discredit myself because I have too much imagination?What would an academic employer say?If I ever went back on the ordination track, would a congregation of any sort understand a clergy person who thinks such things?I get enough flak from writing about horror films.
The fact is, freedom of expression is very, very limited.Capitalism measures all things by the bottom line and anything that might cause that trend to waver is forbidden.Lack of team spirit.If you want to publish, don’t work in publishing.It’s like saying (if I might be so bold) that you shouldn’t teach if you earn a doctorate, because you might actually contribute to what we hopefully call knowledge.This dilemma has become an entrenched part of my psyche.I grew up innocently writing fiction.I completed my first stories about the age of 12 or 13.I was eventually groomed for the ministry and so the fiction had to be set aside as one of those “childish things.”Was it?Perhaps.More likely though, it was simply a lesson that I would find repeated throughout my adult life.Give lip service to freedom of speech, but don’t ever use it.
Does anyone else think that feeding fishmeal to herbivores so that they, in turn can be eaten, is weird?Brian Fagan in his Fishing: How the Sea Fed Civilization describes the long history of eating seafood.In evolutionary terms it makes sense, but so does veganism.One thing that becomes clear from this study, however, is that human civilization simply could not have developed the way that it did without fishing.Food for those performing massive public works came from the abundance of the ocean.Theology played its part too.Roman Catholicism established a habit that still exists of eating fish on Friday.In Catholic areas of this country Friday fish fries, and the occasional fish boil, are cultural icons.As Fagan points out, part of the reasoning behind this was the belief that God gave humans fish to exploit.
We find, interestingly enough, that religious thinking often stands behind tragic results.Although I’m a vegan, I find it distressing that the oceans—so vast in extent—have been depleted by human activity.The main problem, which we’re slow to learn, is that technology has made fishing too efficient.This isn’t some kid with a rod and reel on the bank of a muddy river, but rather the industrial-scale trawling that begins by locating fish schools with sonar.Not only that, but the land habitat to which we bring the fish is also being depleted.I’m probably not the only one who gets the feeling that Fagan’s writing about more than just fish.Where there is abundance, we take it as an invitation to exploit.Tech makes it so easy!
In the early history of humankind, seafood was a necessity.As Fagan shows, it was sometimes reserved for hard times.Now we feed fishmeal to domesticated animals not because it’s what they naturally eat, but because—you guessed it—it’s cheap.I’m still not allowed to give blood because of the Mad Cow Disease scare that rocked Britain when I lived there.In part it was caused by feeding herbivores feed that consisted of meal made from other herbivores.I no longer eat fish.With the world population what it is, and global warming stressing agriculture, it seems we need to be thinking about what’s for dinner.Quite apart from the fact that fish are, despite proclamations of ecclesiastical bodies, animals just like any others, we’ve managed to scour the ocean so thoroughly that recovery may be impossible in some locations.The reason often given is that God gave us the oceans to use.And that kind of thinking always leads to disaster.
One of my New Testament professors was fond of saying early Christianity was exclusive so that people would want to join.“If everybody could be a Christian,” he suggested, “why would anyone want to be?”There is a snob appeal to such a country-club approach to religiosity (although I believe it to be false) that has somehow come to be attached to All Saints Day.As the holiday that spawned Halloween (or so some say), All Saints seems to hold us the exclusive members of a sect that began with radical equality.The slight was addressed in All Souls Day (tomorrow), when the rest of us might have a chance of being remembered.
There was a death in my extended family yesterday, of someone not much older than me.I won’t reveal the personal details here, but I do ponder the coincidence of his passing so close to All Saints.When we’re gone, we hope, people will remember our good, opposite to what Shakespeare suggested might be the case with Julius Caesar.There are those who touch our lives for good, be it loudly or softly, and we tend to think of that good as who they were.But sainthood?Isn’t that a bar too high for anyone to achieve?And if we think we’ve made it, even that very thought is enough to disqualify us.Some sects of Christianity treat any member as a saint, but that leaves little to which to aspire.
