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Devils Of Manhattan

I visited two friends in Manhattan. We weren't the only ones in the room

You might remember this from a post of mine about a year ago:

Now, that’s a set-up for me to tell you about a strange telephone call I received yesterday. I’ve hesitated about whether or not to blog about it. The caller, an old friend from whom I hadn’t heard in a decade or so, gave me permission to blog about it as long as I kept names and identifying details out of the story. He said others may draw hope from it. He wasn’t exactly sure why he felt the urge to call me about the matter, but he did.

Background: “Nathan,” as I’ll call my friend, is a devout Catholic who lives in a major US city, and who works in a sophisticated professional milieu. He is in early middle age, and a husband and father. He and his family go to mass daily, and confession weekly.

Nathan started his story with a jaw-dropping line: “For the past year, my wife has been under the care of an exorcist.”

I don’t know Nathan’s wife as well as I know him, but I can tell you that she is worldly and sophisticated, even as she is devout. She is one of the last people you would imagine having a problem like this.

Nathan told me the story of how things came to this point. I won’t give you too many details, out of an abundance of caution. It turns out that his wife had an eating disorder as a teenager, and tried to kill herself twice back then. Now, in the middle of her life, depression returned, but with certain strange characteristics that seemed … off. She began to despise religious things, in an inexplicable way. When she went to a “healing mass,” there was a manifestation that indicated something dark and alien was at work in her.

Catholic exorcists today work in a professional way, ruling out all other medical possibilities to explain the behavior before they start. The exorcism of Nathan’s wife has not been a single event, but has required multiple sessions, which are still going on (Father Gabriele Amorth, the late chief exorcist of Rome, has explained in his books how this works.) Nathan has been part of the rituals.

He told me that eight different spirits have manifested themselves through his wife. He’s been at this long enough now to discern which one is which. They revealed through the rituals that they entered into his wife’s family through her grandfather, who was involved with the occult in a ritualistic way. Nathan said that depending on which evil spirit manifests in a particular moment, his wife’s face contorts into expressions that he has never seen in her, despite their nearly two decades of marriage.

Mind you, Nathan is one of  the least woo-woo friends I have. Again, he works as what you might call a “symbolic analyst” in a very worldly occupation, and lives in one of the biggest and most secular cities in America. He’s been a faithful Catholic for as long as I’ve known him, but not especially interested in that mystical side of the faith.

“Once you’ve seen reality through the eyes of spiritual warfare,” he told me yesterday, “you can’t go back. It’s everywhere.”

He told me other detailed stories, including accounts of bizarre, poltergeisty things happening in their apartment, and his wife being unable to stand the presence of blessed objects (a classic sign of possession). Again, readers: if you knew these people, Nathan and his wife, you would be even more shocked by all this than you are now. This is the kind of family that takes European vacations, and lives a sophisticated cosmopolitan life. And yet this horror has overtaken them. The wife goes through periods in which she hears foul blasphemies, and feels compelled to commit suicide. In the exorcism sessions, Nathan says the demons, under compulsion from the exorcist, speak of these things — in particular, how they intend to destroy Nathan’s wife, and her family life.

When will she be free of them? The exorcist can’t say. The fight continues, in regular sessions. In our long phone conversation yesterday, Nathan says that this ordeal has taught him about the power of prayer, and of the Church’s weapons against these things. He knows that his wife is not his enemy, despite the things that sometimes come out of her mouth, and he is resolved to hold firm to fight for her, through his prayers, and to help her be free of these malicious intelligent spirits. He recommends this lecture by Father Chad Ripperger, a Catholic exorcist. This is the reality Nathan and his wife have been living for the past year.

Nathan, the sort of man who would have been played by Jimmy Stewart or Jack Lemmon in a 1950s movie, told me that having entered into this world, he has learned that more and more ordinary people like him and his wife are turning to exorcists. He has come to see that the demonic attacks on marriage and family are increasing — and he wants people to know that there is hope. But laying claim to that hope requires recognizing the nature of the battle.

