Merton is exorcised . . .
The essential thing was to begin the climb. Baptism was that beginning,
and a most generous one, on the part of God. For, although I was baptized
conditionally, I hope that His mercy swallowed up all the guilt and temporal
punishment of my twenty-three black years of sin in the waters of the font,
and allowed me a new start. But my human nature, my weakness, and the
cast of my evil habits still remained to be fought and overcome.
Towards the end of the first week in November, Father Moore told me I
would be baptized on the sixteenth. I walked out of the rectory that evening
happier and more contented than I had ever been in my life. I looked at a
calendar to see what saint had that day for a feast, and it was marked for St.
It was only in the last days before being liberated from my slavery to
death, that I had the grace to feel something of my own weakness and
helplessness. It was not a very vivid light that was given to me on the
subject: but I was really aware, at last, of what a poor and miserable thing I
was. On the night of the fifteenth of November, the eve of my Baptism and
First Communion, I lay in my bed awake and timorous for fear that
something might go wrong the next day. And to humiliate me still further,
as I lay there, fear came over me that I might not be able to keep the
eucharistic fast. It only meant going from midnight to ten o’clock without
drinking any water or taking any food, yet all of a sudden this little act of
self-denial which amounts to no more, in reality, than a sort of an abstract
token, a gesture of good-will, grew in my imagination until it seemed to be
utterly beyond my strength—as if I were about to go without food and drink
for ten days, instead of ten hours. I had enough sense left to realize that this
was one of those curious psychological reactions with which our nature, not
without help from the devil, tries to confuse us and avoid what reason and
our will demand of it, and so I forgot about it all and went to sleep.
In the morning, when I got up, having forgotten to ask Father Moore if
washing your teeth was against the eucharistic fast or not, I did not wash
them, and, facing a similar problem about cigarettes, I resisted the
temptation to smoke.
I went downstairs and out into the street to go to my happy execution and
The sky was bright and cold. The river glittered like steel. There was a
clean wind in the street. It was one of those fall days full of life and
triumph, made for great beginnings, and yet I was not altogether exalted:
for there were still in my mind these vague, half animal apprehensions
about the externals of what was to happen in the church—would my mouth
be so dry that I could not swallow the Host? If that happened, what would I
do? I did not know.
Gerdy joined me as I was turning in to Broadway. I do not remember
whether Ed Rice caught up with us on Broadway or not. Lax and Seymour
came after we were in church.
Ed Rice was my godfather. He was the only Catholic among us—the only
Catholic among all my close friends. Lax, Seymour, and Gerdy were Jews.
They were very quiet, and so was I. Rice was the only one who was not
cowed or embarrassed or shy.
The whole thing was very simple. First of all, I knelt at the altar of Our
Lady where Father Moore received my abjuration of heresy and schism.
Then we went to the baptistery, in a little dark corner by the main door.
I stood at the threshold.
“Quid Peris ab ecclesia Dei?” asked Father Moore.
“Fides quid tibi praestat?”
Then the young priest began to pray in Latin, looking earnestly and
calmly at the page of the Rituale through the lenses of his glasses. And I,
who was asking for eternal life, stood and watched him, catching a word of
the Latin here and there.
He turned to me:
In a triple vow I renounced Satan and his pomps and his works.
“Dost thou believe in God the Father almighty, Creator of heaven and
“Dost thou believe in Jesus Christ His only Son, Who was born, and
“Dost thou believe in the Holy Spirit, in the Holy Catholic Church, the
Communion of saints, the remission of sins, the resurrection of the body
and eternal life?”
What mountains were falling from my shoulders! What scales of dark
night were peeling off my intellect, to let in the inward vision of God and
His truth! But I was absorbed in the liturgy, and waiting for the next
ceremony. It had been one of the things that had rather frightened me—or
rather, which frightened the legion that had been living in me for twenty-three years.
