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Exorcists, wizards and con men

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Demonic attack -- now there's something that Hollywood animation crews have realized in vivid, awful detail in film after film. Check out the trailer for the new movie "The Haunting in Connecticut" and you'll see a perfect recent example. Shadowy figures, horrific tattoos breaking out all over someone's body, a young boy vomiting a snake-shaped cloud . . . there's enough in the trailer alone to guarantee plenty of uncomfortable nights if you live alone (or if you don't, for that matter).

Even though there are chilling descriptions of exorcists battling demons in Matt Baglio's "The Rite: The Making of a Modern Exorcist" (Doubleday: 288 pp., $24.95), often, the author reports, exorcisms are more of the mundane, ordinary variety, like this one:

"Initially, the man sat perfectly still, his eyes clenched tight as Father Carmine recited the prayers. After a few minutes, however, he began to cough -- at first just a bit, but then the coughing got worse and worse. He began to move his head from side to side as if trying to dislodge Father Carmine's hand. Then he began trying to push Father Carmine away -- not violently, but as if he were drunk and didn't have complete control of his motor skills. . . .

The man's cough continued to get worse, until he was hacking as if something was stuck in his throat.

Father Carmine then took his free hand and pushed on the man's sternum, causing him to let out a belching sound."

Does this man need an exorcist or something for gas?

That's the sort of reaction that comes from expecting "The Exorcist" in these pages -- and Baglio explains that this reaction is understandable.

"When people hear the word 'exorcism,' many think of images made popular by Hollywood films," he writes. "Instead, exorcisms can be rather mundane, almost like going to the dentist -- complete with a stint in the waiting room and a card to remind the recipient of his or her next appointment."

What Baglio intends to show in "The Rite" is what really goes on: How exorcists trained in the Catholic Church regard a possession as a chronic condition -- not like asthma or allergies, of course!--but as something unfortunate victims experience for many years and, that as a result, causes them to become isolated from the world around them.

Which is just what the Devil wants.

That's right, I used the D-word.

Baglio came to this assignment like many people, skeptical, unsure of what he would experience, believing that when someone presents multiple personalities, the cure rests in a pharmacy, not at the Vatican. Atheists certainly won't find anything in "The Rite" except fodder for their assaults on religious belief -- though it seems Baglio would certainly like to draw some defectors from their ranks, as this scientific appeal suggests:

"The belief in spirits or intermediaries between God and man exists in just about every religion. . . . To many theologians it seems only natural to believe in higher intelligences superior to our own, especially when one considers the ordered nature and varying degrees of intelligence that exist in the world, from single-cell organisms right up to man. 'It would be most extraordinary if [man] formed the last link,' writes Pie-Raymond Regamey, O.P."

This is the perspective gained by Father Gary Thomas during his training to become an exorcist. Baglio's narrative is constructed around Thomas, a 52-year-old from San Jose, who, after 15 years as a priest, has been given a sabbatical in Rome. Among his orders, he has been told to train in the rite of exorcism--the course is called "Exorcism and Prayers of Liberation"--at the Vatican's Regina Apostolorum campus before returning home to battle demons on his home soil.

It is a wise narrative choice to shape the book around Father Gary's experiences, for it enables the author -- and us -- to follow the priest through his first impressions, misunderstandings and general education in exorcism as it is practiced in the contemporary world.

Readers learn many things: the traditions and Gospel passages that justify this post in the Catholic Church (Jesus' power over demons in Matthew 12:28, for instance, and Mark 5:1-20), the hierarchies of angels and demons, and the codifying of the procedures for battling demons in the Roman Ritual, first published in 1614, as well as the Ritual's emphasis on being careful not to mistake mental illness for the demonic. The Ritual gives three signs for suspecting that there is more than mental illness at work in someone's behavior:

1) abnormal strength

2) ability to speak or understand a previously unknown language

3) knowledge of hidden things (whether it is a prediction of the future or identifying an object in a bag)

OK, this sounds like comic book material. These conditions, however, are not enough to confirm that an exorcist is needed, and Baglio goes on to explain the difficulties of discerning true demonic possession rather than mental illness. He writes about the permanent damage that can be done to someone when they're subjected to exorcisms while mental illness goes untreated. Though Baglio never mentions it, the case of Annaliese Michel seems to hover over these pages. Michel, whose story was the basis for the movie "The Exorcism of Emily Rose," was an extremely ill, young German girl who died in the 1970s after being subjected to the rite of exorcism no less than 67 times. 67 times. A German court later found her parents and two priests guilty of negligent manslaughter. Like other similar cases, this one was tragic and revolting in the level of abuse that was allowed by everyone involved.

To add to the confusion over mental illness and possession, Baglio explains how there are extremely difficult cases of possession in which "the person may be suffering from both mental illness and demonic possession." Though Baglio describes the pitfalls of modern exorcism, there's something in his presentation that downplays how extremely dangerous this territory is -- his skepticism would have been very welcome here, especially when deaths have occurred because a priest insists that someone with, say, epilepsy is really possessed by Asmodeus or some other infernal character.

For Father Gary, however, the experience of exorcisms begins mostly with people who seem to suffer more from indigestion than from anything else.