Carlos Schwabe, Death of the Undertaker; Wikimedia Commons
For the rest of the world this marks the beginning of November—that month when cold settles in along with longer nights, but no reduced working hours.We are approaching the holiday season, for we need some help to make it through times when loss can feel so close at hand.The veil separating worlds—something science has tried hard to dismiss—was believed to be more permeable at this time of year.All Saints was a bright day of upbeat music and glory, while All Souls followed in black and more somber tones.That’s kind of like November.I grew up, as did my departed kin, without the awareness of these holidays of transition.Protestants sometimes miss the complexity traditional Catholicism had carefully grown.At Nashotah House this was a day of obligation (although they all were, really), and we’d be invited to add names to be recited in mass.I have a name or two to add this year, and I like to think anyone should be free to join.
One of the most frequent accusations of “idolatry” I heard as a child was leveled at Roman Catholic devotion to the virgin Mary.Lessons learned during childhood are difficult to displace, especially when they concern your eternal destination.I overcame this particular objection, a bit, during my sojourn among the Episcopalians, but I have to confess I never felt right praying to Mary.In my Protestant-steeped mind, there were two classes of entities involved: gods (of which, properly, there was only one) and human beings.Only the former received prayers.The rest of us simply had to contend with non-supernatural powers and do the best we could.Still, I met many believers devoted to Mary, and honestly, some accounts of Marian apparitions are pretty impressive.
A local source for inexpensive advertising in our area is essentially a weekly set of want ads.For a small fee you can advertise just about anything you want to buy or have to sell.Spiritual or physical.A few weeks ago, someone ran a magnanimous piece on a prayer to the virgin never known to fail.The words of the prayer were printed, along with the instructions, for nothing is quite as simple as “ask and you shall receive.”The prayer must be recited thrice, and thanksgiving publicly proclaimed.A number of questions occurred to me, regarding not only this, but all prayers for divine action.One is the rather simple query of how you can know if a prayer has never failed.I suspect this is known by faith alone.
There are any number of things most of us would like to change about our lives, and the larger issue of prayer is the daisy-chaining of causality.One change causes another, causes another, and often that for which we pray will impact another person in a negative way.This is the classic “contradictory prayer” conundrum—one person prays for sunny skies while another prays for rain.Neither is evil, both have their reasons, perhaps equally important.(The weekday is a workday for many, and that’s non-negotiable in a capitalist society, so I suspect prayers for sunny skies tend to be weekend prayers, but still…)The prayer never known to fail is either a rock or a hard place.It’s that certitude that does it.I don’t begrudge anyone a prayer that works.Faith alone can test the results.And although we could use a little less rain around here, we could all benefit from a little more faith, I suspect. And for that there’s no fee.
Belief is truly an amazing phenomenon. Even as we see it play out daily in the news, rational people ask themselves how people can accept something that all the evidence decries; just take a look at Fox news. In any case, those who study demons come up against the name of Fr. Gabriele Amorth with some frequency. Amorth was a true believer. Earlier this year I read one of his books and I wondered if he might reveal more in An Exorcist Tells His Story. Forgive me for being curious, but I really am interested in his story—how did this man become the passionate spokesperson for exorcism being reestablished in every Catholic diocese? What were the personal experiences that led him to this? Who was he?
Some people can’t write about themselves. Some, and I suspect clergy often fall into this trap, can’t write without the material becoming a sermon. This book is such an extended homily. Along the way Amorth does discuss a few cases of demonic possession and how it is to be confronted, but mostly he discusses the theology of his view of Catholicism and how that is essential to understanding demons. What is most odd about this is the inconsistency of a true believer in Catholicism admitting that Protestants too can drive out demons right after declaring the Roman Ritual is the only way for Catholics to do so. And only bishops, or those priests appointed by them, are permitted as exorcists. Is this a case of the enemy of my enemy is my friend? Protestants, according to the theology he espouses, shouldn’t be able to do this. If they can, why doesn’t it make him question his faith?
