Today is Halloween — a holiday of which I am not fond. What put me off of it was getting to know a Catholic exorcist in the 1990s, here in south Louisiana. He was death on the subject of Halloween. I had always kind of rolled my eyes at the kind of people who objected to Halloween, thinking of them as scaredy-cat fundagelicals, or something like that. But here was a priest, Father Mario Termini (who died in 2002), a quiet, intense elderly cleric who dealt with evil spirits routinely, telling me not to have anything to do with Halloween. So mostly, I don’t, and haven’t. When our kids were little, we would let them trick or treat, but I was never quite settled in my heart about it.
I trusted Father Termini, because I had seen him at work. In 1992, I published this story in The Washington Times, about going with the priest and his prayer team — especially Shelby Kelly, an older Cajun lady who had a powerful spiritual gift of discernment — to a haunted house on the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain. In the event, I saw Shelby — a big woman — thrown backwards over a chair. I saw a lit candle fly up out of its holder and sail across a table, with nobody near it. As you’ll see if you read the story, I talked to the homeowner, who was so troubled by things happening around her house that, after all other attempts to address mysterious things, including inexplicable rotting in a new house, turned to the priest in desperation.
From the story:
Halloween is the most dangerous time of the year when it comes to spiritual warfare, Father Termini says, because the ancient pagan festival is the night when Satan and his minions are most active — as are Satan worshipers.
“It’s the time when Satanists practice human sacrifice, especially of children,” the priest says. “We have satanic cells around here. They exist in all big cities.”
That’s the truth, says Sgt. C.P. Wilson of the Baton Rouge City Police intelligence division. He refuses to discuss investigations in detail, but does confirm that Father Termini’s observations square with his experiences.
“This is difficult to talk about and deal with from a law enforcement standpoint,” the officer said. “Some of this stuff is so far-fetched, it’s very difficult to convince people that it’s really going on.”
Two years after all this, I called on Father Termini and his team after my grandfather died, and we had poltergeist activity around my mom an ddad’s place, all of it centered on my father. His dad, my late grandfather, had died with an unhealed breach between him and his son. I tell the story in detail in my book How Dante Can Save Your Life, in a chapter about the importance of forgiveness, so I won’t go into it in detail here. It’s important to say that my Methodist parents, neither of whom was the least bit inclined to mystical phenomena, were so rattled by the things that they saw, heard, and even felt, that they finally agreed to allow their recently converted Catholic son to call the exorcist from Bayou Pigeon to come up and deal with things.
And so Father Termini, Shelby, and Florence Delapasse, another member of their prayer team, did. It was an incredible thing to see — and a striking manifestation of the power of God, working through a priest, and through the willingness of my father to show mercy to his dead father. It was also an incredible testimony to the reality of life after death. I kept it all in mind twenty-one years later, as my own father lay dying in that same house. I made sure that Daddy and I explicitly forgave one another all our sins against each other before his passing, just in case.
I have never been able to satisfy myself theologically on the matter of ghosts. I believe they exist. I have experienced them, and not just in my mom and dad’s house. In that case, the Catholic seer Shelby — who knew nothing about our family’s story when they arrived at the house — discerned that my grandfather couldn’t move on, because he needed my father to forgive him. As best we could figure, God had allowed his soul to remain here for the purpose of asking my dad, who had served his father faithfully, despite being hurt badly by him, to forgive his sin against him (that is, against my father). Why? That didn’t fit any model of the spiritual life, or afterlife, that was in my head.
Later, back home in Washington, I had dinner with a very sophisticated Catholic priest (Father Winthrop Brainerd, of blessed memory), and told him what I had just seen down in Louisiana. Father Brainerd talked about being in Scotland, in a castle where ghostly things happened that he could not explain either, but that he could never deny happened. He said that at some point, we have to accept that there are mysteries that our theology cannot fully explain. This, I believe, is true.
