Last week the exorcism of Latoya Ammons and her children was in the headlines and it got me musing about the demonic. An old puzzle in my own mind surfaced–the question of whether demonic possession is extremely rare or extremely common.

To illustrate my speculation I’ll tell you about a man I knew long ago I’ll call Gabriel. I met Gabe when I was working in London. He was slim, fit and good looking. He had impeccable manners and a delightfully charming manner about him. He was, in every sense, a man of the world. Gabriel had started his own software company which had become incredibly successful in a very short time. I saw him in the workplace. His personality was magnetic–especially to the ladies. Rumor had it that he had bedded most of them at one time or another. I’m thinking Al Pacino in The Devils Advocate (by the way–a movie with unseemly levels of sex and violence–not for the young or the squeamish)

When Gabriel heard that I was training to be a priest his usually smiling and charming face clouded over. Another demeanor took over–only for a very brief instant. When this happened I felt a sudden chill and disgust. Then he was smiling again and saying something anodyne like, “How very interesting! I hope that works out for you….”

Some time later I was having dinner with some friends who also knew Gabriel. James was a lapsed Catholic–his wife Sally was a devout Evangelical Christian. As Sally was cooking dinner James and I sat at the table having a glass of wine. James said, “So what do you think of Gabe?”

“Do you want to know what I really think?”

“Sure” said James with a big smile.

“I think he’s demon possessed.”

At that point Sally dropped the pan of potatoes and spun around. “Do you really think that!” she gasped.

I was taken aback by the intensity of her response. I had made my comment in an almost off hand manner. “Yes. I do actually.” I replied

“That is exactly what I have been thinking for a long time!” said Sally, “but I thought I was crazy to think that since Gabe is such a nice guy. I will continue praying for him.”

So this is what I struggle with, and I hasten to add that this post is speculation. I’m just wondering, is demon possession extremely rare or extremely common? What we see in movies like The Exorcist, The Rite and stories like the one last week from Indiana are very rare in our culture, but what if these unusual stories are only the display of one stage of demonic possession–what might be called infestation. In this stage the demon shows himself. So the paranormal manifestations are clear: horrible otherworldly voices, levitation, extreme hatred of the holy, preternatural strength, bizarre physical manifestations and so forth.

This display is always one stage of possession, but what if, in some people, the preternatural phenomena only lasts for a short time–maybe even just a moment? What if that display took place at a time when bizarre behaviors would not be unusual–say when everyone is drunk at a party or when everyone is being somewhat crazy at a drug fueled rock concert? What if the display happens only momentarily in private and no-one but the person is aware of it, and even he dismisses it as a dream or “I kind went crazy there for a minute.”

We know that the demon possessed are not always frightening raving monsters. The demons more often hide within the person. When this happens other signs may indicate demonic activity: an irrational blockage to the things of God, an irrational inability to understand matters of faith, an addiction to outrageous immorality and an implacable disgust and revulsion at anything to do with God or Jesus Christ.

If all this is true, then it is possible that very many people in our society are demon possessed, but like Gabriel, they are seemingly charming, successful and even delightful people–or they might just be the ordinary folks next door. They have no place for God or religion in their lives. They live totally for themselves and their own pleasure. Although they have a facade of niceness and good manners, one realizes that they have no morals and would do anything to promote their own way in the world. It would make sense–if Satan has so many under this sort of control–that he should not manifest himself in more obnoxious and obvious ways. Why stir things up with spooky and scary behaviors when they’re already walking with him?

If my speculation is correct, then there may be millions of people going around leading seemingly ordinary lives who are, in fact, controlled by the evil one. They are addicted to greed, selfishness, promiscuity, pornography and all sorts of perversions. They are given over completely to the things of this world, but hey, that’s just normal right?

The only time their problem reveals itself is when they are challenged by Jesus Christ and his church. First they drift away from Mass, then they turn away with an irrational and stubborn resistance, and if pushed they will become aggressive or even violent against God and his church.

I wonder about these matters, and then I argue with myself and say, “The thought is too frightening. Surely that can’t be true. Surely the opposite is true. These are just ordinary nice folks. Sure, demon possession exists, but it is extremely rare….

Or is it?

UPDATE: For an example of the influence of the demonic in ordinary life. Read this astounding account of the deathbed of musician Lenny Kravitz’ father. His father, Sy Kravitz had lived a sinful life of promiscuity and adultery, then he had an amazing spiritual experience. This story is from a long interview with Kravitz here in the Daily Telegraph. H/T to Rod Dreher who also comments on the story here.

Eventually, his father had to go to hospital. That’s where it happened.

‘It sounds like…’ Kravitz begins, and then says, ‘It’s going to sound like whatever it sounds like, but this is what it was. I mean, spiritually hospitals are very intense places. It’s like death’s doorstep. And he was in his bed one night and he looked at me, and he wasn’t on drugs, and he said to me, “There are these things flying around my bed, and these things crawling on the floor.” I said, “What are you talking about?” This is from my dad. He doesn’t do with any kind of spiritual thing. No heebie-jeebie kind of thing. And he’s, “There’s black-winged things and they’re flying around my bed… the things that are crawling on the ground, they look like they’re rats and they’re not… I see them.” I didn’t quite know how to take it. And he then began having this revelation and he accepted Christ – this is a non-religious Jewish man – and somehow the spirit world opened up to him. Almost like he had spiritually been bound his whole life and now this thing was released.’

After this spiritual experience, his father started answering some of the questions Kravitz would never get answers for. When Kravitz asked him before, “Why did you do what you did? Why did you do this to Mom?”, his father would stonewall. ‘That’s just the way it is,’ he would say. But a couple of nights after the experience, sitting in hospital with Lenny and his two half-sisters, Sy started talking. ‘He apologised to us in the most sincere, heartfelt manner. “I am sorry for what I’ve done, how I’ve been, how I’ve treated you, and I love you.” Real. And it was shocking… And what he said to me is that he always wanted to change his life, and he felt there was this thing on his back and he couldn’t get it off. His whole life, he knew inside himself that he wanted to change. But, he said, “I couldn’t.”?’

There would be one further unexpected moment: ‘As he got closer to his death, another night in the hospital, he was really tired and he looked over at me and he goes, “There’s angels all around the room. Because of Jesus.” And that was it. He turned and looked away. If you knew my dad – it was the furthest thing from him.’