Known for his thousands of exorcisms, Amorth continues to have a healthy following. Anyone reading this book for a consistent outlook will be left wondering. How can Catholic exorcism work only if it follows the rules, and Protestant exorcism work when it is done by those who believe falsely? The same applies to his assertions that those who are possessed are not morally at fault, for it is the demon that makes them do evil things. At the same time those who lead “immoral” lives—according to Catholic standards—are more likely to become possessed. A few pages earlier we’d been told about saints who’d been possessed. I don’t mean to suggest anything about Amorth’s faith commitments—it’s celestially clear that he was a true believer. His commitment to help those who were possessed was legendary. Perhaps it’s just that demons are agents of chaos, and in such circumstances even theology can become a victim. I’m still wondering about his story, though.
It was the end of the world. The year was 1979, if I recall. One of those occasional manias that sweep the nation weighed heavily upon my high school. My English teacher—for her class was at the very hour of the appointed end—sensibly scrapped her lesson plan for the day and had us each write an essay. Would the world end or not, during this very class period? We then shared what we wrote. I recall one answer—not my own—quite clearly. “The Bible says when the reign of Pope is short after the long reign of the previous Pope, the world will end.” (This was just after the death of Pope John Paul I.) A moment’s thought revealed that there are no Popes in the Bible. How could anybody think there were?
Of course, we were at the end of a decade whose bestselling book was Hal Lindsey’s The Late, Great Planet Earth. It was part of what analysts call John Todd Phase of the world’s end scenarios. Or was it the Pat Robertson Phase? In any case, all kinds of obscure signs floated in the air. But Popes in the Bible? Had any of my classmates even read the Good Book? This may have been the only occasion when it was beneficial to have been raised a fundamentalist. I’d already read the Bible many times through and it said nothing about Popes. Not even the Catholic translations.
The iconic role of Holy Writ in secular society is greater than many people suppose. “The Bible says” is practically gospel because few people will check it out. I knew from my conversations with clergy, even as a teen, that few ministers had actually read their own foundation document the whole way through. That leaves them vulnerable to the “cloud of unknowing” whether something is biblical or not. The only way to find out is to sit down with the tome and start reading. Although today such sites as BibleGateway make reading the Good Book online remarkably easy, it’s still a commitment of many hours immersed in an arcane world and mind-numbing lists of who begat whom once upon a time. Examined closely, the Bible is an odd book as far as Holy Writ goes. The same applies to the scriptures of many world religions. Somewhere along the line someone decides that this book, or collection of palm leaves, or set of scrolls, has divine origins. And since world scripture is vast, there’s got to be something about Popes in there somewhere, for when the next end of the world scare comes along.
Far be it from me to question someone else’s demons, but every story has at least two sides. After reading Bob Cranmer and Erica Manfred’s The Demon of Brownsville Road: A Pittsburgh Family’s Battle wit Evil in Their Home, I have to wonder about the other side. I have no doubts that strange things happen behind closed doors. Indeed, the aspect of space, or location, has far more entanglements than our science allows. I don’t question the haunting described in the pages of this book—Bob Cranmer was once a prominent political figure in Pittsburgh and has the credibility that comes with elected office (or at least used to). What is open to question is the interpretation.
The Catholic tradition, which is involved here, does accept that a demon can infest a house. The way this account is laid out, however, is as a personal battle between Cranmer and the demon. The story is not unlike Amityville—family moves into house, discovers it’s haunted, and has to decide what to do about it. They call in a priest. From there the stories diverge. Cranmer’s family started experiencing various misfortunes. These were attributed to the demon. The story is strongly patriarchal; Bob Cranmer is a take-charge kind of guy and he alone can take on this fallen angel in the final instance. There are priests involved—including a prominent monsignor in Pittsburgh—but also clergy from other faith traditions and a paranormal investigation group from Penn State. Did the events happen as described? I don’t know. I wasn’t there.