There’s a strange, unforgettable took called Authors Of The Impossible, by the Rice University religious studies professor named Jeffrey Kripal. In it, Kripal argues that paranormal activity — that is, phenomenon that cannot be accounted for materialistically — happens with a lot more frequency than we admit, but we shove it to the margins of our consciousness because it cannot fit neatly into our preferred framework. Back in 2011, I wrote a column about the book, and Kripal’s work. Excerpt:
In the end, Authors of the Impossible is not a book about "The X Files" and spiritualist ooga-booga, but one about epistemology. How do we know what we know? How do we know that we are refusing to ask the right questions because we are afraid of the answers? Have we set up our modes of inquiry such that we cannot possibly penetrate these mysteries? We don't need to toss out the rational and to embrace the irrational, he argues, but we do need more balance in our approach to these things. Writes Kripal, "Why continue to tolerate a kind of armchair skepticism that has everything to do with scientistic propaganda and nothing at all to do with honest, rigorously open-minded collection, classification, and theory building, that is, with real science and real humanistic inquiry? True enough, anomalies may be just anomalies -- meaningless glitches in the statistical field of possibility. But anomalies may also be the signals of the impossible, that is, signs of the end of one paradigm and the beginning of another."
You don't have to follow Jeffrey Kripal to the far edges of the paranormal -- I certainly don't -- to agree that he's onto something. …
So, let me tell you a story about the time I helped a different Catholic priest drive a ghost out of a house in suburban Dallas. If you ask me what this means, ultimately, I am going to confess to you that I don’t know. It’s hard to square perfectly with my theological convictions. But it happened like this.
Back in 2004, I was working as a writer and editor at The Dallas Morning News. I told a ghost story in the pages of the paper around Halloween — the one about my grandfather’s haunting — and drew a response from a reader. She asked if we could meet so I could hear her story. I met her at the Starbucks on Northwest Highway.
B. was middle-aged, smart, pretty, but looked weary, as if she carried a great burden. She told me that a couple of decades earlier, she and her husband had bought a house in a particular neighborhood in Dallas, a historic one. On the same street, an occult fellowship of some sort — or so the neighbors believed — purchased a house, and began holding meetings there. The people on the street couldn’t figure out what was happening, but there were always lots of cars, and strange people going in and out, and other unusual phenomena.
The rhythms of the strange house disturbed the neighborhood, mostly because of all the people there at weird hours. Some of the neighbors went to the people renting the house and complained. Nothing happened. Eventually they complained to the landlord, who evicted the cultists. Quiet returned to the street.
But then, bad things started happening to all the families on the street. Seriously bad things. In B.’s case, her marriage broke up. She told me that everybody on that block suffered a terrible blow of one sort or another, and that they were convinced it was connected somehow to the occultists they had caused to be evicted.
That, though, was not why B. looked so downcast. She told me that the world of spirits was still oppressing her. After the divorce, she moved into a brick house in a Dallas suburb with her two children. Now the girls were gone, but the feeling of heaviness that had been in that house since they moved in a decade or more earlier lingered. She began to cry. She wanted to be free of it. B. wasn’t a practicing Christian, but she was open to me calling a priest to come bless her house.
I contacted my friend Father P., who had never had experience with evil spirits, but who certainly believed in their reality, and who agreed to come bless the house. We drove there together. It was a perfectly ordinary brick house in a subdivision. B. welcomed us in. I immediately sensed the feeling of weight and oppression in the house, as if there were an overcast spirit keeping the place shrouded in gloom.
A few seconds after we stepped in, Father P. asked B., “Who else is here?” He heard voices in a back room.
“You hear them too!” B. said. Me, I had heard nothing, but then, I lost the upper range of my hearing years ago, after a 1991 Van Halen concert. B. told Father P. that she and her daughters had heard voices in that house since they moved in, but the voices were so liminal that they could not pick out what they were saying. The fact that Father P. heard them when we entered, and had assumed that someone else was living in the house, was a sign to us all that we were dealing with something real.
After a minute or two, Father P. asked us to pray, and when we were done, he led us around the house, me carrying a pail of holy water, and him dipping his aspergillum into it to draw up the holy water so he could scatter it in each room. We paraded through the house, into one the bedroom of one of B.’s daughter’s. A shared bathroom connected that room to another bedroom at the far end of the house, where B.’s other daughter once stayed. As we passed single-file behind Father P. through the bathroom, an electric wave passed over us all, making my hair stand on end.
“What was that?!” I gasped. Father P. had felt it too. B. said, “That has happened a lot when we have gone into this bedroom.”
