Eat your saints, purge your demons

Why do people worship religious relics, and why is the number of trainee exorcists rising? Two new books suggest that our desire to believe in magical forces remains irresistible.

Published March 27, 2009 10:20AM (EDT)

"Where faith decreases, superstition grows," a Roman priest once told Matt Baglio, the author of "The Rite: The Making of a Modern Exorcist," but a less indulgent observer, having finished both Baglio's book and Peter Manseau's "Rag and Bone: A Journey Among the World's Holy Dead," will be wondering how it's possible to detect the difference. Both books focus on what could be called "fringe" religious phenomena: Baglio describes the nine months a California priest spent attending a newly minted, Vatican-sanctioned course in exorcism, and Manseau traveled the globe seeking out relics ranging from St. Anthony's tongue to the Buddha's tooth to a whisker from Mohammed's beard.

What could be more regressive than blaming your infertility on an evil spirit or groveling before a mouldering finger bone? Such beliefs and practices are anathema to the more rational and liberal-minded co-religionists of the people Baglio and Manseau write about; Baglio makes much of the fact that many priests, nuns and lay Catholics no longer believe that the devil -- as a person rather than an allegory -- even exists. Nevertheless, the estimated 350 to 400 exorcists currently working in Italy are reportedly inundated with requests for their services, wading through overcrowded waiting rooms on the way to their offices every day. And the various shrines that Manseau visits on his journeys are often so packed that the faithful feel lucky to squeeze close enough to rub a handkerchief briefly over the grille protecting the reliquary containing a morsel of the remains of a prophet or saint, nabbing just enough of the sacred essence on that bit of cloth to transfer to a sick baby.

Both "The Rite" and "Rag and Bone" were no doubt primarily conceived as vessels for curious facts and bizarre stories. In them, you can find tales of possessed women vomiting up nails, live toads and "huge quantities of human sperm." You may feel like vomiting yourself when you learn that the devout have been known, when bowing to kiss the feet or hands of a saint's corpse, to discreetly bite off small pieces of the body (usually a finger or toe) and carry it away in their mouths to be enshrined in another church. This happened to Mary Magdalene and St. Francis Xavier -- whose unfortunate remains had already suffered a long sea journey, a couple of shallow burials and being "pounded" with "long pestles" by the natives of Malacca. Then there's Jesus' foreskin, of which there have been as many as a dozen purported relics circulating at any one time; an Austrian mystic dreamed of eating that like a communion wafer, though St. Catherine of Siena settled for wearing it as a wedding ring. And by the way, did you know that some Buddhists believe that small, gemlike stones can be found in the ashes of an enlightened person after cremation?

Yet despite their similar payloads of weird factoids, these two books are fundamentally different. Manseau presides over his narrative in a sympathetic and beneficent manner, genially embracing all creeds in their struggle to come to terms with "the death of those who speak of life beyond death." He represents the post-doctrinal approach to what's commonly known as "spirituality" -- vaguely devotional, but mostly just good old-fashioned humanism with a dash of awe. He has a fairly murky, grad-studentish thesis here, something about the universal appeal of holy relics residing in the fact that they "are inseparable from ideas of the body, and the body plays a role in every faith." When you get right down to it, though, is there any human activity -- from retail to music -- in which the body doesn't play a role, seeing as everything people do has to be done with a body?

Manseau also weaves ruminations on the birth of his daughter into his book, reaching (hard) for a comparison between the fragmented image of a fetus on a sonogram and the subdivided cadavers of various saints. A book like "Rag and Bone" is expected to tell of some personal authorial revelation in order to lend a dollop of gravitas to the spectacle of other people's peculiar beliefs and to fend off accusations of voyeuristic condescension. Manseau's insight seems to be that everyone can relate to a much-revered and thoroughly minced-up individual like St. Elisabeth Romanova -- a Russian Orthodox nun killed by the Bolshevik secret police and parceled out afterward among churches in various countries -- because ultimately we all started out as infants, just like Manseau's daughter, visible in sections on a sonogram. For him, this evokes "a renewed interest in all that is implied by the word miracle, or perhaps it was the experience of seeing the component parts of a human being in a state of existence that was somewhere in between, not fully in the world and not fully out of it ... Behind the glass of every reliquary is a life story told in still frame." True, but again: So what? Since everybody, including Pol Pot and the mailman, started out as a baby, our origins turn out to be much less interesting than where we wind up and how we get there.

