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Paranormal: Exorcism - Discerning Psychological Problems and Spiritual Possession

The Vatican University Pontifical Regina Apostolorum University (click here for an English translation)is offering a four-month course for aspiring exorcists called Esorcismo e preghiera di liberazione (Exorcism and the Prayer of Liberation). A fundamental capability that the exorcist must learn is the power of discernment...

Exorcism is (1) the act of driving out, or warding off, demons, or evil spirits, from persons, places, or things, which are believed to be possessed or infested by them, or are liable to become victims or instruments of their malice; (2) the means employed for this purpose, especially the solemn and authoritative adjuration of the demon, in the name of God, or any of the higher power in which he is subject. - The New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia

Exorcism & Discernment

The development of our perceptual capabilities is an important dimension of learning. When we improve our perception of experience we are increasing our awareness, the possibility of understanding and creating meaning from different perspectives, and expanding our ability to attend (i.e. - attention) the situations and circumstances we find ourselves in. If we are discerning we are constantly bringing forth new meaning through the confluence of everyday life.

Discernment is often thought of as a cognitive function - or something we do with our minds. For example, WordNet informs us that discernment is: a) the cognitive condition of someone who understands; b) the mental ability to understand and discriminate between relations. Of course, any mental capacity is also part of the mind-body-environment continuum so discernment cannot be adequately understood as a mental function only. Wordnet invites also links discernment to "perception of that which is obscure."

Wikipedia: Discernment invites us to consider discernment from a spiritual perspective: "Discernment is a term used in the Catholic Church, and other Christian traditions to describe the process of ascertaining God's will for one's life."

Discernment: Psychological Problems vs. Demonic Possession

One of the most important skills an exorcist must have is described by Father Paolo Scarafoni as the ability to discern between psychological problems and demonic possession. In the opening lecture, Father Gabriele Nanni identified four key points of distinction:
  1. When someone speaks or understands languages they normally do not;
  2. when their physical strength is disproportionate to their body size or age;
  3. when they are suddenly knowledgeable about occult practices;
  4. when they have a physical aversion to sacred things, such as the communion host or prayers.

M. Scott Peck, a psychiatrist, performed two exorcisms in the 1980's. His experiences are described in his book Glimpses of the Devil. In The Patient is the Exorcist Peck supports the importance of discerning between mental illness and spiritual possession:

And this is whatís called diagnoses by exclusion. Iíd go through the whole range of psychiatric conditions, whether they could explain the patientís condition. In both of my two cases, they were unexplainable by any kind of traditional psychiatric terms.

If there is no scientific-psychiatric explanation of a person's condition it lends support to the possibility of demonic possession. Simply stated, if it doesn't fit anything we've already identified then it must be that. However, Peck would include demonic possession as an identifiable psychiatric illness:

I would include possession among mental illnesses. I think...

Interviewer: And yet it canít just be dealt with by medication or psychological therapy. You feel at times it needs this spiritual...?

It definitely does. But it is a real condition and one of the things that I would argue, as a psychiatrist, is that it ought to be recognized as a psychiatric diagnosis.

Here we see an example of the intersection between the psychological and the spiritual. In this case, the psychological is reaching out to build a relationship with the spiritual. Assimilation, or absorbing one thing into the context of another, is a kind of relationship that often occurs at the expense of one thing for the benefit of another.

This reaching out may be an attempt to assimilate the spiritual experience of possession into the scientific perspective of psychiatry leading us to imagine exorcism as a cognitive therapy and a mass-produced pharmaceutical drug designed to overcome spiritual possession. Although the idea of medicated is eschewed here, it is not to difficult to imagine old habits taking over. Worse, we might even begin to equate exorcism as something fundamentally cognitive in kind.

Discernment: The Need For The Suspension Of Belief

The very mention of exorcism causes a sense of confusion. We may not even believe in the phenomenon and instead see it as a means to produce entertainment. I have mentioned the Vatican's focus on exorcism to a number of thoughtful and intelligent people only to find them intellectually and spiritually hand-cuffed by the idea. However, our if we are to meaningful apply our powers of discernment, then part of that must at least be to suspend what we already think we know.