We moved on into the bedroom, and Father P. blessed it. When he opened the closet, on the inside of the closet door there were about thirty stickers, the kind that say, “Hello, My Name Is.” They all had the same name on them — I forget the name, but it was an old lady name, like “Mabel”. One of the stickers said, “Christmas 1967” — the woman had clearly worn it to a holiday party, and put it on the back of her closet door when she was undressing.
B. explained to us that she had bought the house from an elderly couple who were moving out to a nursing home. This had been the woman’s bedroom. It had also been the center of the paranormal activity in the house.
“You’ve been living here all this time, and you never scraped these stickers off the closet door?” I said.
“No,” said B. “Every time I tried, something seemed to stop me.”
That bedroom was the final room of the house to be blessed. B. said that she needed to speak with Father P. about some private things, matters of the heart and the spirit, so I urged them to go up front, and that I would stay in that bedroom praying the rosary. They left, and I sat on the corner of the bed, fingering my rosary beads, offering the prayers so that if there were any spirits lingering in that room, in the sense that my grandfather had been bound to my father and his house, that the spirit or spirits would let go and move on.
As I sat there praying, I felt wave after wave of light electricity move over me. I wasn’t scared. I had been through this kind of thing before. I stayed focused on my prayers, asking the Holy Spirit to free those bound to this place. I whispered out loud, “Go to Jesus. He is calling you. Go.” I asked for the Blessed Virgin Mary to join me in praying for the purification of this house, and the freeing of any spirits bound there.
After seven or eight decades of the rosary, I saw clearly in my mind’s eye a small, wrinkled old woman, naked, from behind, standing before a large cross. Her hair was white and tightly permed. I couldn’t see her face. She walked into the cross, and disappeared. I felt something physically lift in the room, as when a dark cloud moves on, allowing a sunbeam to fall on the people below.
I called out to B. and Father P. to come quickly. When they burst in, B. said, “It’s gone!” She felt it too: the absence of heaviness.
And so it was. B. said she had never once experienced this in her house. It felt light and clean, she said. When we told B. goodbye, she was a different woman. She seemed overwhelmingly relieved.
Three days later, I was at my desk at the newspaper when the phone rang. It was B. I asked her how things were going at the house.
“Wonderful,” she said. “I haven’t felt this kind of peace in the house since we moved in. I’m sleeping soundly for the first time in forever. But the weirdest thing happened last night. I woke up in the middle of the night, and my bedroom was filled with the aroma of roses. It was overwhelming. I wasn’t dreaming it, either. I didn’t know what to think. Do you think the ghost is back?”
“No, that’s not it at all!” I told her, laughing. “That’s the Virgin Mary. She brings the smell of roses. This was her telling you that you are blessed, that the Lord has set you free, and that she is there with you.”
Before too much longer, B. phoned me to tell me that she wanted to convert to Catholicism. She had been so profoundly moved by the power of God, through the ministry of a Catholic priest, and through my Catholic prayers, that she wanted to join herself to the Church. I felt a bit strange about this, because I was going through what I now know was my de-conversion from Catholicism, but I didn’t realize it at the time. I thought, Does she know what she’s in for? But I also knew that my experience of Catholicism, which had by then become completely dominated by issues stemming from the abuse scandal, was not typical. I wanted to be protective of her. Father P., who had blessed her house, lived an hour outside the city, but I had someone closer to home in mind. I offered to put her in touch with a solidly conservative Catholic priest I knew — one who would catechize her straightforwardly. My wife and I love this priest, I told B., who said she would love to meet him.
So I did, and she began meeting with the priest-catechist. B. loved him. He was charismatic and intelligent, and was really making the Catholic faith come alive. I was so thrilled for her. We met at a Starbucks to talk about her path to conversion. I saw before me a very different woman from the one I had first met at the coffee shop. She was renewed, and full of life. As a Catholic whose faith was sorely tried by the scandal, it was encouraging to see the faith emerging through the eyes of an innocent woman on the path to conversion.
Then she told me something about the priest-catechist that startled me. It was in direct contradiction to something he had told me about himself and his past. When I arrived back home, I went online to do some searching. I discovered that this priest had lied to me and to B. about who he was. He had in fact been suspended from ministry in his former diocese after an allegation (never proven, I should say) that he had molested a teenage boy. He talked his way into serving unofficially in a ministerial capacity at an area parish, whose pastor never told the local bishop what was going on.