All this amounts to Manseau's way of suggesting that the anecdotes in "Rag and Bone," while superficially freakish, bear witness to the universal condition of man, a creature whose divine longings are trapped within the limitations of a material form. True, the appeal of relics does seem to be widespread and frequently indifferent to denomination. The shriveled corpse of St. Francis Xavier draws an impressive quantity of tourists, most of whom aren't even Christians, to the basilica where it resides in the Indian city of Goa. The Jesuit monks who tend it try to be philosophical about the many wax figurines left as offerings (a Hindu custom) and about the guides who tell visitors that the "mummy" is shrinking and that Catholics believe the world will end when it finally vanishes away. None of this seems especially likely to add to the glory of the Christian God, but, "When it is Hindus in the church," one brother shrugs, "what can you do?"

But what makes relics compelling across creedal divides isn't, as Manseau muses, some earthy, Circle-of-Life acknowledgment of "the hard facts of ... bodies and death and the inevitable end of all that we know." The dismemberment of holy bodies doesn't, as he seems to think, somehow symbolize "a state of existence ... somewhere in between, not fully in the world and not fully of it," reminiscent of his daughter's fetus in utero, either. Saints' corpses aren't sought after because they're in bits and pieces, they're in bits and pieces because they're sought after, one of those rare commodities that can be multiplied by division; Manseau himself offers evidence that the Crusades were in significant part a ransacking of the Holy Land in search of relics that commanded handsome prices back home, and casually notes the "little-known fact that every Roman Catholic church has a relic," presumably as verification of its authority. Relics are potent, largely because the value of these objects lies not in their testimony to the ordinary lot of humanity, but in their promise of transcending it. The devout believe that holy relics can miraculously cure diseases, heal broken relationships, deliver loved ones from misfortune, straighten out misguided children, and so on and so on, ad infinitum. Their adoration is utilitarian. This isn't about flesh and blood, but about magic.

The inclination to believe in biddable magical forces capable of acting for or against us appears to be irresistible to large numbers of people in every nation on the planet. This realization lies at the root of much of what Baglio recounts in "The Rite." While Manseau started and ended his journey in the role of the professional ruminator, Baglio, an American-born journalist living in Rome (where he has worked for the Associated Press), began his research into a Vatican-affiliated exorcism course as a reporter hot on the trail of an offbeat story. He ended up driving through the Italian countryside one afternoon in a car mysteriously "filled with the scent of flowers," convinced that the Virgin Mary was making her sympathy known to him.

In short, the "cultural Catholic" who decided to write a book about the exorcism training of a 52-year-old Catholic priest from the San Francisco Bay Area became something of a true believer in the process. Writing the book, says Baglio, "helped me to reconnect with my faith in a way that I never expected." Perhaps not surprisingly, then, he is credulous in the extreme, with a wobbly grasp of many of the issues raised by his topic and a propensity for believing anything that comes out of a mouth with a clerical collar tucked underneath it. Since many of the priests he interviewed like to swap the type of spooky yarn that circulates through the rumor mills of elementary school playgrounds, this makes for a highly dubious narrative -- not to mention a movie rights deal with New Line Cinema.

Father Gary Thomas, Baglio's trainee exorcist, half fell into the job; he volunteered when, in 2004, the Vatican asked every Catholic bishop to appoint an official exorcist to his diocese. This startling development can be explained by the fact that for the past decade Italy has been gripped by an intermittent satanic ritual abuse panic similar to the hysteria that swept through the U.S. in the 1980s. The precipitating events were two murder cases, both involving disturbed teenage drug abusers, the more notorious of which featured the Beasts of Satan, a heavy metal band made up of self-styled devil worshipers who ultimately killed three of their cronies. This in turn led to allegations, made by civic and religious authorities, that a network of secret satanic cults was active throughout the country, engaging in human sacrifice and the sexual molestation of children among other crimes. Some church spokesmen have stated that "as many as 8,000 satanic sects with more than 600,000 members exist within Italy."

There does not appear to have ever been any rigorous, concerted effort to substantiate these claims, and most likely they are, like similar assertions made in America during our own ritual satanic abuse panic, entirely false. This stuff is, however, catnip for the press and also useful for public servants eager to further their ambitions or cover up their incompetence. In the 2008 book "The Monster of Florence," about that city's most notorious (and still unsolved) serial killer case, authors Douglas Preston and Mario Spezi described how a police inspector who was getting nowhere in solving the crimes suddenly announced that he had evidence that a satanic cult was responsible and was interfering with his investigation. When Preston and Spezi criticized this theory, they were themselves accused of belonging to the cult and Spezi was arrested. A mentally unbalanced woman put up a Web site promoting the satanic cult theory and contending that the cult's sinister influence had extensively penetrated the upper echelons of Italian society; the site became popular and the woman herself gained an astonishing amount of cultural and political influence.

