Exorcism: Touching Evil
Two years ago, Rostrevor writer Christina McKenna embarked on a most unusual project - an exploration of the darkly disturbing subject of exorcism on the island of Ireland. The results of her endeavour, which she co-authored with her husband, David Kiely, are contained in a new book, The Dark Sacrament: Exorcism in Modern Ireland
In September 2004, I published a memoir about growing up in mid-Ulster. The book was unusual in that it included a haunting and the ritual used for the banishment of persistent paranormal infestation: the exorcism.
Soon after the book's publication I was approached by Gill & Macmillan, the Dublin publishers. Having read about the haunting, they asked if I would like to investigate the subject of exorcism in the present day. I agreed.
Two years ago, I began the journey into this serious and fascinating subject. I was determined from the outset to approach it in a spirit of unbiased investigation.
I was brought up Catholic, but, as with many of my generation, the oppressive nature of the religion I was fed as a child only served to distance me from it as I approached adulthood.
Since then, I've sought a more spiritual path, and a gentler, more understanding deity. But it was like reading only the even-numbered pages of a book.
I was accepting the presence of a loving, protective God in my life, while balking at the idea of an 'adversary'.
I refused to believe in the Devil - or Satan - as a being whose purpose is to lead us away from God. My sanitised idea of the universe did not allow for the existence of an actual entity - God's opposite number if you like.
I was seeing evil in terms of our own human ego ... our lower self, the part of us that hates, lies, steals, bullies, intimidates, murders, and otherwise engages in all that is despicable.
But a real being, the embodiment of evil? The head honcho of Hades who, with his army of demons, goes about oppressing mortals and trying to possess them? No, my educated sensibilities would not allow for that.
I confidently expected that the experience of researching and writing the book would leave me with my 'enlightened' beliefs intact.
I was in for a nasty shock.
David and I travelled all over Ireland, seeking out clergymen who had performed exorcisms or deliverances and who, we hoped, could be persuaded to provide us with introductions to the individuals they'd aided.
Our quest was a difficult one. I was an outsider trying to make inroads into a very closed world, and there were times when I felt like giving up. Most of the bishops and other clergy we approached were reluctant to confide in us. But gradually, through perseverance, a few good men in both Churches came forward to help. A few whose integrity and humility allowed them to see the spiritual significance and importance of the project.
The exorcists we spoke to entrusted us with the cases they believed were genuine. I think I should stress that the victims in the nine cases covered in The Dark Sacrament received no payment. They agreed to tell their stories because they were genuinely grateful to the exorcists who had freed them - sometimes after years of demonic oppression - and on condition that they would remain anonymous. Their motives were purely altruistic. They wished to express their gratitude, and to warn others of the dangers that are out there.
Four of the cases occurred in Northern Ireland, but in order to protect identities, all place names had to be changed.
Not all exorcisms are about driving out demons or evil spirits from a person or place, however. I met many people who were troubled by what are referred to as the 'restless dead'. In a word: ghosts.
I learnt that an exorcism - which nowadays involves the celebration of a Eucharist, a blessing, and readings from the Roman Rite or The Book of Common Prayer - can be very effective in such instances.
It is when the psychic activity generated by earthbound spirits is hijacked by evil entities to gain entry to a home that things can become very unsettling. A haunting might start out in an almost playful way. Items are moved or misplaced, lights are switched on and off, doors open and shut of their own accord. Tame stuff, perhaps, but if not halted in time can lay the foundations for more sinister phenomena.
I found an impressive inner consistency in what signalled the presence of evil spirits in a place. There were many reports of foul odours, variously described as being like "burning hair", "sewage", and even "the smoke from a camp fire". There were freezing temperatures, even when the heating was turned up full. I learnt of people waking up to find a crushing weight on top of them. And for me the most telling of all: assaults on religious objects. Bibles would be hurled from shelves, holy pictures or crucifixes burnt or broken. Holy water would be spilt and its container thrown aside.