Nathan and his wife — I’ll call her “Emma” — live in New York City. When I was in the city this week, I went to see them. I write what follows with Nathan’s permission.

Emma has completed the formal Catholic process to have a ritual exorcism (this, as distinct from the deliverance prayers that the exorcist had been saying over her, to limited effect). Part of that process was a psychiatric evaluation by a psychiatrist, to rule out mental illness or any other natural cause for this behavior. She passed that. I want to emphasize this: she has been formally examined by a psychiatrist, who has certified that there is no known medical or natural cause for the things that she is suffering, and that manifest themselves through her. They are still waiting on the cardinal’s approval. In the Catholic Church, no formal ritual exorcism can happen without express permission of the local bishop — which, in this case, is the cardinal.

(I invite you to read this 2016 Vanity Fair piece by the film director William Friedkin, best known for having made The Exorcist. In the piece, he writes about traveling to Italy to make a documentary about Father Gabriele Amorth, an elderly priest (who has since died) who was the chief exorcist of Rome. What Friedkin saw is what Emma is going through. Read down at least far enough to the point where Friedkin shows video he shot of an exorcism sessions involving an Italian woman, to two separate neurosurgeons back in New York. Neither one can explain what they see.)

I paid a call on Nathan and Emma at their apartment. Emma was even more beautiful than I remembered her in person … but she looked pale and tired. We sat and begin to talk. Nathan began our talk with a prayer. Her face betrayed signs of an internal struggle. Suddenly, her head swung back and to the left, her face creased, and a deep voice said through her, “F–king bitch!” She was instantly back to herself, and said weakly, “That’s not me.”

She didn’t really have to say that. It so clearly wasn’t her. If you didn’t know her, you would think that she was suffering from Tourette’s. But again, she has been examined in detail by a psychiatrist. She doesn’t have Tourette’s. Later, when Nathan brought out a relic that someone had given them, she reacted instantly, like a normal person would if someone had presented a poisonous viper. The deep voice demanded that Nathan get that thing away from it.

There was more. I have never seen anything like this in person. The sense of malice and destruction was intense. They intend to destroy Emma, and to take down as many people as they can. She told me that these evil spirits are constantly telling her to kill herself.

Nathan told me later that one of the demons that uses that particular language when Emma is about to share practical wisdom that she has gained from this awful experience. Indeed, that’s what Emma subsequently did. Despite all the scary stuff, I came away from this meeting profoundly inspired — more inspired than unsettled, let me emphasize.

Why? Because I don’t know that I have ever seen such strong faith. Both Nathan and Emma are so thoroughly committed to Jesus Christ. They know how this evil came into their lives — it started with Emma’s grandfather, who was a high-level Freemason — and passed through the family line. When Nathan and Emma were at Emma’s father’s deathbed last year, and called a priest in to do the last rites, the voices began coming out of him, and the growls, and the same curses. What their grandfather brought onto their family has been handed down through two generations, and destroyed the family in a number of ways. Nathan and Emma know that she will be liberated eventually — this is their conviction — but that for some mysterious reason, God is allowing her to suffer a while longer.

Here are their lessons for me, and for you readers (again, I’ve gotten Nathan’s permission to post this):

1. We are all engaged in spiritual warfare. It’s not just a metaphor. It’s happening all around us. They had no idea how real it was until it hit their family. They see especially other families, and marriages, being hit hard now. People should understand that there really is a spiritual dimension to these things.

2. One of the basic markers of it is unforgiveness. Emma said that’s how these entities take root in a person’s soul. There is always some wound that the enemy exploits.  She said all of us should scour our consciences to identify and renounce any and all unforgiveness — and to keep doing this, over and over. (They’re Catholic, so they recommend frequent confession.) If we hold on to anger and bitterness, even when we have been mistreated by others, we are giving evil spirits entree into our souls. Emma was emphatic on this point.

3. There is no substitute for prayer. These entities absolutely hate it. It causes them pain. People who live far away and pray for her — the entities know it, and it weakens their hold on her.

