Jesus went down to Capernaum, a city in Galilee, and was teaching them on the sabbath. They were astounded at his teaching, because he spoke with authority. In the synagogue there was a man who had the spirit of an unclean demon, and he cried out with a loud voice, ‘Let us alone! What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.’ But Jesus rebuked him, saying, ‘Be silent, and come out of him!’ When the demon had thrown him down before them, he came out of him without having done him any harm. They were all amazed and kept saying to one another, ‘What kind of utterance is this? For with authority and power he commands the unclean spirits, and out they come!’ And a report about him began to reach every place in the region.
(The Gospel of Luke Chapter 8, verses 31-36).
Mention the ‘e’ word (exorcism) and immediately images of Linda Blair’s 360 projectile vomiting come to mind, with priests holding crucifixes over her face yelling “The Power of Christ Compels You!” Our culture’s Hollywood-esque fascination with the occult and paranormal is not helpful to understanding what’s going on here. As with the healing stories, the gospels play out the dramatic elements of exorcism stories. It makes for gripping drama but I think it has obscured this realm and prevented it from having a stronger foundation in society – and in spirituality particularly. In other words, while Jesus did perform exorcisms, they need not all be of such a violent nature as the one above.
Exorcisms are simply a subset of healing in shamanism – it’s simply a certain kind of healing. An exorcism is a healing of intrusive entities. It’s a cleansing of such entities (or quasi-entities) from one’s field. In Biblical language they are “cast out” of a person’s field.
A lot of work, among some, goes into identifying and categorizing such intrusions–creating gradations of demons, unclean spirits, and the like. There’s a cottage industry in asking where entities come from and how they glommed on to a person: are they from past lives, dead relatives, evil specters, etc. I think much of this is misplaced energy and attention. We don’t need to know the origin and ultimate meaning of such things to know how to respond to the actual issue at hand.
As the Buddha would say, in a different context, it’s as if someone shot with poisonous arrows was asking the doctor to explain the meaning of poison rather than simply extracting the arrows and the poison.
Intriguingly in the early Church persons studying to be baptized (called catechumens) received salt under their tongue. Salt is an element of an exorcism rite. At the time this practice began only adults could be baptized, though later when infants were able to baptized they too received the salt (correctly depicted in the final baptism/bloodbath scene in The Godfather, NSFW, 1:05 mark). The symbol points the belief that all of us had picked up various destructive energies that needed cleansing.
Today, however, exorcism is seen as this weird creepy realm of demonic possession. This area of inquiry could potentially be a fruitful one for mental health professionals. But again even suggesting that comes up against the rationalist bias of our contemporary world where all such realities are viewed as mental illness (typically seen as brain or chemical imbalances). I’m not suggesting all (maybe even most) forms of mental illness are caused by psychic disturbance but I have to imagine some must be. To be clear, I’m not advocating a crusade against psychiatry or advising people to go off their meds. It’s a really fine line. Certainly I can imagine situations in which a person already lacks a strong healthy personality and ego structure who then comes in contact with various spiritual energies could experience a split with reality (psychosis, schizophrenia, etc.).
Even more generally, all of us are in need of some degree of healing. We live in a crazy complex chaotic world that intrudes upon us and to which we add our own negativity. Processes of cleansing and repairing are therefore vital.
Nevertheless we have these stories, like the one above, from around the world, including a number concerning Jesus. This story exhibits common exorcist patterns from around the world and through time:
The intrusive entity (a much better name than ‘demon’) or entities know Jesus by name. This is not atypical. Shamans work on the level at which an intrusion has occurred and therefore there is an open line of communication between the healer and the intrusive energy or entity. Jesus both speaks to and hears the demon–interestingly the text simply says the demons “cried out in a loud voice”. It doesn’t specify whether this loud voice was physically audible to all or was only audible to Jesus in a healing-trance state. Contrary to The Exorcist, it’s typically the later.
It’s unclear whether the entity in question is singular or plural. The text says “an unclean demon” but then the demon speaks in the first person plural:
What have you to do with us?
The line between singular and plural, whether an intrusive reality is a full entity in the way we think of autonomous agents or whether it is more a kind of sub-entity or entity-like reality is often a bit unclear. What can appear at first to be a single intrusion can actually be hiding others.
The entity/entities are confused and scared. Rather than seeing all such entities as evil, we may learn to have compassion for them. The entities might be lost souls trapped between this world and the next. A number of exorcism stories in the gospels show this pattern: the entities ask Jesus not to hurt them.
Still while including a compassionate tone, there is a forceful act of extracting the intrusive entity (i.e. the exorcism proper). Jesus’ method for this seems to be direct commands:
Be silent and come out of him.
Other traditions speaks of coaxing or persuading the entities to come out from the person’s field. The exorcist in this case tries to persuade the often scared or confused entity into trusting the exorcist, following his/her voice out of the person and typically residing in another reality temporarily (e.g. a crystal). The crystal might then be placed in a fire to purify and release the entity to journey on.
Elsewhere, Jesus commands an exorcised entity not to return. He then warns of the possibility that a person could be healed but other intrusions return worse than in the original case. These aren’t simply symbolic sayings but sound to me like actual shamanic wisdom. For this very reason, shamans have rituals to protect the previously intruded-upon person to make sure they are safe in the future and do not experience a repeat intrusion.
While again not necessary, it is common for there to be uncontrolled physical spasms that take place during the extrication process – in the story above the healed person jerks and falls down but as the story makes clear, this occurred without the man being harmed. This is a typical occurrence, not just in extraction work but in healings more generally: when traumas stored in the body are released they can cause temporary physical or energetic spasming or emotional releases (e.g. spontaneous, uncontrollable crying).
Coming next week in the Jesus the Shaman series: Jesus and Soul Retrieval.
Chris Dierkes is a long time student and practitioner of the Christ-consciousness mystical path. After receiving his MDiv., Chris worked in parish ministry for three years (Anglican Church of Canada) and now maintains a private practice in interspiritual soul work. In addition Chris has studied energy healing, intuitive arts, and shamanic practice. He writes frequently on subjects of spirituality in the contemporary world. He lives in Vancouver with his wife Chloe and their daughter Sage. You can check out his writing and practice here.