I came out of my home office, and told my wife that Father So-and-so isn’t who we think he is. I gave her the truth. She fell to her knees in our living room, sobbing. “We can never trust any of them again,” she wept. No, I said, we can’t.
Our relationship with the Catholic Church had been under terrible strain because of the scandal, but learning this about that priest, whom we had trusted, especially around our children, was the final straw, though we only would understand that later. Within a year, we were attending an Orthodox parish, and within two years, we were no longer Catholic. For her part, B. was received into the Catholic Church. Though I lost touch with her after we moved away from Dallas a decade ago, the last I heard, B. was a happy Catholic.
For my wife and me, the Orthodox Church was the only place we could go, theologically. It’s hardly worth explaining here, but for us, the Christian Church is not just an institution, but a spiritual entity through which the power of the One True God flows in a particular way. Though Catholicism does not recognize Protestant priestly orders as sacramentally valid, it does view Orthodox orders as legitimate. We started attending an Orthodox parish when we were shattered by our loss of trust in the Catholic clergy, not because we wanted to become Orthodox at the time, but because as Catholics, we knew that even though we could not receive holy communion there, we would at least be in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist. That was enough. Eventually, we were received into Orthodoxy, and have been worshipping faithfully as Orthodox Christians for over fourteen years.
Yet I still believe in the mystical power of the Catholic priesthood to exorcise demons — a power that I also, of course, believe that the Orthodox priesthood has, in a way that Protestant pastors do not. To be clear, as a Christian, I hold that all believers are in some sense equipped to channel God’s power against the evil one, through their prayers, but there is something special about ordained priests within the valid line of apostolic succession. Some sacramental charism that comes through ordination — the same power and authority that allows them to pray certain prayers over bread and wine which, through the Holy Spirit acting through their consecrated hands, turn them into the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ. When a priest comes up against evil spirits, or other spiritual entities, he is acting in persona Christi — and the demons know it, even if we mortals do not.
Orthodox Christianity believes in exorcism, but Orthodox priests tell me that in the United States, our seminaries don’t teach about exorcism and spiritual warfare. This really has to change. The battle is all around us, and is intensifying. As Father Termini told me once, he didn’t have to convince people of the reality of the demonic. “By the time they find me,” he said, “they already know.” Happily (I guess), I have only once knowingly been in the presence of a possessed person, and my experiences with the paranormal have only been with ghosts, not demons. But I know this is not something to be sought out or trifled with.
Back in October 1992, when I went with Father Termini and his team to that fancy haunted house on the north shore, he allowed me to place my tape recorder on the picnic table in the back yard where he said mass, to record everything. That’s where I took the quotes from the ceremony, the ones I used in the Washington Times story. All these years, I’ve kept that recording. Technology has changed so much that I have nothing now that I can hear it on. But if you brought me a cassette player, and if we listened to the tape (in the photo above, taken this afternoon), we could hear the hushed voice of a Catholic priest saying the mass in a thick bayou accent. We could hear the otherworldly language of two old Cajun women praying in tongues. We could could hear Shelby, the seer, sobbing as she articulates the pain of the mother who had to watch men murder her child on that spot over a century ago, before she herself was murdered by them (“He’s only eleven years old … she’s not living, and she can’t rest…”).
And we could hear Shelby shout as the evil spirit lifts her up and hurls her backward over a chair, and her gasping, telling Father Termini that the demon told her that if she took communion, he was going to knock her down.
It’s all there on the audiotape. All those people — Father Termini, Shelby, Florence, Yvette the desperate homeowner — are dead and gone now. But for as long as we can listen to audiocassettes, their voices remain with us. Hearing that eerie recording, I bet you wouldn’t have much trouble imagining how long and difficult was the drive I had back home to my mom and dad’s place from the lakeshore on that cool October evening nearly three decades ago. Nor would you have much difficult imagining why not a single Halloween has passed since then without my conscience being pricked by old Father Termini’s stern words about this dark and dread night, and his warnings not to open doors that cannot be closed without struggle. You might laugh at this, as I once would have done, but once you’ve seen it, or talked to those who have, you know it’s real. You just know.