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The Surprising Joy of Exorcism
Sometimes the church's insistence on ignoring what matters feels almost demonic. Let's lean into that.
If you've been paying attention to the world over the last ... well, ever, please join me in screaming:
We could go ten or twelve more times, but I don't want to annoy my roommates.
I've been trying to be better about unproductive frustration recently, and one of the tools I've learned is to sit back, take a deep breath, and try to think about what's bothering me logically.
Sometimes I'm just being silly, and this helps. But many times, especially recently, the situation is so unreasonably objectively *bad* that thinking through it logically makes me feel like I wasn't angry enough the first time.
Climate change is getting very close to a tipping point, major cities will be underwater in thirty years, tens of millions of people are going to die (with even more condemned to starvation, violence, and poverty), and only a handful of people seem to care. The national conversation is focused on "debating" something we've known for twenty years. In my entire life, I have heard exactly one sermon on the topic, and it characterized climate change as a socialist plot. I am angry.
Hundreds of thousands of people die of malaria each year. It's not particularly hard to stop this from happening -- it costs about $3000 worth of bednets to save one child -- but we just don't care enough to stop it. Giving money to fight poverty, one of Jesus' central messages, still feels like an afterthought in the church. We get comfortable, kids get to die. I am angry.
The history of colonialism is one of unbelievably horrible cruelty, the sort that makes you sick just reading about it. People who participated in absolutely inhuman colonial governments are still alive. The history of American racism is horrific too. There is so much brokenness, so much to repent of, so many systems that need to be fixed and so many others that need to be dismantled. People are hurting and people are dead. The problem is so big and I do not know what to do. I want to look to the church for guidance, but the church is too busy discussing whether the problem exists at all. I am angry.
To be clear: I don't think it's wrong to be angry. These are genuinely terrible things, and a response of anger is more than justified. But there's a difference between a righteous anger that spurs us to anger, an equally righteous outrage that calls us to lament in solidarity, and an unproductive burning that fuels resentment and self-righteousness. While the first two are precious gifts, the last is not, and it's what I've been trying to get better at handling.
This is not a fully thought out introduction to "how to hold onto your mental health as you care about things." It isn't even a fully thought out introduction to a particular technique to dealing with frustration. It's just an attempt to publicize something that's been helpful to me from a surprising source: traditional Christian exorcism prayers. If this is too weird and uncomfortable for you, you don't have to pray them (or even read this!), but if you're angry and open to trying something strange and new, I've found the exorcism liturgy surprisingly cathartic.
The rest of this post will introduce why I think these prayers might helpful, followed by an example prayer I sometimes use.
What is an exorcism? Nowadays we typically use the word to refer to a "solemn exorcism": that is, prayer undertaken under the belief that a person has been possessed by the devil (or a demon), and an attempt to free said person. But this is a relatively narrow use of the word, and is not the focus of this post. Traditionally, an exorcism is any prayer focused on or reacting to spiritual darkness. Early Jewish and Christian tradition insisted on the presence of what we might now call "demons": personifications of systemic forces and "behind-the-scenes" evils influencing and empowering the very human evils we see so clearly.
The point of this exercise is not to make the correspondence precise. There is nothing to be gained by conjecturing that Azazel is racism, Lucifer is capitalism, or that Baraqel might represent hegemony. The point is merely that if you believe in the sort of evil supernatural forces that Christians have traditionally feared, then tempting people towards and sustaining systems of power and injustice is precisely the sort of thing you would expect them to be doing.
So what do we gain by thinking of broken systems in supernatural terms? We gain tools, and we gain perspective. We gain two thousand years of Christian tradition on how to perceive and confront the forces of evil, and we gain something to try when we're stuck at home feeling helpless.
This isn't about carefully thought-out theology or systematic anthropology or always knowing the best, data-driven course of action in each situation (although of course these things are important.)
This is about finding words to describe the magnitude of evil and discovering a bigger, more terrifying God opposed to it.
This is about SHOUTING to the One who causes hell to tremble, the One who angels adore and fear, the One who dooms the forces of injustice to utter annihilation, and laying everything we fear and despise before him.
This is about seeing ourselves in a cosmic battle that dwarfs us, simultaneously giving us the strength to fight and the peace of knowing it doesn't all depend on us.
This is about an endtime vision is justice, not merely "and then we all got along", but seeing a future in which demonic forces of greed and hate and injustice burn in a fiery pit as we are finally free from their grasp.
Less metaphorically, here are a couple benefits I've found from spending time praying exorcisms:
Exorcisms are emotionally intense, and if nothing else are a place to get the frustration and anger I've built up out towards God, and process them in a healthy way.
Exorcism prayers help me recognize the workings of powers and principalities in the world's evil (whether conceptualized as demonic/spiritual or systemic). This doesn't excuse the actions of others, but it helps me to see them as worthy of love and capable of repentance rather than merely adversaries, and makes it easier for me to genuinely pray for them.
Exorcism prayers remind me that God is in control and will eventually defeat the suffering and injustice that characterizes the world we live in. This is something I know theoretically, but the exorcism liturgy brings it to life in a much more visceral way than any sermon or book could.
Knowing that God is in control helps me fight the feeling that it's entirely my job to fix people, and that any evil I see around me is my fault if I haven't fixed it. Counterintuitively, this gives me more time to actually do good deeds rather than stressing about the fact that I'm not doing them.
