Is it really true that where we live can be a blessing — or a curse? Can a home carry a spirit, or spirits, with it? Can it be “infested” (or possessed) like a person can?
Those questions were tackled by a brilliant Jesuit priest named Father Herbert Thurston, who looked into such matters for publications like the Times Literary Supplement.
His focus: the alleged phenomenon of poltergeists. In common parlance, we refer to such as “ghosts” or demons. “Poltergeist” comes from Germany for “noisy ghost,” and such cases often involve robust and even violent spiritual upset.
It is a crucial subject at a time when evil seems unusually active and many are reporting such disturbances.
More critical yet: often the afflicted are unable to enlist the help of priests, who have not been schooled in mystical theology — a matter that greatly concerned Father Thurston.
The Jesuit, who died in 1939, meticulously documented some especially powerfully cases, often involving objects that flew or were flung around a room. His observations were granted special attention because he was considered the epitome of a highly discerning Jesuit scholar, one who didn’t believe most claims but became convinced that homes in fact can become “haunted.” He documented as much in a seminal if obscure and largely forgotten work called Ghosts and Poltergeists.
The volume — now secured only with some effort — offers invaluable insights and even a rare prayer to cleanse a home, which we present below due to a large number of requests for help. Father Thurston was concerned that at least in the West, the Church was neglecting addressing the issue at great cost to those who suffered.
That concern was expressed before Vatican II, which removed many aspects of mysticism and makes Father Thurston more pertinent now than ever.
The issue was that while there is exorcism for people, the infestation of a locale has been all but totally ignored.
“So far as can be gathered from a study of the Latin Ritualia, whether medieval or modern, it would seem that the Catholic Church, at any rate in the West, has never taken very much account of those spectral appearances — ghosts in fact — which are said at times to disturb the peace of some ordinary dwelling house,” wrote the concerned Jesuit. “There is of course a lengthy ceremonial provided for the exorcism of persons possessed by the devil. But the driving out of the demons who have obtained control over a human being has abundant scriptural warrant and always been recognized by the Church as a function of her ministry.
“Thus there is mention only of the exorcism of persons, not of places; and indeed we might doubt whether the Church had ever contemplated such a task as the purifying of any locality from malign influences, if it were not for the observances which are enjoined as a preliminary to certain other liturgical functions.”
But “hauntings” — infestations — there are.
After lengthy study, Father Thurston concluded that some cases are caused by demons and others by unsettled spirits of the deceased. Where a Mass for the repose of a soul may clear some situations, in others there may be the need, he points out, for deliverance.
While the Church does bless graveyards, consecrates the localities for churches, and re-consecrates them if there has been desecration, Father Thurston pointed out — in what could be seen as a form of exorcism because it seeks to banish forces of darkness — the issue is not addressed as directly as necessary.
When a building is consecrated, the threshold of a building is blessed by the bishop with the mark of the Cross and the proclamation, Ecce crucis signum, fugiant phantasmata cuncta (“behold the emblem of the Cross; let all specters flee”).
But it really isn’t meant in a literal fashion, he argued.
And while demons are considered a possibility, there seems to be “no suggestion that the souls of men are likely to return to haunt the scenes amidst which they formerly dwelt on earth,” he wrote — marshalling case studies indicating that such does in fact take place (and emphasizing the need to pray for those who are dead).
“In any case,” said Father Thurston, “the fact remains that in the ordinary service books approved by ecclesiastical authority, no provision is made for dealing with the problem of hauntings (real or alleged) otherwise than by the everyday formulas for the blessing of a house which are contained in the Rituale Romanum.
“It is certainly curious that in the very large collection of medieval Benediktionen which have been brought together in the great work of Adolf Franz, there is apparently no prayer to be found which deals directly with ghosts.”
There are thus two issues here: that a disturbance allegedly can be caused by the deceased (we must remain cautious) or by demons. Most pressing, of course, are cases that involve evil spirits.
While holy pictures, relics, medals, and other blessed items often help significantly (especially the Sacred Heart), at times the issue goes beyond that — necessitating, said Father Thurston, a full-scale exorcism.
