In the book Michael leaves the states and goes to Rome to train as an exorcist, but he is a fifty-something man, experienced as a priest, and not struggling with his faith or lack thereof. Why did they change him in the film version to a young man, a transitional deacon who isn’t sure what he believes? Not to make him more relatable. It’s the writer’s job to make any character relatable at any age. And I found the old exorcist-priest to be very relatable. No, it was, I believe, to increase the contrast between the exorcist in training, who is not yet a priest and who has not made the decision to believe, with the man, Fr Lucas, who has been a priest and exorcist for many years, and has forgotten that belief is, indeed, a decision. The old priest-exorcist has begun to believe that he is the one working the exorcism. He has forgotten that only God can do such a thing and that God works through him. The old exorcist has his “bag of tricks”, as Michael calls it. The moment Fr Lucas says, in the hospital, “I failed her,” the devil finds his way in.
Fr Lucas has been making the fatal error of believing that he has the power to do something, in and of himself, that only God can do. Does this hurt or anger God? Not so much. It’s not that it angers or hurts God, it’s that it endangers and wounds Fr Lucas. And this kind of error wounds and endangers us all, both when we make this mistake, and when our priests make the same mistake in leading us. In that way, they really can and do fail us: when they fail to make the decision to believe and help us toward making the same decision. Fr Lucas didn’t fail the girl by failing to exorcise the demon but in failing to remember that of himself he could do nothing. And so, of himself, what he did was nothing. He did not allow God to work the exorcism through him. He said words but he did not pray. He went through the motions but he did not exorcise the demon.
Refusing to believe
Refusing to believe when all the evidence points to the utter reasonableness of belief is something that a two-year old does. I remember walking in the park with a friend and her little girl. That little child wanted desperately to go to the other side of the park. And didn’t care that a busy highway was between us and what she mistakenly thought was part of the park but was just more land, not part of the park at all. But would she listen as we told her this? No. She insisted on going in that direction and no amount of telling her, of taking her by the hand and pulling her the other way, would convince her. Let go of her hand and she immediately headed off in the direction of “the other park”. And certain death.
What was her response when I stopped her yet again? “You’re being bad to me. I’m telling.” When her mother did the same thing, she got the same response.
Remind you of anyone? Reminds me of any number people I know, of various ages and levels of education and assumed airs of sophistication.
Our young deacon, Michael, has all the evidence he needs yet he cannot seem to believe it, does not have belief. Until finally he comes face to face with the devil and realizes that belief is not something you have but something you do. When he is faced with deciding between the devil and God, he discovers that belief is an act. “I believe!” That’s why we have acts of faith and acts of contrition and acts of hope. Acts. “But they’re just prayers, just words,” you say. Yes, they are words and prayers but not merely words and prayers. To pray is to act with the intellect and the will.
Ah, and here we have come to the heart of the matter. Belief is an act of the will, not a mere intellectual assent, but a real act of the will. So also is love. Love resides in the will, not in the emotions. Belief and love are decisions and acts. All the evidence in the world will not sway someone who is determined not to believe and not to love.
Look at those who refuse to accept the ample evidence and refuse to believe that the earth is round. That we have put men on the moon and that we have a space station orbiting us at this very moment. What does that have to do with those who refuse to believe in God? They, too, have ample evidence for the existence of God and more than that, but still they refuse to believe and it is a refusal, plain and simple.
Of course, accepting the fact that the space station orbits our round planet makes no demands upon the man who prefers ignorance. But to decide to believe in God makes a difference in the life of the man who makes that decision. A big difference. It may, and probably will, change his entire life. He may have to change the way he is living, may have to give up “friends” who are leading him down a fatal path. He may not want to make these changes. So telling himself that he rejects belief is his way of rejecting the demands of the new life that is offered him.
Seems a lot like that two-year old, doesn’t it? She rejected our efforts to keep her out of danger and away from certain death on a busy highway until finally we had to leave the park altogether. And she continued to think that we were “being bad to her”. The man who refuses the new life offered to him, insisting that God is “being bad to him” with rules or even the natural law, the law written in our hearts, is in the same position as that young toddler.
This is why the exorcist-in-training is a young man in the film, and is in the transitional diaconate, a deacon on the way to becoming a priest. To show us that he has been that young toddler but he is now on the way out of that stage and is on his way, moving toward belief. Otherwise, why would he be in the seminary at all? It’s rather glib to say, “Oh, he only went there to get out of the mortuary business”. But there’s no evidence for that. He didn’t seem to mind it, he’d been up close and personal with death since he was a child. It’s clear that he “isn’t squeamish” when the horrible accident takes place on the rainy dark street. He wants to help people and he gets his chance to see firsthand just what it is that priests do in their everyday life.
Remember, he isn’t even a priest yet, he’s a transitional deacon, and he’s not even sure of all the right words to say, but he does it. Silver and gold, he has none, and not even his handbook for the sick and dying, but he gives her what he has. When he has to exorcise the demon possessing the exorcist, he gives what he has then, too. He gives himself, he makes his act of the will and chooses to believe and he performs a powerful exorcism, or, rather, God performs a powerful exorcism through him.
In the last scene we see that Michael returned to the states, not to his old life, but to his new one. He may struggle to believe in the years to come, we all face that same struggle. Sometimes we struggle more, sometimes less. But he knows now that belief is a decision he made and will have to make again and again. And, as a priest, he will have to help others make the same decision. And where does the priest help others daily in the struggle, the spiritual combat?
In the ordinary place of rejection of sin, in renewal of faith, in penance, forgiveness and absolution.
In the confessional.