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Photo: St. Michael, Castel Sant’Angelo
The following essay is a companion essay to another post I wrote on deliverance: God is More Powerful than Satan.
When thinking of deliverance and exorcism there is a tendency to imagine that they involve wresting demons from their place through the menacing use of sacramentals (e.g., crosses, holy water, relics) and a battle of personalities between priest and demon. All of these are commonly and rightly used in both formal exorcism and many types of deliverance prayers.
However, the truest power of exorcism is as a ministry of the Word and a battle for the mind. At the heart of the formal Rite of Exorcism are the officially sanctioned prayers of the Church along with selected Scriptures. These remind the demons of the authority of God, shine the light of truth on what they have become in their fallen state, and underscore to them that they have already lost.
Consider one of the most common images of exorcism and the battle against Satan: St. Michael the Archangel. He holds a sword, ready to deliver the death blow as he stands over the fallen demon. Of course, St. Michael doesn’t wield a real sword. A sword cannot harm a spiritual being. Angels and demons are real persons, but as spiritual beings are not affected by physical attacks. The sword that St. Michael wields is the sword of the truth of God’s Word, of which Scripture says,
For the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it pierces even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow. It is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight; everything is uncovered and exposed before the eyes of Him to whom we must give account … (Hebrews 4:12-13).
And from [the Lord’s] mouth proceeds a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations, and He will rule them with an iron scepter. He treads the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God, the Almighty (Rev 19:15).
But the beast was captured, and with him the false prophet who had performed signs on his behalf, by which he deceived those who had the mark of the beast and worshiped its image. Both of them were thrown alive into the fiery lake of burning sulfur. And the rest were killed with the sword that proceeded from the mouth of the One seated on the horse (Rev 19:20-21).
To the angel of the church in Pergamum write: These are the words of the One who holds the sharp, double-edged sword …. Some of you also hold to the teaching of the Nicolaitans. Therefore repent! Otherwise I will come to you shortly and wage war against them with the sword of My mouth Rev 2:2, 15-16).
Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.(Eph 6:17).
The sword of St. Michael, the sword of truth, scatters lies and falsehood as light scatters darkness. The clash between angels and demons is a battle of thought, of truth versus falsehood. The ancient battle in which Lucifer fell like lightning from the sky (Lk 10:18) is often imagined as a war between angels and demons wielding swords and clubs, but it was a war of ideas: the Word of God’s truth against the lies of Lucifer. By the sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God, St. Michael and the angels won.
It is ultimately the same in exorcism, deliverance, and every other battle we wage against evil in our life (e.g., temptation).
Consider Satan’s efforts to tempt Jesus in the desert. Jesus battled Satan thought for thought; He rejected every lie and temptation with the sword of the Spirit, the Word of God.
In the Rite of Exorcism, the words are to have prominence. Ideally, every exorcism has two priests, one of whom continuously reads the rite while the other uses sacramentals and briefly engages the demons to gain necessary information (e.g., names, how they entered, when they will leave) and tries to find weak points. While the use of sacramentals such as holy water, the touch of a stole, or relics torment the demons, most every exorcist agrees that the truest power of the rite are the approved words of the prayers. In fact, sometimes demons show exaggerated pain in response to lesser things so as to distract from the reading of the rite.
The words of the rite have the effect of shining the light of truth on demons and reminding them of their ultimate destiny. All of this is painful to the demons. Some of the following things, rooted in Scripture, are said to the demons:
The Lord has defeated the demons in numerous ways and given them the ultimate defeat that seals their fate at the cross. Jesus withstood Satan in the desert, overcame him in the garden, defeated him on the cross, and bore off his trophies in Sheol to the Kingdom of Heaven. They are also reminded of other embarrassing incidents such as when they begged to be driven into swine and ran in a panic over the bluff into the water. In effect, they are told that they have lost and are losers here, too.
The demons are told that the possessed person has turned to the Church for help, rejecting them and any legal claims they ever had; the possessed person is a redeemed son or daughter of God, made in His image, and is a temple of the Holy Spirit.
The demons are told of their future: a fiery Gehenna where the worm dies not, and the fire is never extinguished. Indeed, the longer they delay their departure the worse their punishment will be. They are commanded to tremble in fear before the Lord. They are reminded that their place is in solitude and their abode is in the nest of serpents; they are told to get down and crawl with them.
The demons are reminded of the power of the Lord Jesus and that they must ultimately confess that He is Lord and ruler over them. They are commanded to fear Him and admit their ultimate powerlessness before Him. They are asked, “Why, then, do you stand and resist, knowing as you must that Christ the Lord brings your plans to nothing?”
The demons are reminded that they were once glorious and beautiful angels but are now fallen and ugly. They are named in the rite as abominable creatures, profligate dragons, horrible monsters, scourges, seducers, full of lies and cunning, foes of virtue, persecutors of the innocent, begetters of death, robbers of life, corrupters of justice, the root of all evil and vice, seducers of men, betrayers of nations, instigators of envy, fonts of avarice, fomenters of discord, authors of pain and sorrow, accursed murderers, sources of lechery, instigators of sacrilege, models of vileness, promoters of heresies, and inventors of every obscenity.
Ultimately, the demons are commanded to depart, to flee and give way to God in the power of Jesus’ Name.
All these words and many more shine the light of truth on the demons and cause them pain. It is the Word, the prayer of the Church, that ultimately defeats the father of lies. Of him, Jesus said,
He was a murderer from the beginning, refusing to uphold the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks his native language, because he is a liar and the father of lies (Jn 8:44).
This teaching on exorcism is an important lesson for all of us. The truest battleground for all of us is our mind; the battle is one of thoughts. We will either dwell in God’s truth and study His Word or be lost in Satan’s lies. We must learn to fight every temptation with the sword of God’s Word. We must test every thought we have to see if it conforms to God’s Word. We must decide either to believe in God or in Satan. The sword of God’s Word can drive out every temptation, fear, sorrow, and depression. The more we grow in God’s Word the less authority and influence Satan can have in our lives.
This is why exorcism sometimes takes time: it is ultimately a journey in faith and trust. It requires that the possessed take more and more seriously the truth that God is more powerful than Satan and then live out of that truth. If we let it in, light scatters darkness. If we accept it, truth defeats lies. Jesus is the Light and the Truth, and by these the Way to deliverance.