4. Embrace total humility. Be willing to suffer anything for the sake of Christ. Nathan has had to endure awful cruelties from the evil spirits that manifest in his wife. They curse and insult him. He has even been physically attacked by them, through her. When they manifested through her in my presence, he prayed quietly and steadily, forcing them to retreat. He knows that this is not his wife cursing him. He told me — and Emma reinforced this — that one should stay focused intensely on love, on nothing but love, and one should consider all the suffering one bears out of love as a gift. That is, as a share in Christ’s redemptive suffering. Things have gotten better for Emma since a visit to Rome and receiving prayers from an exorcist there, but at the height of it, Nathan told me that he was so exhausted that he didn’t really know what it meant to love his wife. Then he realized that love is not an emotion; love is an act. If he was so beaten down by his wife’s behavior, then he was going to keep showing her love anyway, and do it for the sake of Jesus Christ. He is her husband, and if he won’t be part of the fight for her, who will?

5. Along those lines, Emma said, “Keep your eyes locked on the Cross.” She explained that these demons will do their best to play on your weaknesses. They will tempt you to self-pity, or failing that, they will exploit your own weaknesses, sending thoughts of depression, anxiety, rage, self-hatred, and so forth, at you. She told me, “When that happens, you have to refuse those thoughts. You have to focus only on the Cross. That’s the only way through.”

Nathan and Emma believe firmly that the world is going through a time of intense spiritual turmoil now — more than usual. Where this is going, nobody knows for sure. As Catholics, they say they have witnessed, and do witness, the power of God manifested through the prayers of priests, and of the sacraments, and of invoking the names of great saints as enemies of the devil. All of these things are weapons that God has given us to fight our true Enemy, they said. People should use them. But the most important thing is to put yourself entirely in the hands of Jesus Christ, and humble yourself enough to allow the Holy Spirit to root out all hatred and unforgiveness in your heart. Anything less than that is working for the Enemy.

As I was leaving their place, I thought about the profound truth of that cliche: “Be kind, for everyone you know is fighting a great battle.” If you saw this couple walking down the street, you would barely notice them, except to say maybe, “What a nice looking pair.” Yet there’s a war for her soul going on inside of Emma, and Nathan is fighting this battle too in their home and in their marriage. As I told you, it was incredibly impressive to see the faith present in this suffering couple. Emma told me, “Believe me when I say that it was a blessing for all of this to come out. For so many years I’ve been fighting depression, and I thought that’s all it was. When these things” — the demons, she means — “came to the surface, it has been a horrible thing to deal with, but at least finally I could know what I was up against.” And get help. The overwhelming impression I had was not one of fright, but of hope — of hard-won hope. I came away both extremely sobered about the times and the nature of life, but also inspired to get my own spiritual life in order, following their advice. It is not possible to stand on the sidelines from a position of neutrality, they say. We are all in this fight whether we know it or not. It is better to know it.

When this ordeal is finally over, I believe Nathan and Emma are going to write a book about it, for the sake of sharing that hope with others. Nathan told me last year, when he first reached out to give me the news: “Once you’ve seen reality through the eyes of spiritual warfare, you can’t go back. It’s everywhere.” I get that. Once you’ve sat in an apartment in a very nice neighborhood of New York City, and seen and heard the things that I did this week, you can’t unsee them. I’ve got to change my life.

When I wrote to Nathan to share the text of this post, and to ask permission to publish it, he responded in part:

I would also add that God has supplied all the graces needed.  If you had told me two years ago that I would have been in this current position, I would have run in the other direction.  I have COMPLETE confidence that as long as I remain close to the sacraments and free of mortal sin, God will supply all of the grace and assistance needed.

Now, reader, believe this or not. It doesn’t hurt my feelings if you don’t believe it. I’m telling you, though, if you had sat there with me and saw and heard the things I saw and heard, you would find it hard to see the world in the same way. There are some of you who need to read this, and who need the hope in Nathan and Emma’s story.