I remember being afraid of the dark and the creaking sounds all around my bedroom, especially in the closet where the witches hid and under my bed where the green slimy monsters waited to devour little children like me. With nothing but a sheet clung tightly to my neck, I prayed desperately for deliverance.
Now that I am older, I no longer fear the dark things that go bump in the night, unless I have watched a particularly frightening movie or read a chapter by Stephen King before going to bed. But I still know that steel-hard grip of fear in the pit of my stomach when I am about to be scared to death.
I felt that feeling during my first year in College Seminary in Baltimore when I took a hard cover copy of William Peter Blattey’s The Exorcist to the crypt of the Seminary Chapel and read it cover to cover. Regretting that decision, I finished at 10pm and I remember the moment as if it were last night. I sat frozen like a deer in the headlights. For a good long while I was too frightened to move, lest the demons who no doubt lurked behind that column grabbed my trembling self and dragged me down to the fiery pits of hell.
And that’s one reason why Fr. McManus’ course on exorcism always sells out. Because we are afraid of the devil and his legions of demons. And justifiably so. They are not figments of an over fertile imagination. They do go about like a roaring lion seeking to devour someone, and beware, for seminarians are particularly tasty morsels to the Prince of Darkness and his court.
But rejoice at the same time, for you are not helpless pawns as the movies would sometimes have you believe, but children of the one true God, called to be Priests of the One through whom all things were made. Rejoice! For by the pillar of fire, the light of the world who rose triumphant from the tomb, the darkness of sin is banished and the powers of darkness cast out.
So beware the devil and his minions, who plot light wily adolescents the pollution of purity, the obliteration of beauty and the betrayal of love. But fear not mainly their rare and dramatic cinematic possessions, but their daily and hourly incursions of sin and darkness into our everyday lives.
William Peter Blattey, the man who wrote the book that so scared me in the crypt some 45 years ago, died of cancer on January 12th. And one thing I will never forget about his book is the first two pages. The first is an excerpt from an FBI wiretap in which two members of La Cosa Nostra giggle while describing their three days of torturing a man to death on a meat hook with an electric cattle prod. “Jackie, you shouda' seen the guy. Like an elephant he was. And when Jimmy hit him with the electric prod…” And then there’s Dr. Tom Dooley’s recounting of a priest tortured in a communist Gulag with nails driven through his skull and seven little boys who prayed the Our Father while their teacher was impaled on a bayonet, followed by just three words: Dachau. Auhschwitz. Buchenwald.
That, Blattey was reminding us, was real life, not fiction.
And maybe he was able to scare me so effectively because he understood that the real incursion of evil into this world is most often by our own hands, or our tongues, our own deeds. And the real victories of the powers of darkness are in the way we ostracize or refuse to love the one who needs us or the cruelty we inflict on those we refuse to understand. The real and present victories of the prince of this world are in the thousand little sins, the thousand little betrayals of goodness and purity and love which so often make up our days.
So beware the devil and his minions, who plot like wily adolescents the pollution of purity, the obliteration of beauty and the betrayal of love in your life. But rejoice in the Light of this world, who for love of such as us has risen from the tomb, and in the words of our most cherished hymn “dispels wickedness, washes faults away, restores innocence to the fallen, and joy to mourners, drives out hatred, fosters concord, and brings down the mighty.” Even the mighty powers of darkness and death.