This story is entirely true.
The Demon in our View
Last Lent – the Sunday before Good Friday- I had the strange experience of going to church. I have nothing against church. I was a regular parishioner when I was a child in school and going to University. I sang in the choir and very prettily.
But I was attending this church service, because I wanted to meet the priest. She was probably going to marry me to my fiance of three years the following October. Just our luck, the actual priest of the church had a vacation before the most busy service week of the year, so we attended a service that had little to do with the actual people of the church and called a certain Father out of retirement.
I don’t remember his name, but his sermon or rather his story has stayed with me. It keeps me awake at night sometimes.
He took to the pulpit a kindly looking elderly man, the kind small children mistake for Santa Claus until closer inspection reveals the nervousness tightness of his mouth and the bags under his eyes. Mostly the man looked tired as he looked out over the small gathering of the most faithful and two random pilgrims without much belief in religion.
The first thing he said in the service was this:
“The most impressive thing the Devil ever did was to convince the world that he was not real.”
At this point, I feel the need to explain something. There’s a kind of Christian, rare in the world, bible-thumping, Devil-warning, sinner-seeking, preacher-dispel-the-demon-in-my-soul-praise-Jesus-hallelujah Christian. I’m not that kind of Christian. My husband is not that kind of Christian. His family is not that kind of Christian. We are Episcopalians. That is to say the kind of Christian, common in the world, yes-that-Jesus-fellow-had-the-right-idea, what-you-do-is-really-not-my-business, so-sorry-for-bothering-you, we-have-tea,coffee-and-donuts-on-Sunday-after-Church-and-a-lovely-choir-that-even-sings-Gospel-if-you’d-like-to-join-us- kind of Christian.
So when the father’s next sentence was “Show of hands who here believes in the Devil?” I was confused.
I knew what I was expected to do. When Episcopal priest ask for a show of hands you raise your hand and nod. Quietly. Maybe one of the more outgoing parishioners, the kind who reads the lessons and too enthusiastically talks about the annual church ski trip will shout a self-conscious and ironic “amen.”
None of us wanted to raise our hands. Ours was a kind of faith that was assuring of God’s love, of man’s intrinsic goodness, and of evil’s mundane-ness. To an Episcopal, the devil is the fear, anger, or simple laziness of our fellow humans, the person who drives by someone walking in the rain too afraid to pull over and help, or in the person who judges a mother using food-stamps to buy food for her children. We never needed a God to dispel boogie men.
I looked over at my future husband, curious if this was a normal service in the church of his youth and he looked a bit angry. As if he had been deceived. I thought maybe he would walk out and I would follow after him, pretending to be as miffed as was by this mild-mannered attempt at Devil-mongering preaching.
Yet we did not leave. There was something about the old priest that was not suited to that kind of preaching. For one thing he was too tired. He asked for this show of hands conversationally, the way an Episcopal priest would, a little afraid his audience would not play along. Not the kind of preacher who could call the wrath of God down to excite and inspire his lambs. He lacked the enthusiasm.
A few hands went up when it was clear that the priest was not going to continue on until we agreed with his premise. It made me think about the devil and the nature of evil.
There certainly is evil in the world. Genocide, man-made famine, colonization, racism, sexism, huge gaps in wealth and privilege that seem to favor people more inclined to kick the homeless than help them find a place to live. Maybe the father was talking about this kind of evil, this kind of Devil. Devil within. But a literal enemy of God. I didn’t raise my hand.
The priest finally got the amount of hands he wanted, chastised those who had not raised their hands in a way that made me angry to be scolded, but secretly ashamed, and went on to explain that he meant a literal Devil.
He went on to tell us the story of his first and only exorcism. It’s not a common rite in the Episcopal church. Like confession, it’s optional and something you personally request.
His experience had been as a young man in the 50’s. New to the church and serving as an assistant priest, possibly a deacon. I was uninterested in his sermon at this point, watching my husband for signs that he was as fed up as me so we could leave in solidarity together. The priest received a call from a lady who thought, perhaps, she had something strange going on in her home. She’d just moved in to a relatively new house and her husband was away on a business trip. She had seen weird shadows, felt upset being alone in the house in the dark, and thought there were unusual creaks and moans. Could he please, if it was not too much trouble, preform the exorcism rite on her new house.