After more than one vain attempt to find a form of ritual pertinent to such cases, wrote Father Thurston, he “stumbled” upon an old document contained on the appendix to an edition of the Rituale Romanum — “published with the full authorization of the Council of the Inquisition, at the royal printing office, Madrid, in the year 1621.”
That document, called Exorcismus domus a daemonio (“Exorcism of a house troubled with an evil spirit”), directs the priest who is tackling the “exorcism” to wear a surplice and stole and begin with the words: “In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen,” making at the same time a triple Sign of the Cross.
Then, after the versicle Adjutorium nostrum, and Dominus vobiscum, etc., there is this prayer:
“Almighty and Eternal God who has bestowed such grace upon Thy priests that whatever is worthily and conscientiously performed by them in Thy name is accounted to be done by Thee, we beseech Thy immeasurable clemency that where we are about to visit, Thou also wouldst visit, that we are about to bless, Thou wouldst also bless, that Thou wouldst lend Thy mighty right hand of power to all which we are about to do, and that at the coming of our humble person (by the merits of Thy saints) the demons may fly away and the angels of peace may enter in. Through Jesus Christ, our Lord, etc.
“O God of angels, God of archangels, God of prophets, God of apostles, God of martyrs, God of confessors, God of virgins and all right-living men, O God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ I call upon Thee and I suppliantly invoke thy Holy Name and the compassion of Thy radiant Majesty, that Thou wouldst lend me aid against the spirit of all iniquity, that wherever he may be, when Thy name is spoken, he may at once give place and take to flight. Through Jesus Christ Our Lord.
“I adjure thee, O serpent of old, by the Judge of the living and the dead; by the Creator of the world who hath power to cast into hell, that thou deport forthwith from this house. He that commands thee, accursed demon, is He that commanded the winds, and the sea and the storm. He that commands thee is He that ordered thee to be hurled down from the height of Heaven into the lower parts of the earth. He that commands thee is He that bade thee depart from Him. Hearken, then, Satan, and fear. Get thee gone, vanquished and cowed, when thou art bidden in the name of Our Lord Jesus Christ Who will come to judge the living and the dead and all the world by fire. Amen.”
This is followed by the recitation of the first five of the Gradual Psalms (119 to 123) which the priest is to repeat while he visits every part of the house and sprinkles it with Holy Water or blessed salt — ending his round with a few verses as an introduction to this appropriate prayer:
“Do Thou, O Lord, enter graciously into the home that belongs to Thee; construct for Thyself an abiding resting-place in the hearts of Thy faithful servants, and grant that in this house no wickedness of malicious spirits may ever hold sway. Through Jesus Christ Our Lord.”
The second set of five Gradual Psalms are then recited while the priest renews his walk-through of the entire building — again sprinkling Holy Water and ending with a different prayer:
“O God, omnipotent and never-ending, who in every place subject to Thee, pervadest all and workest all Thy Will, comply with our entreaty that Thou be the protector of this dwelling, and that here no antagonism of evil have power to resist Thee, but that, by the co-operation and virtue of the Holy Spirit, Thy service may come first of all, and holy freedom remain inviolate. Through Jesus Christ Our Lord.”
Then for the third time the whole house is sprinkled — while the five remaining Gradual Psalms are recited, ending with another prayer:
“O God, who in every place subject to Thee are present as guardian and protector, grant us, we beseech Thee, that the blessing on this house may never slacken, and that all we who join in this petition may deserve the shelter which Thou affordest. Through Jesus Christ Our Lord.”
Upon this follows the extract from the gospels concerning Zaccheus, the publican, which is read in the Mass for the dedication of a church. Incense is then put into the thurible, the whole house is incensed, and after the prayer Visita, quasumus, Domine, habitationem, istam, and so forth, the priest gives his blessing, once more sprinkles holy water, and departs.
“For the exorcism of an energumen, as pointed out in the Codex of Canon Law (c. 1151), special faculties must be granted by the Ordinary, but this does not seem to apply to the use of such a form as that which has just been summarized, seeing that it concerns not a person, but a place. On the other hand no ceremonial of this liturgical character ought to be employed by private initiative or without episcopal sanction,” wrote Father Thurston.
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