The idea of suspension means that we are aware of and consciously suspend our beliefs so that new, unfamiliar and perhaps even uncomfortable experiences can present themselves in an authentic way. For the psychiatrist, the power of discernment will first allow them to free themsevles from the lens of psychiatry so that they can understand and create meaning from experiences in new ways.

Discernment, Learning and Exorcism

The idea of exorcism is a good landscape to explore our power of discernment since it catapults us into a possibility that is immediately uncomfortable and mercurial. An exorcist must learn to suspend belief in order to discern between mental illness and spiritual possession. Exorcism is a topic that naturally invites disbelief and this is an important catalyst for learning. We have become so attuned to the spiritual as commercial that we are becoming more and more spiritless. I do not refer to religion here. This is something quite different from spirituality.

Learning should always invite a sense of disbelief, or at least a suspension of belief. This suspension is an opportunity to experience life in a different way, to leverage our powers of discernment. Of course, we can never completely escape out internal programming, but we can at least begin to question it more. We may find ourselves reaffirming or modifying certain beliefs and ideas and we may also find ourselves exorcising others.

The idea of exorcism is not limited to the Catholic Church. It is found in many religions. In addition, the existence of exorcism remains a question mark for many of us. The Skeptic's Dictionary questions the existence of demonic possession and emphasizes that, "the behaviors of the possessed resemble very closely the behaviors of those with electrochemical, neurochemical, or other physical or emotional disorders."

More dramatically, exorcism has resulted in a number of tragic circumstances:

Exorcism has caused a number of real-world tragedies over the years, including several deaths.
  • Pentecostal ministers in San Francisco pummeled a woman to death in 1995, as they tried to drive out her demons.
  • In 1997, a Korean Christian woman was stomped to death in Glendale, Calif., and in the Bronx section of New York City, a 5-year-old girl died after being forced to swallow a mixture containing ammonia and vinegar and having her mouth taped shut.
  • In 1998, a 17-year-old girl in Sayville, N.Y., was suffocated by her mother with a plastic bag, in an effort to destroy a demon inside her.
  • In 2001, a 37-year old woman, Joanna Lee, was strangled to death in an exorcism by a Korean church minister working in New Zealand. The minister, Luke Lee, was found guilty of manslaughter.
- The Skeptic's Dictionary: Exorcism

It is entirely possible that it is the exorcist is the one suffering from delusions as well. If we believe in the possibility of demonic possession we would say that these delusions are demonic attacks waged against the exorcist in battle. If we negate the possibility of exorcism then we might say that these delusions are a clinical form of mental illness. In either case we come to the edge of knowledge, the place where what we think we know meets the unknown. We cannot say that our knowledge of mental illness is comprehensive and conclusive since it, like all knowledge, is in a constant state of flux.

Spiritual Release Therapists invite us to consider the idea of exorcism from a clinical perspective. It is here that the distinctions between the practice of psychiatry and the practice of exorcism seem to come into close relationship. Dr. Sanderson's brief decription of his journey from traditional psychiatry to spiritual release therapy captures this connection:

Dr. Alan Sanderson MB, BS, DPM, MRCP, MRCPsych. I decided to become a psychiatrist quite early in my medical training because of a fascination with the hidden roots of human behaviour. This led me, after a conventional psychiatric training, to a long period of research into the relation between facial appearance and personality. It was not until 1990 that I returned, with great enthusiasm, to clinical practice, as a consultant in the National Health Service.

In 1992 I met a hypnotherapist who was doing spirit release. I was so impressed with his work with one of my patients that I decided to specialise in this area. I trained in hypnotherapy and spirit release therapy, which has become an important part of my therapeutic approach.


  • Catholic Online: Search - Exorcism
  • Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal: Exorcism
  • Exorcism: The Rite (Ritual) for expelling demons (devils) from people certified as being possessed by authorized Catholic priests
  • Exorcism: The Facts
  • Exorcism: To Hell and Back
  • Furl Archive: Exorcism
  • How Stuff Works: How Exorcism Works
  • New Advent: An Overview of Exorcism
  • Sacred Texts: Search - Exorcism
  • Strange Mag: The Haunted Boy of Cottage City - The Cold Hard Facts Behind The Story That Inspired The Exorcist
  • Wikipedia: Exorcism
  • Wikipedia: Spiritual Possession
  • Yahoo News: First day of school for aspiring Vatican exorcists

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