Our real demons

Today if you close your eyes and try to picture the Last Supper, that image will spontaneously come to mind, even though scholars assure us that this is not how Jesus and his disciples would have been seated at that meal. Such is the power of art.

Sep 23, 2022

Painting of St Francis Borgia performing an exorcism, as depicted by Goya. (Wikimedia)


By Fr Ron Rolheiser

What’s in an image? An image can imprint itself indelibly into our consciousness so that we cannot not picture a thing except in a certain way. Take, for instance, Leonardo da Vinci’s famous painting of the Last Supper. Today if you close your eyes and try to picture the Last Supper, that image will spontaneously come to mind, even though scholars assure us that this is not how Jesus and his disciples would have been seated at that meal. Such is the power of art.

Sadly, this is also true for how we spontaneously picture devils and exorcisms. Movies about demon possession, like Rosemary’s Baby, have imprinted certain images inside of us so we picture someone possessed by a demon as a person with a wild, contorted, hate-filled face, floating up to the ceiling, spewing out sick mustard coloured liquid from his mouth, in a room smelling of poisonous gases. Our picture of an exorcism then is that of a very ascetic-looking priest, dressed in heavy blacks, a stole around his neck, calling out Jesus’ name as he sprinkles holy water, with the devil shrieking aloud as he retreats. That’s our image of demon possession and exorcism. Such is the power of art!

But, normally that’s not at all how demon possession and exorcism look like. Indeed, picturing the devil and an exorcism in that way is more harmful than helpful because demons are more subtle and exorcisms are more demanding than that picture would have us believe.

What do demons inside of us actually look like? Well, an image of a contorted face spewing out poisonous gasses and shrieking out hate can in fact serve us well. As a metaphor, that works.

However, in real life that contorted, hate-filled face is too often our own face, and the poison spewing out of us is really the hate-filled language we hurl at each other as we name-call across ideological, political, moral, and religious lines. As well, the exorcism required is not the sprinkling of literal holy water, but the sprinkling of the Holy Spirit.

What do demons actually look like?

There’s a very powerful one named paranoia who brings with him a series of other demons: distrust, suspicion, self-protection, and fear. When paranoia possesses us, we become suspicious and distrustful. Everyone begins to look like a threat, an enemy, and all our natural instincts begin to pressure us towards self-protection, and that begins to contort our faces and we begin to spew out distrust. This may be the hardest demon of all to exorcise because it is so deeply embedded inside us. It’s no accident that the word metanoia (which summarises Jesus’ challenge to us) is the antithesis of paranoia.

Then there is a demon named pride, one that keeps us forever conscious of our own specialness, a demon that would have us prefer to be special rather than happy. This demon invariably brings with him a very nasty companion called envy, a demon that paralyses our ability to admire others, bless them, and not be threatened by their successes.

Next, come the demons of gluttony and greed. Mostly these no longer tempt us towards over-indulging in food or drink and accumulating more and more possessions. Instead, these demons infect us with a greed for experience, with an obsession with drinking in everything, with an obsession to be networking socially twenty-four hours a day. Moreover, they bring with them the demon of lust; one that has us making others the object of our erotic desires and in a myriad of other ways has us not fully respecting them.

These are the actual demons that contort our faces and while none of them might make us look like the young child in Rosemary’s Baby, all of them have us spew out distrust and hatred rather than trust and understanding.

How are they exorcised? Well, these are not the kind that normally respond to a sprinkling of holy water. These need to be cast out by the Holy Spirit.


Scripture tells us the Holy Spirit “scrutinises everything”. It tells us as well that the Holy Spirit is not some abstract force that cannot be known by us. St Paul, in his Letter to the Galatians, tells us precisely who and what the Holy Spirit is. He begins with the via negativa, telling us what the Holy Spirit is not and what the Holy Spirit should never be confused with, that is, with those demons just named: paranoia, distrust, suspicion, self-protection, fear, pride, envy, greed, gluttony, and lust. The Holy Spirit is the antithesis of all of these. To the contrary, the Holy Spirit is the spirit of charity, joy, peace, patience, goodness, long-suffering, fidelity, mildness, and chastity.

Two contraries cannot co-exist inside the same subject and so an actual exorcism works this way. The more we embrace charity, joy, peace, patience, goodness, long-suffering, fidelity, mildness, and chastity, the more we exorcise paranoia, distrust, fear, pride, envy, greed, gluttony, and lust – and less demonic hatred spews from our mouths.

(Oblate Fr Ron Rolheiser, theologian, teacher, and award-winning author, is President of the Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio, TX. He writes a weekly column that is carried in over 90 newspapers around the world. He can be contacted through his website www.ronrolheiser.com.)

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