Recently, I saw a movie called The Rite. The film follows the story of Michael Kovak, a highly skeptical individual who later becomes an exorcist. When we first meet him, he has many doubts and relies on disciplines such as science and psychology to explain the happenings of the world. As time goes on, it seems that it is his own reliance on science and psychology that ends up being tested as his life propels him onto a path where the unexplainable phenomena of life forces him to come to grips with all that he believes and knows to be true.
The film is loosely based on the book The Rite: The Making of a Modern Exorcist, which itself is based on actual events as witnessed and recounted by American then-exorcist-in-training Father Gary Thomas and his experiences of being sent to Rome to be trained and work daily with veteran clergy of the practice. Even within religious and spiritual circles, exorcism isn’t exactly a common pursuit. Back in 2011, when the movie came out, Father Gary Thomas was only one of about 14 Vatican-certified exorcists working in the United States.
Exorcism is the religious or spiritual practice of evicting demons, jinns, or other spiritual entities from a person or an area that is believed to be possessed. Depending on the spiritual beliefs of the exorcist, this may be done by causing the entity to swear an oath, performing an elaborate ritual or by commanding it to depart in the name of a higher power. The practice is ancient and is a part of the belief system of many cultures and religions.
In a non-denominational understanding of what constitutes an exorcism, the entire concept hinges on the notion that people can be possessed by ghosts, spirits, demons and other non-human entities that attach themselves to a human host and do not want to let go. This then requires an intervention of some sort. Here is when the faith healer comes in.
Explanations such as ghost or demonic possessions were far more common in an era where the study of science was not as widespread. These days, we are more likely to diagnose the same maladies as a form of mental illness as opposed to believing that a possession of some sort has taken place.
In the case of exorcism, however, the practise includes the expulsion of the demon or spirit, followed by treatment and then curing the possessed. It is a form of faith-healing.
There are a few so-called ‘doorways’ via which ‘a demon’ or ‘a spirit’ may enter. The doorways which are commonly cited by religious leaders include: tarot, astrology, sexual abuse, alcohol, drug addiction and the like. Similar to doctors, they are quite likely to tell us not to do those things because those things are bad for our mind and spirit. Perhaps these practises alter the mind and our brain chemistry.
There’s a lot of backlash from religious leaders against the so-called ‘New Age Movement’ because it has provided people with an personalised alternative to organised religion. From crystals to tarot cards to astrology–it’s all apparently terrible for you.
But one reality that does not seem to be recognised is that most of these ‘alternative disciplines’ are practised by women. Women are largely not permitted to lead religious congregations. I don’t need to tell you that regardless of the faith; religious leaders are mostly male. I mean, no one ever asked me if I’d like to join the seminary for four years. It was never even an option. To find your own place, you would naturally wind up in some ‘alternative’ that is not sanctioned by the religious institutions.
The woman’s role as a spiritual leader in her community is not one that is celebrated, let alone sanctioned. So it goes ‘underground’ and becomes an alternative. It has to be done in secret or in solitude. Well, these days it’s all out in the open; but most users and practitioners consider it entertainment, a form of therapy or even a sort of archetypal practise that they can work with to meet their unmet needs.
The social and personal impact of drug addiction and sexual abuse, however, is one that is far more complex and beyond my own understanding.
Not too long ago, I sat through what could be described as a deposition where a lawyer cross-examined a woman who said she had been sexually abused. It’s not really that hard to concoct a story. It’s also really hard to prove that what she said actually happened. We’re talking about an act and an event that occurred in a deeply private and personal space. Who is to say what happened and who is telling the truth? Trauma can distort memory and leave nothing but an emotional imprint.
What exactly happened on 8 August 2011 at 9.32pm? Who knows? You think the perpetrator is going to admit that he did something wrong or bad–especially when the consequences may include jail time? Are you a drug addict? How much do you drink? You think an addict ever tells you the truth? I suppose the question I would rather ask is, “Who led you down that path?” Was it a family member, a friend or a stranger?
So how does faith healing factor into all of this? With the number of scandals surrounding religious institutions, one can only wonder if these so-called upstanding members of the community are even that upstanding. Not too long ago, I learned of a well-known and well-respected priest who was charged with embezzlement. Who are these people whom we ‘trust’ and do we ever know them at all?
I suppose what we really want to know is: did the ailment or illness get better? We’re asking the same questions we ask of conventional medical practitioners. Does it work?
There are stories that point to ‘yes’ and there are stories that point to ‘no’. I suppose the only conclusion I can come down to is that we only ever believe in what we know how to believe in. We can remain in a state of complete disbelief and skepticism till we experience something that leaves us in a state of disbelief.
What happens at that point? Do we become believers? I’m not sure that we do. In the movie The Rite, it is said that the exorcist needs to be a great skeptic. If we are talking about spirits–in other words, entities that are invisible to the human eye–we can’t truly ever know with certainty what it is that we’re dealing with. It is an invisible enemy. But then again, we can’t see coronavirus except under a microscope and till we’re taken ill.
The world is a mysterious place with all sorts of maladies. What science cannot explain forces us on the path towards faith. Ultimately, my conclusion is that both science and our faith will always be tested. If it ‘works’, we’ll believe in it. And if it doesn’t, let’s just say that we’ll find something or someone else to believe in.