A few things seem a little off here, though. A Catholic official stating that sex between married couples drives off demons? The discovery that the sins in this house stem from it being an illegal abortion clinic? That Native Americans murdered a family now buried on the property? The book doesn’t give documentation because it’s not that kind of book. Don’t get me wrong. I’m glad the Cranmer family finally found relief from the presence that was haunting their home. Even watching a movie like The Amityville Horror makes people uncomfortable because the idea is so scary—home is a sanctuary and when it’s invaded by an invisible (in this case sometimes visible) enemy it becomes a nightmare. The reader is left with the impression that it came down to a battle of wills and that of a former Republican politician was stronger than that of one of Satan’s minions. Some things, particularly in the climate these days, are difficult to believe.
Among those curious about exorcism, the name Fr. Gabriele Amorth requires no introduction. As “the Vatican’s chief exorcist” (a claim the book makes), Fr. Amorth was known for conducting many deliverances and for teaching a new generation of exorcists. Looking for an entryway into his perspective, I read An Exorcist Explains the Demonic: The Antics of Satan and His Army of Fallen Angels. That a priest in Rome should be conservative was no surprise. What was truly astounding about this account was how unquestioningly the exorcist accepted nearly everything to do with Roman Catholicism. His reading of the Bible is quite literal. His understanding of the Virgin Mary as the Mother of God offers no nuance. Demons are fallen angels and, somewhat surprisingly, he uses “Devil” and “demon” interchangeably. For a hierarchy so thoroughly parsed, this was a bit unexpected. Encountering these explanations, much of what I’d recently read in Matt Baglio’s The Rite made sense. Baglio’s protagonist studied in Rome when Fr. Amorth was still active.
Much of the book felt like a lecture from the 1950s. Sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll can all lead to demonic possession. And it turns out to be quite pervasive. Many people, saints and sinners alike, are possessed and don’t even know it. This is truly, according to the priest, a “world with devils filled.” The book begins with a Catholic, if literal, interpretation of Jesus’ role in the salvation of humankind (although the masculine pronoun is preferred throughout). Not only that, there’s no question that women can or should be exorcists. This is something that priests alone can handle. And he even goes far as to point to Eve (who literally existed, one gets the impression) as an example of how women are more easily tempted than men. Reading this brief tractate was like stepping back into a world that even antedates that of the Republican Party. Not decrying science, however, Fr. Amorth suggests medical explanations can account for some of what sufferers deem as possession. Those who think they are in trouble with demons should first go to a psychiatrist. If the problem can’t be solved, it’s time to call in the men in black.
Another area of concern is his outlook on other religions. African and East and South Asian belief systems are coded as possibly satanic. This universe is a strictly Catholic one. Having noted that, a strong undercurrent of love pervades the book. It’s clear that Fr. Amorth was a priest motivated by care for others. His theology may have been hopelessly medieval, but his heart was in the right place. And, if the accounts are to be believed, he was quite good at expelling literal demons. Some of the metaphorical ones, however, seem to have remained firmly in place.
It was like that dream—you know, the one where you find a penny on the sidewalk, stoop down to pick it up, and discover that there are hundreds more of them. Maybe that’s the kind of thing those born in humble circumstances dream of, but we all recognize the draw of a windfall. People are pretty tight with their money in Manhattan, but it was early in the morning, still dark, and rainy when I saw it. A hundred dollar bill on the ground. Then I noticed more—a while bunch of them. When I reached down to pick one up, it came apart in my hand. Of course, it was a novelty replica of an actual piece of currency. When I walk through the garment district I often find great swatches of scrap cloth that have spilled out of designers’ trash bags. I’m tempted, I’ll confess, to pick them up and save them for future use. Nevertheless, this hundred dollar bill wasn’t what it appeared to be. Many things aren’t.
