The Devil and Man at Harvard

The Devil and Man at Harvard
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The devil will most likely not attend the Satanic black mass at Harvard on Monday.

According to the the Harvard Extension Cultural Studies Club, the event is "intended as an educational activity to provide history, context, and the origin of the ritual as part of a student-led series that explores different cultures." Christians are predictably freaking out.

But Satan most likely won't be there. He really doesn't need to be. Because as I learned from The Exorcist, the devil isn't found in wars, plagues, and big, dumb gestures by bored college kids. The devil is found in the quotidian humiliations of life: the degradation of someone's sexuality, the dehumanizing put down in an argument, the sarcastic dismissal of someone in pain. The devil doesn't need a black mass when Bill Maher, a celebrated public figure, calls Sarah Palin the c-word. He doesn't need to pilfer a consecrated host when Miley Cyrus is touching her toes in front of millions of people. He doesn't need to travel to Harvard when he can express himself in bars and on living room televisions all over the world.

This reality is revealed at the penultimate moment of The Exorcist, which is based on a true story of demonic possession that happened to a boy in Maryland. The climax of the novel was left out of the film, causing a major rift between the book's author, William Peter Blatty, and the film's director, William Friedkin. But for a lot of people, including this Catholic, it is the very heart of the story.

The scene occurs near the end of the book. Fr. Lankaster Merrin, an old priest, is explaining evil to the younger priest, Fr. Karras. The demon's target, he says, is not Regan, the innocent girl he takes over. Rather, the target is "us" -- the observers of the girl. Fr. Merrin: "I think the point is to make us despair, to reject our own humanity, Damien, to see ourselves as ultimately bestial; as ultimately vile and putrescent; without dignity; unworthy."

Fr. Merrin explains that the devil is not so much in wars or on great geopolitical dramas, but in everyday cruelties: "in the senseless, petty snipes; the misunderstandings; the cruel and cutting word that leaps unbidden to the tongue between friends, between lovers." The big stuff just doesn't have the same effect: "we don't need Satan to manage our wars." In the book the devil also seems preoccupied with degrading us sexually -- which means he's much more likely to attend Harvard Sex Week than the black mass.

In The Exorcist the demon refers to Regan's mother, an actress named Chris, as "Pig," and Regan as "Piglet." This is part of the dehumanization that Fr. Merrin talks about -- the way evil attempts to make us despair and consider ourselves animals unworthy of God's love. This is particularly effective in the story because Fr. Damien Karras is having a crisis of faith; he both doubts the existence of God and feels his sins have made him unworthy of love. The demon, as Fr. Merrin notes, "knows where to strike." At one point in The Exorcist, the demon harangues Regan's mother Chris for not caring about her daughter. Why have a black mass when this kind of toxic shame can be dished out?

But perhaps I'm dismissing the black mass too easily. While William Blatty's insights in The Exorcist are profound, there's also something to be said for not being stupid enough to mess around with things that you shouldn't. When I was in Catholic high school one of my teachers was Fr. John Nicola, a priest and exorcist who had consulted on the film.

A lot of the cases Fr. Nicola was involved in began when an otherwise smarter person decided to explore something occult or evil: a Ouija Board, "death metal" music, drugs, pornography -- or a black mass. One day in class Fr. Nicola played us a tape of a person who was demonically possessed. When you hear a sixteen year-old girl cursing in Aramaic and in a voice that sounds like a wounded bear, it makes you think. I was so rattled after class that I couldn't sleep that night. My older brother, a night owl, came into my room. I told him I was a bit freaked out by Nicola's class, which he had also taken. He asked me if Nicola had played "the tape," and I said yes. I then asked my brother what had caused the kid from The Exorcist to come to such a terrible pass. My brother said that the kid had started out just fooling around with a Ouija board.

Then he said something that, although perhaps not so artfully phrased, I never forgot. "That kid went fishing in the spiritual realm," he said, "and he caught a Great White."

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