The idea of spiritual possession is found in many different cultures. Some see it as entirely involuntary, unwanted and evil. Others take a less extreme view.
Depending on the cultural context in which it is found, possession may be considered voluntary or involuntary and may be considered to have beneficial or detrimental effects on the host. Within possession cults, the belief that one is possessed by spirits is more common among women than men.¹
In Catholic teaching possession refers to the belief that a person’s body – but not the soul – is inhabited or controlled by demons or other evil influences. Possession in this sense may be temporary or permanent.
Over the centuries diverse exorcism prayers and rituals were developed by the Catholic Church to repulse what are regarded as spiritual attacks from Satan. An example of an exorcism prayer still in use is Prayer Against Satan and the Rebellious Angels, published in 1967 by order of His Holiness Pope Leo XIII.
The Swiss psychiatrist C. G. Jung used the term possession to describe the unhealthy influence of an archetype on the ego. Jung’s discussion suggests that many archetypes are equivalent in character to pagan gods, which for many are perceived as lesser than a monotheistic God.
Psychiatry complicates the belief in possession. When explaining this belief, contemporary psychiatrists look to delusional systems possibly rooted in faulty brain functioning.
However, most psychiatrists do not consider the prospect that faulty brain functioning and spiritual attack may go hand in hand.
Just as a hacker finds weak spots within a computer operating system, the devil, some maintain, exploits physiological and psychological vulnerabilities within human beings.
Could possession be permitted by God to bring about some greater good? If God permits evil, as most traditional theologians say, and if possession is another instance of evil, then it follows that God does permit the possession of souls for some unknown reason.
It’s hard for us to understand why God would permit evil when a seemingly possessed person commits an enormous sin against others. Where’s the logic in that? most cry out afterward.
For me, it is less challenging to consider the “greater Good of good and evil” when we make small mistakes, mistakes that might be at least partially explained by the notion of temporary possession.
Let me explain.
In times of extreme stress and fatigue most of us have probably experienced or witnessed someone being “beside themselves,” as the old saying goes. People say or do things they normally wouldn’t do, like hurting another person’s feelings or sparking an argument. This dynamic fits with an idea I’ve been thinking about since the 1980s—The notion of the necessary mistake.
Philosophically speaking, the necessary mistake is nothing new. It’s another way of saying inevitable sin, a concept that has been talked about since the dawn of ethical thinking. Because we are all imperfect, we are going to make mistakes (or commit sin) in life. But some believe that God may bring about a greater Good, despite our blunders. And hopefully the timing of our mistakes fits within a larger dynamic of overall improvement. That is, we all learn together.
The difference between a healthy and unhealthy response to a necessary mistake hinges upon how we respond. Do we resolve to do better next time or simply not give a damn and carry on, repeating the same mistake over and over to the detriment of self and others?
It may seem like I’ve wandered pretty far from the idea of possession. But again, possession can be temporary and, as psychiatry suggests, at least partly brought about by factors like genetics, personality, sleep deprivation, malnutrition, drug use and stress.
Conceivably, a dark spiritual force could influence us toward making mistakes if we let our guard down. And I think psychiatry, its patients and the general public would do well to consider this possibility.
In a world becoming more techno-crazed every day, it is time to bring soul, spirit and God back into the discussion of mental health and illness.²
² I once had a professor who, almost like Rasputin, seemed to have enormous powers of influence over other people. I’ll call him or her “Raspy” (not the real name). In Jungian terms, Raspy seemed to be gripped (or intermittently possessed) by an archetypal power. Raspy almost had me fooled for a while, until I saw through her or him. As the New Testament puts it, you can always judge spiritual powers by their fruit (i.e. moral outcome). In Raspy’s case, the fruit seemed rotten.