The book follows him as he spends his nine months in Italy, studying the theological foundations for exorcisms, making friends in the lodgings of the North American College and assisting Father Carmine, who, for many years at the Basilica of San Lorenzo, treats a steady stream of the possessed in a small wood-paneled room at the basilica. Father Gary notices that they come from "a broad spectrum -- an older lady in her sixties, dressed conservatively; a man in his late thirties; two young thirty-something women wearing brand-new Nike sneakers ... a serious-looking couple in their fifties."

Many are troubled. Many, Fr. Gary realizes, have simply substituted these visits with a priest for a trip to see a medical professional: "He knew that Italy had socialized medicine, that its population was 83 percent Catholic -- maybe seeing a priest was easier for people than seeing a counselor. . . . "

And this is why Father Carmine starts with a simple lesson.

"The first thing the exorcist must do," Carmine teaches him, "is to listen to the person."

On the other hand, the book points out Western popular culture's growing fascination with the demonic in TV, films, books, comic books and on the Internet. That is why, in 2004, the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith called bishops around the world to appoint an exorcist for each of their dioceses -- and that is how Father Gary was given his assignment.

Today, dabbling in the occult isn't just about your wacky, old aunt reading friends' fortunes with a pack of tarot cards. There is too much fascination, and fascination, as Father Carmine warns Father Gary, inevitably opens up doorways to strange incidents.

Baglio has strong storytelling skills, and he makes difficult theological concepts plain, and he doesn't give us quote-after-quote from Father Gary but, instead, constructs a narrative that travels a long distance quickly. We learn about Father Gary's life as a priest with big ambitions for his sleepy Silicon Valley parish. A hiking accident nearly killed him, and he believed that he survived because God had more important plans for him.

The problem, however, is that Baglio makes exorcism and demonology seem a little too "for Catholics only," a little too esoteric and alien. He focuses mostly upon incidents in Italy -- which makes it all seem remote for the American reader.

The author does make some references to demonology in world traditions other than Christianity, but these are very few. Even though this book is supposed to be about a Catholic priest's experience, I wanted more context: more about rabbinical traditions surrounding demons, or about Islamic djinns and the malevolent forces in Hinduism and Tibetan Buddhism.

That, I think, would suggest how deeply beliefs in angelic and demonic beings are shared across cultures -- and why so many people are drawn to the occult, believing they can harness whatever these forces are for their own uses.

*

THAT'S WHAT HENRY, Lord Neville, wanted to do in 16th century England -- control supernatural forces to improve his gambling results, and maybe even find him a wife he really loved. But instead of encountering real spiritual power, he fell into the hands of con men.

Alec Ryrie's "The Sorcerer's Tale: Faith and Fraud in Tudor England" ( Oxford University Press: 202 pp., $24.95) constructs, from trial documents and other historical materials, the unfortunate story of Lord Neville's misguided efforts.

Naturally, when I saw the subtitle, I thought the book could only be about one person: Anne Boleyn. She, of course, was charged with witchcraft by her husband Henry VIII (I also couldn't help thinking of her because another season of Showtime's "The Tudors" has just begun, even though Anne isn't a part of it) -- one of many charges thrown at her to make the monarch's divorce more acceptable to his court and his own ego.

And yet, Henry VIII's legislation against witchcraft -- most notably the 1542 Act Against Conjurations -- was hardly a personal strategy on the part of the king. Witchcraft was considered a dangerous threat to domestic stability, Ryrie explains. The fact that one would place allegiance in powers other than God and his proxy on Earth, Henry, was treasonous.

So when foolish Lord Neville allowed himself to be manipulated by a pair of con men named Ninian Menville and Gregory Wisdom (yes, that was really his name), he found himself in violation of the act. He was guilty in several ways: for accepting a magic ring from Wisdom to help him win at gambling (it didn't work); for consenting to have a cross dug up under which there was supposed to be a hoard of Portuguese coins (there weren't any); and, finally, for allowing a magic spell that was supposed to kill his wife so that he might marry someone else (that spell didn't work either)

Lord Neville was imprisoned for several months, but after making "a full and grovelling confession," and after his wife actually intervened along with Lord Neville's father -- oh, he wanted him dead, too, so he could receive his inheritance -- the fool was finally released. This happened after Henry VIII's death, during the brief reign of Edward VI. Lord Neville's pathetic confession led to the arrests of Menville and Wisdom, and it was also this confession Ryrie stumbled upon during research on another book.

Ryrie takes the case of Lord Neville and goes on to describe the strange medical profession of that age (Wisdom, in fact, with his father formed a team of practitioners). This profession, the author writes, ranged from "white witches, cunningfolk, dabblers" to apothecaries, physicians and surgeons. All of these people thrived in an atmosphere of panic, for syphilis was a significant threat for which the public was desperate to find a cure -- at any cost.

And, as the Wisdoms found -- long before Gregory dug his claws into Lord Neville -- panic produced the perfect environment for magic and fraud.

Ryrie's book is an excellent snapshot of a time intrigued by the spiritual realm that seemed -- until I read Matt Baglio's book -- distant from our own.

NEXT TIME: The sorcerer extraordinaire, Solomon Kane, in the works of Robert E. Howard.

Nick Owchar is deputy books editor. The Siren's Call appears monthly at www.latimes.com/books.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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