The priest agreed, to pacify the woman, though he asked her to wait until her regular priest returned from his vacation so they could do it together. Apparently, exorcisms are meant to be preformed with a partner. She told him to forget about it, since it was inconvenient. He told her, he’d be over that afternoon.
Very Episcopal exchange.
That’s the way shame works in the milder religions. I can’t help but think that in a baptist church the woman would have been more fearless in talking about her demon and the priest more insistent on doing things the proper way, God’s way. Then again, Baptists might not do exorcisms.
As I sat in the last pew, thinking these thoughts about Baptists and my own milquetoast religion, I expected a dramatic story to follow. At least, it would be entertaining if not soul-satisfying. I’d hear about how the priest went to the house, felt the evil in the walls, saw black shapes out of the corner of his eyes, knew a deep dread in the pit of his soul that threatened to turn him from his faith and pull him into Hell. Faith and the forces of good would win the day.
Instead the father said, everything went according to plan. He had a coffee and cookies with her in the kitchen, then went through the whole house preforming the secret rite that he had to find in a special book – the priest emphasized this. It’s not in the book of common prayer. And when it was over, he left.
No mention that the house had been cold or dark. No shadows. Or flickering lights. No moaning creaking house. None of the usual things a person will add, even falsely in retrospect to spice up the story. Just a bland, went to the house, preformed the exorcism, thanked her for the coffee, kind of story.
The father got into his car to drive away and that’s when the demon hit him. Sitting behind the wheel, car idling about to drive away. He saw from the corner of his eye in the rear view mirror just the flicker of a shadow. Probably bird on the lawn or a cloud, he told himself but a heavy weight fell on his chest and he began to hyperventilate. A young man suddenly terrified for his life and more, sitting in the driveway of a suburban house with a cookie in his hand and a bible on the passenger seat.
Eventually, he recovered and drove away, fast. Feeling always that there was someone watching him, that if he slowed the weight would return the shadow would catch up.
He went to his church and stayed there for a while.
This entire time, the priest had been telling this story in the least engaging way possible, bland as… well as an Episcopal priest, stating facts and impressions, peppering sentences with the weak “I believe”s and “I’m pretty sure”s more common to novice storytellers than parish leaders.
My thoughts as I sat in his congregation were that I dealt with stranger phenomena on my tour route every night. And I certainly told the stories afterward with more flare.
Then he got to the weirdest part of the story. The part that stays with me. For three months, he had this lingering fear. Then it just “went away.” He didn’t preach about the virtues of exorcisms, or about God’s awesome power to abolish the forces of evil. He didn’t tell how he went to a senior priest and received some kind of salvation from the creature he was certain followed him. He did not overcome evil, he patiently waited for it to go away.
My future husband summed it up on the drive home, “demon possession: I had a panic attack and it went way. Uh, thanks, God, I guess?”
What unsettles me is the “just went away” part. Evil doesn’t just go away. Evil is something we get acclimated to. We’re told certain people are scary and so even if we hate racist language, we fear being alone in train stations with them. We’re told that people of wealth are important so we begin to believe the poor are inferior. We hear often that a good woman is kind and patient no matter how bad things get and eventually we fear ambitious woman. We get used to evil.
So what if this man’s demon had never actually gone away? What if he just got used to the feeling of being watched, the dread in his chest?
Maybe that’s why this man looked so exhausted and drawn. A kindly old man who had never again preformed an exorcism rite, out of fear. A man who should have looked like Santa Claus except for something missing from his eyes and his smile. As if for most of his life, the demon in his shadow had been feasting.
The thing that stays with me though, isn’t the man’s dead eyes or his mirthless smile. It’s the thought of some evil creature being with him that day.
Being with us that day.
Had his demon seen those of us who did not raise our hands? Was it looking for people who in telling a story would only state the facts. People who would neglect to mention cold spots in a house warmed by the summer day, or shadows darker than they ought to be for fear of being seen as liars or worse super-religious crazies. People who would be afraid to tell their future husbands they ever had this thought for fear it would not be taken seriously?
Was the demon looking at me?
And now, since you’ve been on my tour, is it looking at you?