In popular culture, exorcism is commonly associated with the Roman Catholic Church. In reality, this practice dates back thousands of years. In the undivided Church, exorcisms were routine and were entrusted to a separate category of the clergy. The rite of exorcism is also practised in the Orthodox Church. Moreover, from ancient times to the present day, it has been performed on every member of the Church. Keep reading to know more about the origins of exorcism and its practice throughout the history of Orthodoxy.
Examples from the Gospel and the Apostle
The Bible teaches us about the reality of demonic powers and presents multiple examples of casting out demons. The Saviour Himself healed several demon-possessed people (see Mt 8, Luke 8), some of whom had been brought to him by others (see Matthew 4:23-24).
Here, one should bear in mind three important points.
- Christ endowed His apostles with the power to drive out demons (cf. Luke 9:1-2) and He explicitly commanded them to use this power as He was sending them to preach (cf. Mt 10:5-8).
He also made it known that demonic forces existed, and we all had the duty to resist them. Moreover, in his last sermon before the Ascension, the Risen Lord called the ability to cast out demons a sign that follows those who believe (see Mk 16:17). Therefore, as long as there are believers, there must also be in the Church the practitioners of exorcism.
- He never entered any long conversations with the demons he was casting out. He limited himself to brief commands (cf. Luke 4:32-36), and rarely asked to know anything but their names. (cf. Mark 5:9).
Now the meaning of this fragment may not be evident to all, but it offers valuable insights into the practice of exorcism today.
- Exorcism is a gift that only a few people possess
In chapter 9 of the Gospel of Mark, the Apostle John tells Christ that his disciples have seen a man casting out demons in the name of Jesus Christ. The Apostles told him to stop because he was not one of them. But Christ disapproved of their intervention and told them to let that man continue what he was doing (see Mark 9:38-41). As the narrative shows, exorcism was accessible to men who did not belong to the apostles and were not even members of the clergy, but who strongly believed in Christ.
Chapter 19 of the Book of Acts gives a different example. Some Jewish spell casters, sons of a high priest, attempted to drive out an evil spirit in the name of Christ with the words: “We adjure you by the name of Jesus, whom Paul preaches”. They failed. From the body of the demon-possessed, the devil replied, “I know Jesus, and I know Paul, but who are you?”. Then he gave the men a beating. This episode guards us against the mystical perception of the Good News and the Name of Jesus.
Exorcism in the ancient Church and beyond
Originally, exorcism was a part of the preparation for baptism in catechetical schools. Nowadays, it is usually enough for someone willing to be baptised to ask for baptism, profess his faith and attend a few catechetical lectures. However, in ancient times, preparing for baptism could take years. Exorcism – or several acts of exorcism – was ordinarily performed on the catechumen before they were baptised. After Baptism, the rite of exorcism could only be performed on a Christian if they displayed clear signs of being possessed, or if they were good to suspect it.
Participation in several exorcisms during the weeks preceding Baptism was a requirement in the catechetical school of St Hippolytus, the Pope of Rome in the second and third centuries. In the Church of Jerusalem in the fourth century, every class session with the catechumen began with exorcism, and it was not uncommon to perform the ritual daily. Frequently, exorcism was the first ritual a baptism candidate was asked to undergo after requesting to be baptised1.
Еxorcism was given so much attention that in the minds of many candidates, it was one of the highest barriers to baptism they had to surmount. In his discourse on the Holy Baptism, St Gregory the Theologian advised the catechumen,
«Do not reject the medicine of exorcism, nor refuse it because of its length. This, too, is a touchstone of your right disposition for grace.»
The need for such frequent and prolonged exorcisms was due to the belief of ancient Christians that the susceptibility of unbaptised people to sin was due to their exposure to evil spirits.
Typically, exorcism and fasting went together. This practice was meant to be reminiscent of Christ’s hermitage in the desert, where He fasted and resisted the devil’s temptations.
How was exorcism performed?
Across the churches, the rite of exorcism had only two things in common: calling on the name of Christ (prayer) and blowing.
In the West, exorcisms were shorter, and sometimes included nothing else but the two elements above. In the East, exorcism was accompanied by instructive discourses and symbolic acts visualising the pangs of hell and building on select Bible verses and writings of the Holy Fathers. Sometimes, the candidates drank brine (as salt was believed to give strength to the body). To strengthen the spirit of the candidate, multiple prayers were said.
