“I wake up each morning with deep gouges in my back. I don’t know how they get there, and they won’t heal.” Thus began an email I received a few years ago from a young girl who feared she was demon possessed. She experienced other disturbing symptoms and admitted to a long involvement with all sorts of occult behaviors. I invited her to come and meet me. She never showed up.
I am not an exorcist, but I believe in demon possession and exorcism. The fact that the girl didn’t reply is itself a disturbing sign. One of the symptoms of demonic possession is a revulsion and even violent antipathy to anything Christian — especially a Catholic priest. Had the girl turned up, I would have met her with a trained counselor and discussed her history, her symptoms, and her spiritual life; if I sensed real demonic possession, I would have referred to the diocesan exorcist for assistance.
With the recent release of The Rite — Hollywood’s latest exorcism movie — I have been addressing the issue of demon possession and exorcism with the teenagers in my care as chaplain at a Catholic high school. When I do, I always play it down: The proper response to demonic possession and exorcism is not to sensationalize it. I stress how rare true possession is and warn the students about involvement in the occult and the outer fringes of things like rock music, video games, and horror movies, where vulnerable young people can also be sucked into the dark side by a fascination with evil. I also remind them that the best defense against the devil is a simple, humble faith. “Just trust in the Lord. Live your faith best you can. Try to be good. Be cheerful and hopeful and happy. Seek light. Seek love. Seek beauty. Seek Truth.” Then, I assure them, “You have nothing to fear.”
Indeed, an ordinary, humble, common-sense, cheerful, and joyful Christian is invulnerable to the devil’s subterfuge. We must always remember that the devil is a proud spirit; he takes himself so very seriously, and what he cannot understand and what he cannot bear is the sound of Christians engaged in that most serious of pastimes — being happy. A cheerful spirit is actually a supernatural gift. Joy is the language of heaven. Laughter — real, joyful, self-abandoned, crying, gasping-with-hilarity laughter — is never heard in hell.
This is why those humans who take themselves so very soberly and seriously are on the down escalator to the father below. “Angels,” G. K. Chesterton reminds us, “can fly because they take themselves lightly.” It is the serious-faced, self-righteous Catholics who are the church’s worst enemy, and they exist on both ends of the Catholic spectrum. One thinks of the glowering ranks of ultra-conservative Catholics who cling as tightly to their conspiracy theories as to their Latin missals; they’re a match for the seriously self-righteous and angry dissenting Catholics with their “womyn priests,” rainbow sashes, and rainforest salvation campaigns. Chesterton would encourage them, “Be more like the angels. Lighten up.”
I am not arguing, of course, that we should not take the devil and the spiritual battle seriously. Indeed we should. As St. Paul writes, “We wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against spiritual wickedness in the heights.” We’re engaged in a battle, to be sure: a battle with eternal consequences and eternal rewards. What is in question is how we engage in that battle.
I think we need a bit of swash and buckle. We need to get out our broad-brimmed hat and swoop the white plume. We need to buckle on our sword and be no less than a sort of spiritual Cyrano de Bergerac — that clown and cavalier who, with his sword and his poetry and his profound proboscis, sallies forth to confront hypocrisy and foolishness and greed and lust with a noble heart, a high calling, and wit that is as sharp as his rapier.
We may not be exorcists, but each one of us is called to engage in the spiritual battle, and we will succeed best when we take the battle seriously, not ourselves. During Lent, that battle intensifies. As Christ went into the desert to take the battle to the devil himself, so we should engage with the forces of darkness with a new intention, clear-mindedness, good humor, and the confidence that comes with knowing Christ, through whom all evil is overcome.
Launching into battle in this way means we are happy warriors. We fight with a spring in our step and a smile on our face. The gospel says when we fast we should wash our face and put on a smile; the spiritual writers speak of keeping a “joyful Lent.” When we face temptation, we should overcome not just with a serious resolve and a whopping amount of self control; we should also have the wisdom and insight to see the temptation for what it is, sidestep the attack, and parry with a counter thrust in the robust spirit of a jaunty swordsman or a laughing cavalier.
All this, because we remember and look forward to Easter Day. My favorite image of the resurrection is the painting by Piero della Francesca, with the triumphant Christ stepping from the tomb over the sleeping soldiers bearing a white flag with a red cross. There’s an air of jaunty resolve about it, a joyful insouciance with the incongruous flag, the light of morning, and the unexpected twist in the plot.
That’s the sword that strikes the devil’s heart — that God outfoxed him, and the angels not only rejoiced but must have laughed with joy at the final victory.
And so should we.
Rev. Dwight Longenecker’s latest book, The Gargoyle Code (written in the style of C. S. Lewis’ Screwtape Letters), is also a Lenten book. The diabolical correspondence begins on Shrove Tuesday and ends on Easter Day. Learn more about it here.