There is a general perception that all those who become victims of paranormal activity have somehow "brought it on themselves". This is simply not true. It seems that all of us are vulnerable: the good, the bad, the holy and the profane.
The recently canonised Padre Pio endured demonic attack almost nightly for the last 50 years of his life. In 1997, during her final hospitalisation, Mother Teresa of Calcutta underwent an exorcism when it was feared she was being targeted by evil forces.
If the victims in The Dark Sacrament can be accused of anything, it is of naivety. A few examples.
Erin married into a family of incest victims who had themselves become child abusers. She was unaware of this until long after her son was born. There were ominous signs - for those who can read them. There were, for instance, inexplicable foul odours and freezing temperatures in the old house. When her child turned five, Erin learnt, to her horror, that her husband was a paedophile who regularly abused him. Moreover, he and the parish priest had been lovers for years.
She fled, moving as far away as possible, but the stench and the cold pursued her to her new home. They were accompanied by the ghostly crying of a child in the night, a child whom her own boy claimed to see frequently.
In another case, Julie, a mother of three, played ouija with her children, believing it to be just a bit of harmless fun. But things took an ominous turn when a Frenchman calling himself Pierre Dubois began coming through. He professed to have been a blacksmith in northern France who died at the time of the French Revolution.
All too soon he started addressing himself directly to the housewife, in misspelt English. "Julie," the moving glass wrote, "I like stay here with you. I am tired wandring and need rest . . . I was with relations in Suth Africa but not wanted there."
With those baleful words, the demon Dubois entered Julie's life. She was oppressed for 15 long years, before being finally released by an Anglican minister.
After her mother died, Linda rang a psychic phoneline. She wished to know if her mother was happy in the afterlife. Some days later, she detected a presence in the home, and her eight-year-old daughter Lucy began having bizarre visions.
Although the manifestations were not evil, they provided two months of trauma for the family, and especially for little Lucy.
Malachi, a good churchgoer, had been a successful businessman and was enjoying a quiet retirement. He could not have imagined what lay in store for him one evening in 2004 as he shared a glass or two with a man he believed to be an amiable neighbour. The events of that terrible night tested Malachi's faith to the limit, and haunt him to this day.
Angela, a shop assistant, was interested in New Ageism and was in the habit of drinking heavily. She renewed the acquaintance of a man from her past - a drug-addict - and her life was turned upside down.
As the elderly priest who finally rescued her warned: "When you're out of your mind with a substance, Angela, remember you're not in your right mind, and anything can come in. More evil is committed under the influence of drink and drugs than most of us would care to admit."
These are just some of the cases that we covered. They have a positive side, however. A good many victims interviewed were convinced that their experiences, though terrifying, drew them closer to God in a life-changing way.
That is certainly my experience from having been intensely involved in this subject matter for the past two years. I pray more now than I used to.
I am more aware of the realities of this world and the next.
Socrates asserted that there was only one good - knowledge -and only one evil - ignorance.
That is most certainly true. We need to become aware of the subtlety of the Evil One, in order to avoid the pitfalls.
If "the most exquisite of the Devil's wiles was persuading us that he doesn't exist" then a look at our present-day society seems to indicate that he's doing an excellent job.
We see disintegrating families, heart-stopping violence, drug addiction and alcoholism on an unprecedented scale, and suicide spiralling out of control.
Some might argue that our lack of belief disarms us and to be disarmed renders us defenceless in the face of evil.
However, no group in society is more defenceless than our children. Or more vulnerable to attack. When 12-year-old Gary related his story, he frightened me more than all the adults I'd interviewed. His case is perhaps the most alarming - and sinister - of them all.
The Dark Sacrament: Exorcism in Modern Ireland by David M Kiely and Christina McKenna, Gill & Macmillan, £9.99. An American edition will be published in 2007 by HarperCollins.