In the West, incantatory prayers were short quotes from the scripture, but in the East, they were much longer. As an illustration, here are some examples of the short prayers that accompanied the rite of exorcism in the Church of Toledo:
The Lord rebuke you, Satan! The Lord who has chosen Jerusalem rebuke you! (Zachariah 3:2).
Away with you, Satan! (Matthew 4:10).
Behold, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has prevailed. (Rev 5:5)
Compare these to the first of the four incantatory prayers of St John Chrysostom:
Prayer One: O Eternal God, Who has redeemed the race of men from the captivity of the devil, deliver Thy servant/handmaid from all the workings of unclean spirits. Command the evil and impure spirits and demons to depart from the soul and body of your servant/handmaid and not to remain nor hide in him/her. Let them be banished from this the creation of Thy hands in Thine own holy name and that of Thine only begotten Son and of Thy life-creating Spirit, so that, after being cleansed from all demonic influence, he/she may live godly, justly and righteously and may be counted worthy to receive the Holy Mysteries of Thine only-begotten Son and our God with Whom Thou art blessed and glorified together with the all-holy and good and life-creating Spirit now and ever and unto the ages of ages. Amen.
To read all four prayers of John Chrysostom, follow this link: https://fightwitchcraft.blogspot.com/2016/07/exorcism-prayer-by-st-john-chrysostom.html
Who could perform an exorcism?
There were two traditions. In the first, the ability to perform exorcisms was viewed as a gift of the Holy Spirit, similar to prophecy or miracles. Therefore, anyone who had this gift of God could manifest it actively in the congregation. The Apostolic Statutes state: «An exorcist is not ordained. For it is a trial of voluntary goodness, and the grace of God through Christ by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. For he who has received the gift of healing is declared by revelation from God, the grace which is in him being manifest to all. But if there be the occasion for him, he must be ordained a bishop, or a presbyter, or a deacon».
In the second tradition, exorcists must be formally ordained as such. In the clerical hierarchy, exorcists ranked between the reader and deacon. In the absence of an exorcist, a deacon or priest could perform the rite of driving out the demons. Eventually, this tradition prevailed and was formalised in the rules of the Ecumenical Councils. “No one shall be permitted to exorcise in churches or homes unless he has been ordained as a bishop” (Canon 26 of the Council of Laodicea).
Where are all the exorcists now?
As already stated, the practice of exorcism in the early church was mainly associated with catechetical schools. From the end of the fifth century, it began to decline for several reasons. For example, most baptisms began to be performed on newborn children of Christian parents, not on former Pagans who had consciously received Christ. As the demand for catechetical schools reduced, so did the need for exorcists.
Nevertheless, the practice of exorcism did not go out of existence. It is still performed by every member of the Orthodox Church. Exorcism is now a part of the sacrament of Baptism when the catechumen renounces Satan and enters union with Christ”. In this “Baptismal Exorcism”, the catechumen renounces Satan thrice by spitting and blowing towards the west2.
Remarkably, prayers for the demon-possessed can be found among the liturgical texts of later periods, such as the Sinai Euchology, the Trebnik of Peter Mogyla, or the Great Trebnik. That does not mean that exorcisms were common in these times: Trebniks often include rites that are used rarely if at all (such as fraternisation, or taking a bishop on a donkey ride). However, occasional reliable reports about the use of exorcism exist, such as the biography of Patriarch Nikon. Exorcisms were still practised, but only in exceptional cases.
Modern practices and controversies of exorcism
Modern practices of exorcism differ across the local Orthodox Churches. In the Patriarchate of Alexandria, the Patriarchate of Antioch, the Hellenic Orthodox Church, the Polish Orthodox Church, and the Orthodox Church of America only baptismal exorcisms are performed. Еxorcisms are practised with some degree of regularity in the Patriarchates of Jerusalem and Georgia and the Orthodox Church of Czechia and Slovakia. In the Serbian Patriarchate, the Sacrament of Holy Unction is used to heal the demon-possessed. In other Churches, exorcisms are very rare.
How are exorcisms performed today?
Two different rites are used. The first is from the Great Trebnik and the second is from the Trebnik of Petr Mohyla. The exorcism of the Great Trebnik is a synthesis of several ancient rites and includes the opening prayers, psalms, readings from the Apostle and Gospel, and the invocatory prayers of St Basil the Great and St John Chrysostom. The exorcism from the Trebnik of Petr Mohyla is a modification of the Catholic rite of exorcism, with components of Greco-Slavic origin. In different Churches, one rite may be more common than the other, but in general, the exorcism from the Great Trebnik is used more often.
