Sunday, August 14, 2016

The Exorcist

The Exorcist by William Peter Blatty was first published in 1971, when I was nine years old. I remember my mother reading it and being shaken by the story which was said to be based upon an actual case of diabolic possession. Then the movie came out; I was not allowed to see it, of course, but I heard about it and was scared just by the idea of it. I finally saw the film when I was twenty and afterwards had to sleep with the lights on.

Decades went by; I finally picked up the book and read it. What a masterpiece! Not only is The Exorcist well-written but displays profound insights into the spiritual contest of good versus evil, as well as pondering the power and mystery of Christ in the ordained priesthood. While replete with the most horrific blasphemies from the depths of hell, the novel challenges the trite, self-satisfied, feel-good pseudo-Catholicism of the 1970's with the shocking notion that the devil is real.

The story of The Exorcist is well-known. A popular movie actress, Chris MacNeil, is filming a movie at Georgetown University and has rented an old Georgetown town house for herself, her twelve year old daughter Regan, and various members of her entourage. The seventies are in full swing. Chris' secretary practices transcendental meditation and meets her lover at a hotel every night. The elderly Swiss couple who act as housekeepers have a drug addicted daughter hidden away in a local slum. An atheist with a tendency to use God's name as a swear word, Chris is a woman of intelligence and ambition; she wants to direct as well as act, and has already sacrificed her marriage to her career goals. While focused on her work, she is only half conscious of some of the odd things going on in her household.  While Chris is a devoted mother, she dismisses Regan's obsession with a Ouija board, and the resultant strange behaviors, as being a product of the divorce. It is interesting that all hell breaks loose after Regan's father neglects to phone her on her birthday.

Regan's bizarre behaviors include the use of obscenities, urinating in public, violent attacks on friends and family, animal noises, and voices not her own, all the while accompanied by foul odors, levitation, moving furniture, and blasphemous writings in Latin. As the tormented child is passed from doctor to doctor, no medical explanation for her "illness" can be found. After a stay in a clinic, Regan returns home sicker than ever, as the horrific behaviors escalate. She is tied to her bed to keep her from injuring herself and others, and from chasing people around the house like a spider. Finally, Chris hears about exorcism, and goes in search of a Jesuit psychiatrist she has met in passing.

The Jesuit is Fr. Damian Karras, a brilliant psychiatrist from a destitute family. While the film has him about to leave the priesthood and the order, in the book he is going through a dark night of the soul brought on by burn-out and the death of his impoverished mother. Tormented by guilt that his mother lived and died in poverty because of his decision to join religious life, Fr. Damian finds himself a target of the evil entity that has taken over the MacNeil household. Moved by compassion for Regan, the priest rises above his own sufferings to save the little girl. Through the local bishop and his own superiors he is able to procure the help of Fr. Marrin, a learned, wise and holy Jesuit who has experience with exorcisms. Fr. Marrin arrives and insists that the casual Fr. Damian don traditional priestly attire while assisting  him perform the exorcism. It is then that the majesty of the sacred rites of the Church shine forth amid the most grotesque, satanic hatred which is literally spewed from the mouth of the possessed Regan. Few books portray the sacrificial nature of the Catholic priesthood in such a devastatingly accurate manner as does Blatty's novel. I found myself understanding on a deeper level the power of the priesthood and why it is always under attack. Perhaps the line that sums up the book is at the end when a Jesuit Fr. Dyer says to Chris: "But if all the evil in the world makes you think that there might be a devil, then how do you account for all the good in the world?" In the end, goodness prevails. The power of God prevails. Share

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