WHAT can we say about the insane and wicked teenager who made a pact with a local demon to murder two girls in exchange for a big win on the lottery?
First, that he isn’t a very good theologian in thinking that a demon would know the winning numbers any more than you or I would know them.
There is so much stupid literal-mindedness in much talk about demons and gods. Let’s take the gods first: The ancient Greeks were not so thick as to think that Aphrodite was a large supernatural woman up there on Mount Olympus. She was simply the poetic personification of the sex urge.
Come into our own day, where we don’t think there really is a green-eyed monster: It’s just the picturesque name we have for the nasty feeling of jealousy.
Similarly, when the ancients talked about devils, they weren’t so crass as to think of real subterranean bonfires and pitchforks. There was a devil of blindness and another devil of fits and seizures. This was just an imaginative way of saying that an affliction was so severe as to be the very devil. In much the same way, we say of a migraine or the colic, it’s an absolute bugger.
And yet … and yet …
In my 50 years as a priest in the Church of England, I’ve had plenty of experiences of things that go bump in the night – and worse. Here’s a much-shortened account of my first such adventure:
Decades ago, one Friday evening when I was a raw curate in Leeds, I sat in the vestry reading my book and waiting for young couples to come for their wedding interviews. If no one turned up, it was not an unpleasant job.
Ten to nine and I was just packing up when a startlingly beautiful woman in a white dress wafted through the door. Her name was Emily Shawcross and she had not come to arrange a marriage.
‘It’s my son, Jeremy,’ she said. ‘He’s 17. Started playing with the Ouija board. He’s out of control. Goes into rages. Shouts. Screams. Growls in a low voice that’s more like an animal. He steals from me and he’s been caught shoplifting. Then sometimes he calms down and he’s his old self again.’
She began to weep silently.
‘… and in this mood he tells me he’s possessed by the devil and he asks me to fetch a priest. And there’s an awful smell about him and his room, anywhere he goes really. Not a natural smell. Something … oh, I can’t describe it. Like a dead animal.’
‘What does his father say?’
‘There is no father – was – I mean, I’m divorced. Two years now.’
This was a couple of notches above routine menopausal angst. It was hard to concentrate. Emily Shawcross was the most exotic creature I had ever seen. Like something out of a fairytale or some Jungian animal fantasy. Das Ewig-weibliche. Lorelei or Rhine-maiden. All that long yellow hair.
I said I would call and see her son. She appeared soothed, thanked me and left. A wraith gliding over the lawn and out of the iron gate.
I would go and see him, but what then? Bell, book and candle? I had no idea. Get the psychiatrist? Instead, I went round to the front door and apologised for disturbing Fr Howard, my vicar and responsible for my training. He and his wife Joyce were watching an old film on TV – Heaven Knows, Mr Allison, with Robert Mitchum and Deborah Kerr.
Fr Howard said: ‘There’s a special man for jobs like this. They’ve given him a fancy title these days: Priest Responsible for the Ministry of Deliverance. Diocesan Exorcist, in other words. I’ll find his number for you. You’d better get in touch with him before you leap into action.’
And back to watch Bob Mitchum trying to keep his hands off the glamorous nun.
I phoned Fr Tom Hatton from the vicar’s study. He said he would meet me at 9.30am the next day. Then I rang Emily Shawcross, who was, she said, very relieved to know I would call on her so promptly.
At twenty-five to ten next morning, my doorbell rang and I let in Fr Tom. About 50 years old. Thin to the point of attenuation. Like a pipe-cleaner. A black Roman cassock and cape and a biretta. A large briefcase big enough to carry a bomb – certainly capable of storing bell, book and several candles.
His eyes were the remotest blue, dreamlike, strangely out of character with his sparse black costume and his lean, ascetic look – that of a man who had fasted for many more than 40 days and 40 nights.
‘We’d better start straight away.’
He entered my little front room and eyed it up as if checking for electronic bugs.
‘Put your cassock on, Peter, will you.’