The Vatican has not been slow to capitalize on this craze. The exorcism course that Father Gary attended was first offered by the Regina Apostolorum, a Catholic university run by the right-wing Legionnaires of Christ, in 2005, and it is part of a general conservative trend in the church, led by the current pope, Benedict XVI. A subtext to "The Rite" is a tsk-tsking attitude toward the Second Vatican Council (Vatican II) of the 1960s, a modernization and reform project that, according to Baglio, had "a disastrous effect," causing many priests to lose "the sense of connection they once felt to the traditions that had attracted them to the priesthood." The priests Baglio interviewed blame the "existential relativism" following Vatican II -- "relativism" being a bugaboo often cited by Pope Benedict -- for the depletion of their ranks and the drift of Catholics away from the church. (Other possible causes for disillusionment, such as the recent clerical sex abuse scandals, aren't even mentioned in "The Rite.")

Baglio and others have made much of the church's restraint in the face of the recent "explosion" in complaints of demonic possession. "The exorcist must be the ultimate skeptic," Father Gary was told during his training. That "skepticism," however, takes the form not of questioning the reality of possession itself, but rather the close examination of individual cases to eliminate malingerers, nuts and attention-seekers. Like the church's painstaking vetting of purported "miracles," this inquiry somehow always proceeds in a way that reinforces the church's power. Too much possession hysteria, like the popular local cults that form around miraculous manifestations of the Virgin Mary on obscure hillsides or tortillas, can all too easily divert influence away from the church. By insisting that cases of demonic possession can only be diagnosed and treated by trained priests, the panic and its remedies remain firmly under Vatican control.

The deftest church officials have used the furor to extend the battle for spiritual dominance on other fronts. According to the dutiful Baglio, "occult ties" are listed as one of the primary causes of demonic possession, with "occult" defined as everything from performing satanic rituals to participating in séances, tarot card readings or other forms of divination, the use of "an amulet or talisman," transcendental meditation, engaging in Wicca ceremonies, using crystals and other New Age paraphernalia, frequenting psychics and even reading the Harry Potter books, which were condemned by the Vatican's official exorcist. Anything, in short, likely to compete with the church for your spiritual interest and dollars can lead to an infestation by Beelzebub or Asmodeus (names that originally belonged to Middle Eastern gods who were rivals of the famously jealous God of the Old Testament).

The convulsions, curses and weird voices commonly associated with possession only manifest themselves when a priest is attempting to cast out the evil spirit with prayer. The presenting symptoms leading people to seek out an exorcist tend to be far more mundane: "chronic depression and sickness, infertility, breakdowns in the family and marriage, financial difficulty, and a family history of suicide or unnatural deaths." The case studies Baglio includes in "The Rite" feature everything from signs of mental illness, like hearing voices, to women (the vast majority of exorcism clients) who are clearly wrestling with repressed rage at husbands and parents or unruly sexual desires. (One woman lists among her afflictions becoming "very interested in sex" as a teenager and then later having sex in "a very dirty way.")

It's easy to see how trying to alleviate such miseries via an unpredictable and sometimes violent "supernatural" ritual could go very, very wrong. In 2005, a Romanian nun died while gagged and tied to a cross (!) by a priest attempting to exorcise her -- an "untrained" priest, Baglio hastens to add. Anxious to protect itself against accusations of malpractice, the church insists that its official exorcists work with medical doctors and psychiatric healthcare professionals, and Father Gary makes a point of obtaining a signed release form before he begins an exorcism. Of course, any doctor who agrees to be part of a priest's "exorcism team," with the goal of sorting out the genuinely possessed from the merely crazy, must ipso facto be a believer in demonic possession -- which leaves the responsibility of such doctors open to a lot of doubt.

Ultimately, though, the church is meeting a need rather than creating it. We no longer live in a world where we are only permitted a single interpretation of the way things work. The crowds who flock to exorcists and relic peddlers have other options in the marketplace of beliefs, and yet they prefer magical bones and evil spirits to the explanations of science and reason. The traditionalist movement in the Catholic Church may well be right in thinking that Catholicism lost much of its appeal when it tried to get away from all that mumbo jumbo and join the modern age; much of humanity seems unwilling to follow. When it comes to packing the pews, Stevie Wonder was wrong: superstition may be the way after all.

By Laura Miller

Laura Miller is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia."

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