Francis Campbell: Devil travels down an easier road today

  • October 12, 2019

To characterize our adult son as a film fanatic might fall short of the mark.

He lives and breathes movies, spends a good amount of time at local cinemas and then analyzes and dissects the movies in conversation and in writing. So it was not a huge surprise when he announced that he would be digging into his personal collection of scary films during the month of October. His first selection was The Exorcist and he convinced some family members to join in the living-room screening.

The popular 1973 movie tells of a 12-year-old girl who begins levitating, speaking in tongues and lashing out with obscenity-laced tirades. After a team of medical and mental health clinicians can’t get to the bottom of the girl’s ailment, the demon possessing the young girl’s body eventually identifies itself as the devil.

The exasperated mother then seeks the advice of a local priest. When she queries him about what is needed for an exorcism, he identifies the first requirement as a time machine because the practice of exorcising demons has long been out of date.

The possessed-by-demons narrative dates back to biblical stories that had Jesus driving out evil spirits. Where I grew up, in rural Cape Breton, stories about Satan and his endless search for souls were abundant. The stories primarily featured a priest battling to save the soul of a dying parishioner with the Father of Lies working against him every step of the way.

The book Folklore of Nova Scotia dedicates an entire chapter to the devil. One story tells of a Fr. Cameron called to the bedside of a dying man and, while en route, twice encountering a man who assured him it was useless to go farther because the dying man had already passed. But the priest persevered, found the man still living and prepared him for death. To all who heard the story, the lying stranger definitely was the devil.

Another story comes from the community in which I grew up. Two neighbours were spending the night at the bedside of a dying friend in a remote, rural homestead. The hours slowly ticked away and the dying man’s breathing became more laboured. Suddenly, he sat up and yelled, “Get me a priest; all the sins of my life are here before me.”

The nearest priest was several kilometres away so the neighbours went by horseback to fetch him. Traversing the dark and dangerous trail in a heavily wooded area, the two horses took every opportunity to bolt into the woods. The frustrated riders had to painstakingly cover the distance by foot through the underbrush.

Returning with the priest, the same thing occurred. The horses were apparently spooked by something. The priest began to pray and struck with his whip, demanding, “Be gone, Satan.” There was something like an explosion, accompanied by an odour so terrible that one man said he would remember it until his dying day. The three men reached the dying man’s house without any further trouble, allowing the priest to administer the last sacrament.

Similar stories are rarely heard today and the Prince of Darkness is seldom, if ever, spoken of in casual conversation or by our priests from the altar. It would be nice to think the devil has disappeared from our lives because he has acquiesced and given up the ghost, as it were, in the battle for souls.

But it could be suggested instead that the devil is simply more confident of his victories today and encounters much less resistance in a secular world where relativism continuously expands the grey areas between right and wrong, between sin and personal choice. Maybe the devil doesn’t have to work as hard for his conquests and the dark and dangerous trails that formed the battleground for souls in the folklore of yesteryear are becoming fewer and fewer.

In April 2018, Pope Francis urged Christians not to regard the devil in the abstract but rather as “a personal being who assails us.” Thinking of the devil as a myth or a figure of speech can leave us with our guard down, he said. When we are vulnerable, said the Pope, the devil “does not need to possess us.”

“He poisons us with the venom of hatred, desolation, envy and vice.”

(Campbell is a reporter at the Halifax Chronicle Herald.)

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