Religions around the world are predicated on the fact that what seems to be real isn’t. Even long before The Matrix came along. The idea that what occurs in our heads—or to use more conventional religious language, our hearts or souls—is truly real automatically takes us a step away from material reality. It’s not to say that this soggy, pulpy piece of paper in my hand has no existence, but it simply isn’t what it pretends to be. On mornings when the fates are all synched just so, I’ll look out the window of the bus from the helix and see Manhattan laid out in front of me like a picture postcard. “It’s not real,” I whisper to myself. Unlike the tourist in awe during a first visit to the city, I actually mean it. This concrete, glass, and steel world is not real. I’d feel a bit exposed suggesting such a thing on this blog had I not the biggest names in world religions behind me. One thing that they all seem to agree upon is that reality isn’t just what we experience in this corporeal vehicle that we currently call home.
Religion has been called the opium of the people. Marx wasn’t the first to suggest that the more needy among us were the driving force behind belief. Nevertheless, belief is present in all forms of thinking from extreme rationalism to naive acceptance of what your parents told you. The thing about religion is that it conscientiously advocates belief. It admits up front that it holds certain things to be true. One of those beliefs happens to be that things are not what they appear to be. Here in Manhattan we’re all so busy rushing around that who has the time to stop and think like that? I frequently walk past Holy Innocents church on my way to work. I may function, in this world, as an editor of biblical studies, but as I pass that edifice to a faith to which I don’t even belong, I feel the draw. Inside those doors—and I know this is true because I can sometimes hear the bells—a different reality awaits. Out here there may be hundreds of dollars scattered on the ground. When you look closer, however, you discover that they’re not what they appear to be.
I’ve written on The Rite before. My current book project, however, led me to reread this account after watching the movie based on it a couple of times. The film dramatizes, of course, the somewhat understated demonic activity in the book. The protagonist loses about 30 years in age and isn’t yet a priest. As is usual, the book is better than the movie. Matt Baglio’s story follows Fr. Gary Thomas from parish ministry in California to his discovery of possession and appointment as an exorcist. As part of the Vatican initiative to have an exorcist appointed in every diocese, Fr. Thomas was sent to Rome to take a course on exorcism. His experience was all academic until he began to attend actual exorcisms with an unconventional Capuchin monk. Very little described in the book is difficult to believe.
This time around the curses nabbed my attention. Among exorcists of the Roman Catholic stripe, there is a strong belief in the reality of curses. Not only the reality of curses, but the belief that curses can lead to demonic possession. Knowing that Catholicism has struggled with accusations of being unsophisticated and behind the times, the fact that this isn’t more widely known is pretty self-explanatory. Growing up Protestant, I was always taught that curses are make-believe. They don’t really have any influence on a person’s life. The world of demons, however, is a supernatural one and the concept of curses still holds sway in this universe, as the book shows.
Another arcane aspect that resurfaced when I reread this book is just how elaborate the Catholic backstory is. Many Catholics, it’s clear, distance themselves from such topics as the Devil and demons, but there’s no escaping the Virgin Mary and the drama of Jesus versus the powers of evil, as well as the intercession of saints. The problem is that many of the players are personified in the Bible. It’s pretty hard to say the Good Book got it wrong. That worldview lends itself to belief in supernatural impingement on this sphere. Not that that’s a bad thing. Many people, however, would rather believe in a materialist world with physical cause and effect being the main operating paradigm. Demons complicate all that. But then, so does the idea of Mary being a perpetual virgin, and even the patrilineal heritage of Jesus himself. The Rite brings to the light something many would perhaps prefer to be kept under a bushel. Strange things do happen in this world, and they do tend to respond to the backstory that’s been told. That makes such books difficult to classify, even with the backstory.
