Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time at Mississippi Abbey
Scripture Readings: Deut 18:15-20; 1 Cor 7:32-35; Mk 1:21-28
Some actions are loaded with prophetic significance. When Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the church door in Wittenberg, Germany, his action was more than a man posting a notice, it was the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. When Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus, it was more than a woman who was too tired to get up, it presaged the end of segregation.
Here at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, when he says to the unclean spirit, “Quiet! Come out of him!” his action is more than freeing one possessed man, it announces the overthrow of Satan’s rule and the coming of God’s Kingdom. Sensing the prophetic significance of Jesus’ command, the demon cried out, “What have you to do with us?” that is, “Go away, Leave us alone!” Isn’t that the cry of many teenagers when rebuked by parents or other authorities, “Leave me alone!” Kids, like demons, want their independence, autonomy, and self-will. So do I.
I like to be alone. I revel in free time, me-time. When walking around I enjoy being engrossed in conversation with a person I like, myself. Talking with people drains me of energy. It’s not that I’m arrogant, I’m actually nice, but talking with other people is exhausting. So, leave me alone, I’m only speaking with my dog today. When I smile it’s because if I didn’t you would ask why. If I don’t smile it doesn’t mean I’m unhappy, it just means I’m seeking space for myself, I’m introverting. But I know that I can’t be left completely and totally alone. That’s demonic, except for hermits. Sometimes I might sit in my room and cry, and then walk out like nothing happened. Or, sometimes when I say, “I’m okay”, I really need someone to hold me tight and say, “I know you’re not.” Don’t ask me how to tell the difference. I don’t know. But if you love me, you will know.
Here at the beginning of his ministry Jesus loves us and shows it by freeing a man possessed by demons. People were astonished. It had never happened before. In the whole history of Israel no prophet had ever cast out a demon. This was new. Not even David with his soothing harp could totally cast out the demons possessing King Saul. But Jesus is the “Holy One of God” whose love embraces us and rebukes the evil spirits. Eleven times we read about exorcisms in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. But it is only today and next Sunday that we encounter exorcisms within the three year cycle of Sunday Liturgies. Why is that? In the Gospels Jesus performed exorcisms throughout his public life, and they continue in the Church today.
In our own times, right here in Iowa, there was a forty year old woman who was possessed by several demons for twenty six years. Her name was Emma Schmidt. After being tormented during all those years, a priest was finally asked to perform an exorcism. It took place in a little town called Earling, IA, ninety years ago, and it was the first fully authorized exorcism in the United States. Emma had been sexually abused, mistreated and cursed by her father. At age 14 something took possession of her. She became conscious of sinister inner voices driving her to despair. When she wanted to go to church, she felt an interior hidden power preventing her. It got worse over the years, and she could not get even a single night’s peaceful sleep from those inner voices. She recoiled with anger at the presence of blessed food and holy water. Obsessive thoughts nearly drove her to suicide. Doctors couldn’t find anything physically wrong with Emma. So Bishop Thomas Drumm of Des Moines gave approval for an exorcism and he called on the experience of a Franciscan Capuchin, Fr. Theophilus Riesigner, to do it.
For 23 days before Christmas in 1928, he performed the rite of exorcism at a convent of Franciscan sisters who kept praying for Emma. During the rites Emma’s body became so swollen and distorted that she was unrecognizable. Once she levitated off the bed; another time she flew through the air and landed in a corner of the ceiling where she clung to the wall in an unearthly and terrifying manner. She foamed at the mouth, made a variety of animal sounds, and screamed in Latin and German, languages she had never learned, but German was the exorcist’s native language. Once her weight became so heavy that she bent the bed’s iron frame. A horrible stench filled the room. Even when her mouth was tightly closed she could still emit ear-piercing screams.
Fr. Theophilus was never cowed by these frightful experiences. Finally, after twenty-three days, when he commanded, “Depart, you fiends of hell. Begone Satan,” the demons fled and a loud howling sound filled the room until it faded far away into the distance. The change in Emma was immediate. She opened her eyes as if waking from sleep, smiled and said with child-like piety, “Praised be Jesus Christ!” From that time onwards she was free. Emma frequently visited the Blessed Sacrament, attended Mass and received Holy Communion with devotion. She never complained of those afflictions again. The account of this exorcism was published in a short book by Liturgical Press, titled: Begone Satan.1
Exorcisms are convincing evidence for the existence of devils and hell. But I learned another important and consoling lesson from Emma Schmidt’s experience. During exorcisms devils try to scare off those who are present by revealing their sins. When this didn’t happen to either Fr. Theophilus or the Franciscan Sisters who were present he wondered why. The demons complained that they have no knowledge of sins that have been confessed and forgiven. After our sins are forgiven they no longer have any existence. In the Kingdom of God they are gone forever! It’s a wonderful act of mercy when Jesus casts out devils, but it’s even more wonderful to have our sins totally cast out by the love of Jesus who just can’t leave us alone!
1. Rev. Carl Vogl, “Begone Satan!” A Soul-Stirring Account of Diabolical Possession, Liturgical Press, St. John’s Abbey, Collegeville, MN, 1935. Foreword by Rev. Virgil Michel, O.S.B. Authorized by Rt. Rev. Abbot Alcuin Deutsch, O.S.B. Translated by Rev. Celestine Kapsner, O.S.B. A copy of this short book is available online at EWTN. A movie, The Exorcist, was partly based on this story. Emma Schmidt’s pseudonym was Anna Ecklund.
Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time at Mississippi Abbey
[Scripture Readings: Jer 1:4-5, 17-19; 1 Cor 13:4-13; Lk 4:21-30]
Edgar Allan Poe begins one of his horror stories with this foreboding promise: “The thousand injuries of Fortunato I had borne as best I could, but when he ventured on insult I vowed revenge.“1 The terrible end of Fortunato is foreshadowed in this dramatic beginning. A nobleman, named Montresor, tells of the carnival night he took his revenge by luring the unsuspecting Fortunato deep down into the wine cellars of the vaults under his palazzo to sample a rare and valuable wine. Drinking along the way through the caverns, they recall his family coat of arms showing a huge foot crushing the head of a snake under the motto, “No one attacks me with impunity.” The unfortunate Fortunato, by now suitably intoxicated, comes to a catacomb in the wine cellars where the avenger quickly chains him to the wall and begins closing the narrow crypt with stones until it is sealed tight, ignoring the poor man’s cries for mercy. Sadly, the noble Montressor got away with murder.
It’s a shocking and vengeful story of one man’s inhumanity to another. We shudder at this capacity for cruelty, knowing that through the window of fiction we are looking at the terrible reality of evil in our world. It’s not what we want to hear on a bright Sunday morning when we come together to pray, is it? But today’s story of Jesus at Nazareth is equally shocking.
However, our familiarity with the Gospel desensitizes us, dulls our sense of horror at what happened right here at the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry. The violence of Jesus’ own neighbors foreshadows the terrible cruelty of Jesus’ crucifixion. The last week of his life is already previewed on this first day of his preaching at Nazareth. The Palm Sunday shouts of “Hosanna to the Son of David” that will turn into cries for crucifixion are present here in the synagogue of his own town. At first all speak well of him. They wonder at the gracious words that proceed from his mouth, until he pulls aside the veil and uncovers the evil within them. At once they rise up with cries of wrath and rush upon Jesus to hurl him down headlong from the brow of the precipice at Nazareth. Mary, his mother, must have been there with a sword piercing her heart just as she would be there at the foot of the cross. But her neighbors didn’t get away with it, not yet.
The insults with which the unfortunate Fortunato attacked Montresor with an impunity that could not be borne, incited a terrible revenge. But in Jesus, the people of Nazareth meet a Physician who lances their sores not to insult them but to heal them, and they react with murderous intent, unable to bear the fuller’s soap that would wash them clean, or the refiner’s fire that would purify them like silver and gold. We must shudder at this foreboding story that will end with Jesus nailed to the cross. But thank goodness Jesus’ death was not the end of the story. Unlike Fortunato who remained entombed in his catacomb, Jesus will leave the cave of his tomb at Easter, totally triumphant over death. And here at Nazareth, Jesus foreshadows his resurrection and ascension when he passes unbound through the midst of his countrymen on top of the hill and leaves them to ponder the mystery of who he really is.
If Edgar Allan Poe had written the ending of the story about violence against Jesus, we could expect him to devise a great act of retaliation by Jesus crushing his enemies underfoot with impunity. But Jesus came to bring glad tidings to the poor, liberty to captives, sight to the blind, and freedom for the oppressed. He came not to do harm but to heal, not to destroy but to save, not to take revenge but to conquer by love, as Abraham Lincoln understood so well.
From his earliest days in politics, Lincoln had a critic, an enemy, who continually treated him with contempt, a man by the name of Edwin Stanton. Stanton told newspaper reporters that Lincoln was a “low cunning clown” and “the original gorilla.” He said it was ridiculous for explorers to go to Africa to capture a gorilla “when they could easily find one in Springfield, Illinois.” Lincoln never responded to these insults; he never retaliated in the least. And when, as President, he needed a Secretary of War, he chose Edwin Stanton. His friends asked why. Lincoln replied, “Because he is the best man for the job.” Years later, that fateful night came when an assassin’s bullet struck down President Lincoln in Ford’s theater, Lincoln was carried to the Peterson house across the street. Stanton came, and looking down upon the silent, rugged face of his dead President, he said through his tears, “There lies the most perfect ruler of men the world has ever seen.” Lincoln destroyed his enemy by making him his friend with patient, long-suffering, non-vengeful love.2
It is the same love that motivated our Trappist brother, Dom Christian, the Prior of Our Lady of Atlas monastery in Tibherine, Algeria. He writes, “I have lived long enough to know that I am an accomplice in the evil which seems, alas, to prevail in the world, even in that which would strike me blindly. I should like, when the time comes, to …beg forgiveness of God and of all my fellow human beings, and to forgive with all my heart the one who would strike me down. … you the friend of my final moment, … I say this thank you and this a-Dieu to you in whom I see the face of God. And may we find each other, happy good thieves, in Paradise, if it pleases God, the Father of us both. Amen! In sh’ Allah!“3
St. Bernard expresses it so well in his treatise On Loving God when he writes, “Love seeks no cause beyond itself … I love because I love; I love in order that I may love.“4 In Jesus our thousands of injuries and insults against God are wiped away by love. He offers us the gift of that most rare and valuable consecrated wine, his own Body and Blood, not to lure us into a trap, but to lure us into heaven if only we will follow. And we have come here today to receive this cup with grateful hearts, to taste how sweet and forgiving the Lord is who calls us to share in the wide expanse of his infinite divinity.