He took out a rosary, knelt and began The Lord’s Prayer, then Ave Maria, gratia plena, Dominus tecum ...
‘We’ll say our Confession.’
He pronounced the Absolution with such authority he might have been the Archangel Michael himself.
It was a short walk down Church Lane and across Austhorpe Road to the terrace house beside the rail track where Emily and Jeremy lived.
‘Deliverance … leap into action. My boss made it sound like warfare.’
‘How long have you been doing this job?’
‘Peter, look, if you don’t mind, cut the small talk. We’ll have time for chat afterwards.’
So the rest of the distance in silence, except for the hiss of the car tyres on the wet road and a noisy interlude as a crocodile of kids slithered in front of us on their way to the swimming baths.
There was no need to hammer on the door. Emily must have been watching out for us. My God, she was right about the stink – like old cheese and fresh ****.
The house seemed to be stuck in the 1940s. An old wooden wireless set and that thick, flowery wallpaper – what was it? Lincrusta. An ornate mirror over the tiled fireplace and some family photographs. On our way in we had disturbed the bell-chimes.
‘Jeremy is just getting up.’
No one said anything. Just the noises from above: The lavatory, the bathroom door, the lad clattering down the stairs.
He wore jeans and a polo neck shirt. Hair as yellow as his mother’s. Around six feet tall but with a pinched, anaemic look. Spotty.
‘Hello, Jeremy. Now, what’s the trouble?’
At once hideous changes came over the lad’s face, as if his features were being ferociously moulded and pulled out of shape by an invisible assailant. He growled, making a very good impersonation of a possessed person in a horror film.
But then – and more shocking, this – he sang. Not words, but syllables, phonemes, almost tonic sol fa, in an exquisite tone. As if he, and not his mother, were the Lorelei. Such a smile. A blasphemous beatific vision. I had never been so frightened. No, not afraid exactly. More disgusted, sickened. I thought I was going to throw up.
Then he was quiet. His features contorted again and he drew back, nearly crouching, like a cornered cat in a nasty temper. Suddenly he leapt up and spat very productively at Fr Tom and then at me.
‘F**k off priests! I’ll have you killed!’
With unnatural – I nearly said satanic – speed and ferocity, he launched into us, forcing us to the ground. Then he was out of the door and away. The bell chimes ringing for what seemed an age.
We gathered ourselves and Fr Tom opened his toolkit. No bell. No candle. But a book, certainly. The Rituale Romanum. Salt and Holy Water which he began to hurl at the wall, commanding in Latin the evil presence to depart and to go back to God, its Creator. Emily collapsed into an ample armchair. She looked not so much frightened as relieved.
The Exorcist and I went from room to room, upstairs into Jeremy’s vile sleeping quarters, all black and lurid posters, the emblems of magic and necromancy all over the place. I was nearly sick with the stench.
More salt. More Holy Water. A great deal more Latin. I felt suddenly intensely weary, as if all the blood had been drained out of me. It was an effort to walk downstairs and say prayers with Emily. Then we sat around drinking coffee like any old church gang in the vestry after Mass.
She said: ‘I know where he’s gone. The others – the group, sect, or whatever you call them – they live on the far side of the ring road in Moortown. Some of them have been here. Well-off, all of them. Business people.’
‘Have you somewhere to go? Can you lock this place up and leave for a while?’
I got details of Jeremy’s probation officer, phoned to tell him what had happened. Fr Tom reported the whole incident to the police and told them Mrs Shawcross had decided to stay in the house alone. They said they would send someone round.
Fr Tom caught his bus and I dawdled home, dragging my footsteps. I was thoroughly whacked and went straight to bed. I didn’t wake up until 5pm.
The Shawcross exorcism was not, unfortunately, my only encounter with what Carl Jung termed ‘the dark side’ of spiritual experience. There was a mature lady, a literature don at York University, also a garage mechanic in Harrogate and more than one priest: All in urgent need of the Exorcist’s ministrations.
So what does it all mean? Well, I’m a philosopher by trade. But I have discovered there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in y’philosophy.