What you believe matters. This is shown clearly in the case of exorcism. Brian P. Levack admits to personal reasons for interest in this dark subject. His The Devil Within: Possession and Exorcism in the Christian West is a masterful treatment of a topic that it considers from many angles. As a form of Christian practice it goes all the way back to the beginning—Jesus’ initial fame was as an exorcist of sorts. He didn’t require any ritual or authority to expel demons, but he became a public figure largely because of his ability to do so. Levack’s study focuses mainly on the Middle Ages and the Early Modern period. The latter was the high-water mark of possessions until the resurgent interest of the post-Exorcist twentieth century.
An aspect of exorcism that had raised my curiosity more than once was its Catholic disposition. Many Protestants believe in demons, but only the Roman Church has the grand ritual to drive them out. There are Protestant exorcisms, but they have a different goal—they’re intended to eliminate sin. This leads Levack to a strong contrast between Catholicism and that most extreme of Protestant traditions, Calvinism. Few Calvinists suffered from possession. Those who did were not held blameless, as in Catholicism (if you were being controlled by a demon you could hardly be held responsible for your actions). Calvinists believed only the sinful could be possessed and since their God is Republican you can hardly count on any mercy. In fact, if you were possessed, chances were you would become a witch. And everyone in early modernity knew what the cure for that would be.
We tend to think that the Enlightenment drove such beliefs extinct. In fact, the height of both witch hunts and demonic possession came after the scientific paradigm took hold. Levack makes the point that this is a kind of theater—performance undeniably plays a part in exorcisms. Both science and Calvinism, taken neat, can leave a body feeling cold and in need of some emotion. As the book notes, you could generally find a Catholic priest who’d be glad to drive out your demons. It seems that the great forces of good and evil play themselves out not only in the spiritual realm, but in the varieties of religious experiences in the all-too-political world of the church. The Devil Within is a fascinating book with a plausible thesis written by an author who understands that ideas have consequences that aren’t always easy to expel.
One thing upon which we all might agree is that we don’t have enough time. Publishers, eager to find an angle that will help them survive an age when we believe knowledge should be free, have shown a preference for short books. (An exception to this seems to be novels—consumers appear to like getting lost in a long story.) One result of this is the brief introduction format of book. That’s what Michael Walsh’s contribution to The Basics series is. Roman Catholicism is somewhat of a challenge to explain in less than 200 pages. You have to stick to, well, the basics. Having sojourned among the Episcopalians many a year, I felt that I had a fairly good grasp on Catholicism, but as I was reading it struck me that to really understand it, you have to be it.
One thing the Roman church has going for it is direct continuity. Making claims of having been there since the beginning, as an organization they have a leg up over other groups that boast more recent origins. We respect, or at least we tend to, organizations with such longevity. Tracing itself back to Saint Peter, the Catholics have continuity with spades. Or crosses. Of course, one of the things Walsh addresses is how change happens in such a long-lived group. Councils and synods, new scientific information and new Popes. Catholicism today isn’t the same as it was in Pete’s day. Walsh does a good job of guiding us through all that up to the time of Pope John Paul II, who, it turns out, raised global awareness of the papacy in the world as it existed then.
One thing we might agree upon is that Pope Francis has changed perceptions of what it means to be Catholic. The church remains mired in medieval thinking about matters such as gender and sexuality, but since this little book was published there have been steps forward. Even this popular pontiff, however, can’t change the decrees that went against the majority opinion regarding birth control, as Walsh somewhat guardedly notes. Or the ordination of women. He observes at the very beginning of his little book that Catholics know all about and deeply respect authority. This brief introduction helps to get a sense of how things ended up the way they are. We know that Pope Francis has started to speak out on such things, but men like to keep authority, as we all know. And even Popes have just so much time.
