Nevertheless, any practiced exorcist I have spoken with agrees that there is a general progress through recognizable stages in an exorcism, however long it may last.
One of the most experienced exorcists I have known and who was in fact the mentor of the exorcist in the first case related in this book, gave names to the various general stages of an exorcism. These names reflect the general meaning or effect or intent of what is happening, but not the specific means used by the evil spirit or by the exorcist. Conor, as I call him, spoke of Presence, Pretense, Breakpoint, Voice, Clash, and Expulsion. The events and stages these names signify occur in nine out of every ten exorcisms.
From the moment the exorcist enters the room, a peculiar feeling seems to hang in the very air. From that moment in any genuine exorcism and onward through its duration, everyone in the room is aware of some alien Presence. This indubitable sign of possession is as unexplainable and unmistakable as it is inescapable. All the signs of possession, however blatant or grotesque, however subtle or debatable, seem both to pale before and to be marshaled in the face of this Presence.
There is no sure physical trace of the Presence, but everyone feels it. You have to experience it to know it; you cannot locate it spatially- beside or above or within the possessed, or over in the corner or under the bed or hovering in midair.
In one sense, the Presence is nowhere, and this magnifies the terror, because there is a presence, an other present. Not a “he” or a “she” or an “it.” Sometimes, you think that what is present is singular, sometimes plural. When it speaks, as the exorcism goes on, it will sometimes refer to itself as “I” and sometimes as “we,” will use “my” and “our.”
Invisible and intangible, the Presence claws at the humanness of those gathered in the room. You can exercise logic and expel any mental image of it. You can say to yourself: “I am only imagining this. Careful! Don’t panic!” And there may be a momentary relief. But then, after a time lag of bare seconds, the Presence returns as an inaudible hiss in the brain, as a wordless threat to the self you are. Its name and essence seem to be compounded of threat, to be only and intensely baleful, concentratedly intent on hate for hate’s sake and on destruction for destruction’s sake.
In the early stages of an exorcism, the evil spirit will make every attempt to “hide behind” the possessed, so to speak-to appear to be one and the same person and personality with its victim. This is the Pretense.
The first task of the priest is to break that Pretense, to force the spirit to reveal itself openly as separate from the possessed-and to name itself, for all possessing spirits are called by a name that generally (though not always) has to do with the way that spirit works on its victim.
As the exorcist sets about his task, the evil spirit may remain silent altogether; or it may speak with the voice of the possessed, and use past experiences and recollections of the possessed. This is often done skillfully, using details no one but the possessed could know. It can be very disarming, even pitiful. It can make everyone, including the priest, feel that it is the priest who is the villain, subjecting an innocent person to terrible rigors. Even the mannerisms and characteristics of the possessed are used by the spirit as its own camouflage.
Sometimes the exorcist cannot shatter the Pretense for days. But until he does, he cannot bring matters to a head. If he fails to shatter it at all, he has lost. Perhaps another exorcist replacing him will succeed. But he himself has been beaten.