On an early spring day when I was thirteen years old, my dad was miraculously healed of MS. During an Easter Sunday service he got up out of his wheelchair after four long years. He walked around like he had never been sick a day in his life, sloughing off the twisted feebleness like a man sloughing off smelly clothes.
That sort of day will change things. It will surely change a man who was previously unable to provide bread for the family table. Given it was God who put him back in the breadwinning role, you can bet it upped his dedication to follow a more dedicated spiritual life—and my dad wasn’t about the business of going anywhere without taking the family with him.
Soon after the healing I was forced to finger through small, black, rosary beads, reciting the required number of “Hail Marys” and “Our fathers.” Over summer-school break, I was regularly carted off to mid-week mass. And not reading my Bible was not an option given to me. I didn’t let myself feel resentment over this compulsory spiritual servitude—after all, God had healed my dad. On the other hand, I wasn’t exactly riveted by all the required religious practicing either.
This newfound family zeal for God carried right on into the fall, all the way through the weekend of Thanksgiving break. After morning mass on Sunday, a group of eight or so descended on our house for prayer. My dad had managed to gather a bit of a following as the guy who Jesus called up out of a wheelchair. I don’t recall who was there with the exception of a young, bearded man named Michael. For the last several months, he had been living at a monastery preparing to take his vows to become a monk. Around his neck hung an amulet, a tiny vial of holy water, blessed, he said, beside the ancient river Jordan.
I had seen prayer meetings unfold at our house before. But as an early adolescent boy, several hours of reverent supplication seemed boring. So I would always slip out unseen, hoping to avoid the tedium. This meeting, as it turned out, was far different from the usual affair. All through the late morning, and all through the afternoon they carried on their holy quest. And despite my initial success at disappearing, by early evening I was dragged into their midst. It was deemed too important for me to be absent. I begrudgingly entered the solemn circle as my dad started to talk about how Jesus was coming back tomorrow. Everyone seemed genuinely excited.
As an adult looking back on it now, it all seems so insane. But people hunger for something more real than normally gets served up to them in their day-to-day. And given what had recently happened to my dad, I can see how these folks ate it up.
As for me, I felt mostly disconnected from it all. Perhaps I had little twinges of excitement or of fear, but I fully forced them down. Meeting Jesus would be cool, but how could he come back in glory tomorrow? On the other hand, if he wasn’t really returning, what did that say about my dad? It felt better not to think or feel too much about any of it. But I was trapped. And as the fervent chatter ensued and the thank-you-Jesus prayers intensified, I just wanted to be away.
The prayers poured out, the night slipped into the wee hours of the morning, and things got even weirder. My dad spoke of hell’s minions fiercely fighting to thwart the very plans of God. As his rantings continued on, he took charge. He ordered us to battle-on because Satan’s hordes were here, right outside our house, trying to get in. “Pray harder! Rebuke those demons in Jesus’s name,” he barked. “Don’t you see that one? He’s at the window trying to get in.”
At first the small assembly huddled closer in, redoubling their efforts to keep evil at bay. But their pleas for protection only lasted so long before a crack of uncertainty appeared. A woman in the group uttered a prayer for discernment, followed by a simple, obvious question: “Is this really happening? I don’t see or feel any demons.”
The response was immediate. “She needs prayer! Ole Slew Foot is causing her to doubt.” They sat her in one of our beat-up brown dining room chairs. Anointing her forehead with olive oil, they set about the task of casting out a demon. As the prayers for deliverance went up, a multitude of hands were laid on her head, neck, and shoulders. But these were not hands that reassured and nurtured. They were hands that assaulted with little jerks and thrusts, jostling her as if to somehow push the hell-spawn from her body.
After that, no one else had the guts to openly offer doubts. But this woman’s words had conjured up a cloud of suspicion, and so a kind of inquisition-ing began. Anyone seeming less than enthused was ferreted out and then sat in that straight back chair to receive the holy rite. I do believe a great evil was at work, but not along the lines that these “true” believers reckoned.
Now you might think a thirteen-year-old boy would be in fear when demons came knocking at his door. But none of it seemed real to me. At some point, I too became a victim of this witch-hunt for doubters. I don’t recall what got me stuck in that chair—maybe it was my lackluster laying on of hands or my not-robust-enough prayers to the Almighty. But I do remember all those hands raining down on me in such a savage fashion. Pushing, thumping, and jolting me, they worked to bring deliverance. Maybe they had love for me. But I felt none of it. All I felt was their fear as they went about their exorcism.
As the Monday morning sun rimmed the horizon, my dad led us outside. Stepping cautiously onto the cold, gray slab, we all made our way to the front-porch railing. My dad instructed us to look out onto the lawn. From this safe vantage point, he described the yard as littered with lifeless corpses of demons—carnage from our nighttime prayer-battle. One hapless woman stepped off the porch to have a closer look, thinking her spiritual vision would perhaps be improved by proximity. But my dad’s sharp caution brought her scampering right back: “Whoa! Be careful not to step on that one there, I think he’s still alive.” I, for one, couldn’t see a thing—nor feel a thing. Eventually we all went back inside.
As the day rolled on, the hopeful souls who had gathered the previous morning started to realize that Jesus wasn’t really coming back. By midmorning they were beginning silently to sneak away—no goodbyes or explanations, they just got up as if to go to the bathroom or to get a drink from the kitchen, and then slipped out the back door. By early afternoon everyone was gone except for the soon-to-be monk, Michael. I’m not sure why he stayed.
The thinning crowd made this farce less and less sustainable—the wheels were coming off the cart. My dad went into the bedroom then, for some reason—I’m not sure why. He came back moments later with a quizzical, ain’t-it-the-darndest look on his face. “I can feel wings growing in my back,” he said with glee, “I think I am becoming an angel.” I don’t know why this particular bit of craziness woke my mother from her own delusional slumber. But something snapped in her just then. She made it clear: she too was finally done. And out came wrath as my dad snarled and slapped her.
As I bore witness, I was flooded with feelings for the first time since he started us down this dark road. Utter dismay came first. I’d never seen my dad lay a hand on my mom. (Which is weird as I think about it now—weird that it shocked me. He seemed to have no qualms about slapping or punching me in all the years prior to this.) Next came fear. Reality felt unhinged. My mom started crying. I was swallowed up by dread: What in the world was going to happen?
Everything sped up. Dad stormed off. Mom stopped crying. Michael whisked Mom away. They plotted in the kitchen. They broke Michael’s vial. They coaxed Dad into the hallway. They hit him with a drop of the holy water. And then suddenly . . . Dad was back in his right mind. They acted like it was all over and done. They seemed relieved. I wasn’t.
After a time, we all went to bed, exhausted from being trapped in that bad dream for so long. We never spoke of it again. The next day, I was back in school. Life went on as if it didn’t really happen. But I knew it did. And so did my mom. For several years thereafter, she carried around her own little bit of personal protection—a smallish vial of holy water.
Cover image by Alex Simpson.