In the 20th-century Russian Church, exorcism experienced a renaissance. In the early decades, some exorcists were saints, e.g. St. John of Kronstadt, the Venerable Seraphim (Amelin) and Seraphim (Romantsov) of Glinsky Monastery, among others. In its present form, exorcism – better known by the term “otchitki”, began to spread in the 1990s, in the wake of growing interest in religion among the masses after the demise of the Soviet Union. It was a propitious time not only for traditional religions but also for unconventional religiosity, occultism, destructive sects and cults. In these circumstances, the rise of exorcism was surrounded by controversy, and marred by errors on the part of its recipients and practitioners.
The desirability and usefulness of the practice were called into question, particularly in cases of multiple exorcisms performed on one person. One clergyman shared this comment: “I read in the hagiographies of the saints of old expended enormous effort to heal a single person from possession. Nowadays, people are arriving to receive an exorcism by the busload. I wonder what has happened. Have our priests become greater ascetics than Saint Sergius of Radonezh, or have the demons become more willing to compromise?”
In addition, the following problems were mentioned: performance of the chrismation without the blessing of the bishop; performance of the chrismation for mercenary motives; signs of psychological violence towards people undergoing chrismation, such as videos recorded and published in open sources; false rabies and cries, magic, consumer perception of exorcism; spiritual harm to priests who practised exorcism frequently.
However, these controversies do not necessarily suggest that the practice of exorcism is fundamentally flawed or archaic, and should be discontinued.
In response to these common abuses, the hierarchs of the Russian Church drafted a guideline “On the attitude of the Russian Orthodox Church’s Attitude to the present-day practices of Exorcism”.
The document addresses the risk of abusive practices by putting forth several requirements for the practitioners and recipients of exorcism. The practitioners must:
- Receive the blessing of the diocesan bishop before practising;
- Lead an exemplary spiritual life and have sufficient experience to verify a particular person’s need for an exorcism.
- Prepare himself by fasting, prayer and contemplation, taking confession and receiving communion.
- Practise without expecting to be paid.
- Follow one of the two established rites without changing them unnecessarily.
An exorcism must not be performed on persons who are not possessed, including but not limited to:
- Patients with a mental disorder;
- Individuals with distorted views about spiritual life
- Individuals who fake demon possession
- Sufferers from passions and addictions
When to perform an exorcism
The decision should be left to an experienced priest with the blessing to perform exorcisms. Several things should be born in mind. Before we proceed to discuss them, consider this remark by Archimandrite Adrian (Kirsanov), as quoted by hieroschemamonk Valentin (Gurevich):
“I cannot name a single example of helping someone in any substantive way. I cast out one demon from a person, but seven other demons take its place (Matthew 12:45). Many people come for the exorcism more than once […] If the Lord allows demon-possession as a cross, am I truly in a position to relieve people of their crosses, even if I am doing it out of love?
When I give communion to the demon-possessed, I say to them:
“This is your cross. It does not matter how the demon acts: from outside or from within. Remember that some carry this cross to the end, and are saved by this torment.”
In his last days, Father Adrian left us a valuable insight: he has cast out many demons and suffered extensively from their revenge, but many of the people he had healed never went to church or took communion, and made themselves defenceless before another attack from the enemy.
Only when people embrace divine grace, can they protect themselves from the forces of evil.
«When an unclean spirit goes out of a man, he goes through dry places, seeking rest, and finds none. Then he says, ‘I will return to my house from which I came.’ And when he comes, he finds it empty, swept, and put in order. Then he goes and takes with him seven other spirits more wicked than himself, and they enter and dwell there; and the last state of that man is worse than the first. So shall it also be with this wicked generation.” (Matthew 12:43-45).
Of course, if God has allowed someone to suffer in this way, it must be accepted with humility and gratitude. Perhaps the severity of this trial can bring the sufferer to reform himself. As the apostle Paul commanded:
«deliver such a one to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus.» (1 Corinthians 5:5).
Before resorting to an exorcism, one should participate in the sacraments of Penance, the Eucharist, and Holy Communion, and abandon one’s sinful ways. Only in this way could one completely deliver themselves from the influence of evil powers. Еxorcism does not guarantee such deliverance: the outcome depends fully on the goodwill and providence of God.
1. This and most other historical information about the practices of the catechetical schools of the early church is sourced from Deacon Pavel Gavriluk’s monograph “History of Catechism in the Ancient Church.
2. The West in the Bible is a symbol of darkness and falsehood. In the context of the Sacrament, it is the dwelling place of Satan.