Now the priest blew into my face. He said: “Exi ab eo, spiritus immunde:
Depart from him, thou impure spirit, and give place to the Holy Spirit, the
It was the exorcism. I did not see them leaving, but there must have been
more than seven of them. I had never been able to count them. Would they
ever come back? Would that terrible threat of Christ be fulfilled, that threat
about the man whose house was clean and garnished, only to be reoccupied by the first devil and many others worse than himself?
The priest, and Christ in him—for it was Christ that was doing these
things through his visible ministry, in the Sacrament of my purification—
breathed again into my face.
“Thomas, receive the good Spirit through this breathing, and receive the
Blessing of God. Peace be with thee.”
Then he began again to pray, and sign me with Crosses, and presently
came the salt which he put on my tongue—the salt of wisdom, that I might
have the savor of divine things, and finally he poured the water on my head,
and named me Thomas, “if thou be not already baptized.”
We're all possessed by demons, like Merton. Real or metaphorical. Things that take hold of us and won't let go. Bad habits. Smoking. Drinking. Porn. Sex or drug addiction. Obsessions. With singers. Poets. Artists. Actors. Books. Poems. Movies. I've been known to overindulge in a few of these demons. (I may be indulging in one of them right now--a little RumChata to the point of being slightly drunk.)
Human beings are weak things. We give ourselves over to substances and experiences that are bad for us. Over and over. We keep returning to them until they either destroy us or we learn to be better people. Now, reading a book continuously won't ruin you (unless it happens to be Fifty Shades of Grey or The Art of the Deal). Neither will re-watching a movie several times (unless it's Fifty Shades of Gray or anything with Donald Trump cameos). Over my December quarantine, I've been possessed by two writers (Charles Dickens and Louisa May Alcott), a couple movies (Greta Gerwig's Little Women and Love Actually), and writing.
My family has been fairly indulgent of my Christmas demons. I've been reading an Alcott biography and new Dickens biography. Watching Little Women and Love Actually late at night, multiple times, after everyone has gone to bed. And finishing my Christmas essay and poem. Now, in the first days of January, I'm still reading the biographies. I've moved on to watching The Family Stone and Yesterday. And, with my holiday essay and poem done, I've have turned my attention to revising a chapbook manuscript.
That's the other thing about demons. They're easily replaced. As Merton says, after being exorcised, a person can be "reoccupied by the first devil and many others worse than himself." I've seen this happen, as well. Food addiction replaced with prescription drug addiction. Or sex addiction. One unhealthy obsession replacing another. People with genetic predispositions to addiction are vulnerable to becoming repossessed, if you will, unless they are pretty vigilant.
Now, I don't want to get all kinds of comments about how addiction is a disease. I know this. I come from a family with a pretty strong history of substance abuse. How I have dodged that bullet, I have no idea. I'm a poet and artist. Subject to bouts of depression. Constantly battling financial insecurities. By all accounts, I should, at the very least, be a raging alcoholic, on the level of Dylan Thomas.
But I'm not. Instead, I'm addicted to writing. Reading about famous writers. Watching Christmas movies. (I also have a huge weakness for chocolate, but that's the subject of another blog post.) I suppose those are healthy demons to be wrestling with. (Unless you ask my family members about how many times I watch The Family Stone in a day. They might think that an intervention is needed.)
Like anybody else, I am weak. I wouldn't last 40 days in the desert. I wouldn't even last one hour, especially if the Devil came along and offered me a cold cup of water and a ham sandwich. I give in to my obsessions all the time, often to the detriment of the people I care about most. I invite my demons in, sit down, and have dinner with them on a nightly basis.
That doesn't make me a bad person. It makes me human. I don't beat my children or cheat on my wife. I don't get drunk and miss work. As possessed people go, I'm pretty high-functioning. No masturbating with crucifixes in public for me.
I have also learned in the past year to accept the possessed people in my life. Sometimes, those people hurt me deeply. That doesn't make me love them any less. It just fills me with disappointment and sadness. I don't want people I care about to do things that will harm them. Yet, I have no power over their actions or choices. So, I can only sit back and wait for the exorcist to show up. And watch The Family Stone one more time.
Saint Marty gives thanks for the miracle of sappy Christmas movies tonight.
Another of my obsessions . . .