Supply and demand may seem to be an odd framework to apply to religion, but it obviously exists within the polity of churches, synagogues, and mosques. What the people want does influence what’s on offer. Watching movies about demonic possession isn’t something that comes naturally to me. Demons are scary, and it doesn’t help that, historically speaking, they’ve never really been properly defined. Francis Young has provided a service to the curious with his book A History of Exorcism in Catholic Christianity. The book is just what it says, an examination of how Catholics have formally dealt with demons, or more properly, demoniacs, over the centuries. Young notes the protean nature of demons at the beginning—they meet cultural expectations of their time rather than obeying theological niceties. What to do about them?
Long relegated to the realm of epilepsy and mental illness, possession has gone through several periods of ascendency and decline. Indeed, in the nineteenth century it looked as though exorcism, in Catholicism, might have been on the endangered species list. Science was calling the reality of the spiritual world into question and nobody likes to be thought naive. With few exceptions, the move toward eliminating the role of the exorcist was gaining steam. Then in the twentieth century the demand for exorcism revived. As Young notes, a large part of the increasing interest arose from the novel and subsequent movie, The Exorcist. Possession was something so little talked about for so many years that it proved a rich ground for a new kind of monster that was eminently believable. The church, after all, never said there weren’t demons. Since that time, interest has been waxing once again.
Part of the reason would seem to be that humans are meaning-seeking creatures. When our main sources of authority in that realm are eroded, we start looking elsewhere to find succor. Ironically, outside Catholicism the mainstay of exorcism has been among various evangelical Protestant groups. They may not have an ancient ritual to use, but what they lack in experience they make up for in enthusiasm. Their demons are culled from a literal reading of the Bible. And interest among Catholics, in this strange supply and demand rubric, has meant that more exorcists are being trained and made available. The world that Young leads his readers through is one in which strange things reside. He makes no judgment about demons or their reality. He does, however, provide a very thorough history of what the Catholic Church has done about them, when the demand exceeds supply.
Liberation from the confines of academia allows for the occasional indulgence in taboo subjects. I can’t remember when I first heard of stigmata. I didn’t grow up Catholic, and, like many Protestants, distrusted much of what came from Rome. Still, I was interested in the supernatural. When I learned that people in this modern day and age sometimes developed unexplained wounds corresponding to crucifixion, I was intrigued. Ted Harrison’s book, Stigmata: A Medieval Mystery in a Modern Age, is the first I’ve actually read on the subject. It has some fascinating observations to share. It was some time after seminary that I learned that Francis of Assisi (aka St. Francis) was the first stigmatic. I had admired Francis for turning down wealth to assist the poor and commune with nature—what’s not to like?—but I didn’t realize that he had initiated this rare, but real phenomenon.
Harrison considers the question of why it was only in the 13th century that the stigmata began to occur. They have occurred ever since, in very small numbers, primarily in Italy and primarily among women. But why then? He points out that the church, shortly before this time, began to emphasize the physical suffering of Jesus on the cross. We’re probably all familiar with some of the gruesome images that emerged from the church and its artists at that time. As such images proliferated, people were given a visual focus that directed their devotions. Every great once in a while, this led to stigmata. Why women? As Harrison points out, men with intense spiritual needs could become priests. Women could not. The church would not forbid personal devotion, and if such devotion led to stigmata, well, a person arguably had a direct line to the divine. That was something normally preserved for priests through the Eucharist.
Stigmata have to be understood in the context of mysticism. The more recent cases studied by Harrison include some non-Catholics and some other unexpected candidates for what is, after all, a very intense spiritual experience. What emerges is a thoughtful, one might dare say contemplative, approach to the issue. Some stigmata have been self-inflicted. Some have not. Medical personnel have witnessed and examined these improbable wounds and have not explained them away. Once, during a faculty meeting at the New College of Edinburgh University (I was post-graduate student representative) one faculty member groused after one of my advisors had presented a challenging idea: “you’ve dropped us in a mythological world. I want to get us out.” There it is in a nutshell. Some people can live in a world where stigmata occur. Others have to explain it away. The difference is all in the matter of perspective.