Often as I being to pray, upset about the ways other people have contributed to systemic injustice, I find myself convicted of things I hadn't thought of (or had been avoiding). This helps me find concrete things to change and concrete ways to get better.
If you get something out of praying exorcisms, I would love to hear about it! I think they're a super underrated part of the Christian prayer tradition, and would love to know what the experience is like for other people!
Here is an example exorcism, attributed to John Chrysostom! I've modified it a little bit from this website (it took a bit of time to find a prayer I liked on the website, I definitely don't recommend everything there.) I also like this one.
I find it helps me get in the spirit of things if I talk as though I were shouting, with feeling! This is a bit of a challenge with roommates. The + signs indicate that you are supposed to make the sign of the cross.
We make this great, divine, holy and awesome invocation and plea to You, O Lord for the devil’s expulsion, and that You rebuke him for his utter annihilation, that apostate! Lord, You Who are holy, beginning-less, frightful, invisible in essence, infinite in power and incomprehensible in your divinity, the King of glory and Lord Almighty, + Lord, rebuke the devil! You who composed all things well by your Word from nothingness into being; You who walk upon the wings of the air. + Lord rebuke the devil! You who calls forth the waters of the sea and pours it upon the face of all the earth. Lord of Hosts is Your name. + O Lord, rebuke the devil! You who are ministered to and praised by numberless heavenly orders and adored and glorified in fear by multitudes of angelic and archangelic hosts. + O Lord, rebuke Satan! You who are honored by the encircling Powers, the awesome six-winged and many-eyed Cherubim and Seraphim that cover their faces with two wings because of Your inscrutable and unseen divinity and with two wings cover their feet, lest they be seared by Your unutterable glory and incomprehensible majesty, and with two wings do fly and fill the heavens with their shouts heaven and earth are full of Your glory!
+ O Lord, rebuke the devil! You who came down from the Father’s bosom and, through the holy inexpressible, immaculate and adorable Incarnation from the Virgin, appeared ineffably in the world to save it and cast the devil down from heaven in Your authoritative power and showed the devil to be an outcast to every man.
+ O Lord, rebuke Satan! You who said to the sea, be silent, be still and instantly it was calmed at Your command. O Lord, rebuke the devil! You who made clay with Your immaculate spittle and refashioned the wanting member of the man built from birth and gave him his sight. O Lord, rebuke the devil! You who by Your word restored to life the daughter of the ruler of the synagogue and snatched the son of the widow out from the mouth of death and gave him whole and sound to his own mother. + O Lord, rebuke the Devil! You, Lord, who raised Lazarus the four-days dead from the dead, undecayed, as if not having died, and unblemished to the astonishment of many.
+ O Lord, rebuke Satan! You who destroyed the curse by the blow on Your face and by the lance in Your immaculate side lifted the flaming sword that guarded Paradise. + O Lord, rebuke the Devil, You who dried all tears from every face by the spitting upon Your precious expressed image. + O Lord, rebuke the Devil! You who set Your Cross as a support, the salvation of the world, to the Devil’s fall and the fall of all the angels under him.
+ O Lord, rebuke the devil! You, who spoke from your Cross and the curtain of the temple was torn in two, and the rocks were split and the tombs were opened and those who were dead from the ages were raised up. + O Lord, rebuke the Devil! You who by death put death to death and by rising granted life to all men. + O Lord, rebuke Satan! It is You who descended into Hades and opened its tombs and set free those held prisoner in it, calling them to Yourself; before You the gatekeepers of Hades shuddered when they saw You and, hiding themselves, vanished in the anguish of Hades. + O Lord, rebuke the devil! It is You, Christ our God Who arose from the dead and granted Your Resurrection to all men. + O Lord, rebuke Satan! You who in glory ascended into heaven to Your Father, sitting on the right of majesty upon the throne of glory. + O Lord, rebuke the Devil! You who shall come again with glory upon the clouds of heaven with Your holy angels to judge the living and the dead. + O Lord, rebuke the Devil! You Who has prepared for him unquenchable fire, the unsleeping worm and the outer darkness unto eternal punishment.
+ O Lord, rebuke the Devil! For before You all things shudder and tremble from the face of Your power and the wrath of Your warning upon him is uncontainable. + O Lord, rebuke Satan, by Your frightful name! Make him shudder, tremble, be afraid, depart, be utterly destroyed, be banished! He who fell from heaven and together with him all evil spirits: every evil spirit of lust, the spirit of evil, a day and nocturnal spirit, a noonday and evening spirit, a midnight spirit, an imaginative spirit, an encountering spirit, whether of the dry land or of the water, or one in a forest, or among the reeds, or in trenches, or in a road or a crossroad, in lakes, or streams, in houses, or one sprinkling in the baths and chambers, or one altering the mind of man.
Make him depart + swiftly from these creatures of Yours, O Creator Christ our God! And drive him from us servants of God, from from our minds, from our souls, from our hearts, from our reins, from our senses, from our members, that we might become whole and sound and free, knowing You, O God, our own Master and Creator of all things, You who gather together those who have gone astray and who gives them the seal of salvation through the rebirth and restoration of divine Baptism, so that we may be counted worthy of Your immaculate, heavenly and awesome Mysteries and be united to Your true fold, dwelling in a place of pasture and nourished on the waters of repose, guided pastorally and safely by the staff of the + Cross unto the forgiveness of sins and life everlasting.
For to + You belong all glory, honor, adoration and majesty together with Your beginningless + Father and all-holy, good and life-giving + Spirit, now and ever, and unto ages of ages.