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.