Monday, July 20, 2020

Exorcism in the United Church?

“Silence! Frenzied, unclean spirit,”
cried God's healing, holy One.
"Cease your ranting! Flesh can't bear it.
Flee as night before the sun."
At Christ's voice the demon trembled,
from its victim madly rushed,
while the crowd that was assembled
stood in wonder, stunned and hushed.

Lord, the demons still are thriving
in the grey cells of the mind:
Tyrant voices shrill and driving,
twisted thoughts that grip and bind,
Doubts that stir the heart to panic,
fears distorting reason's sight,
Guilt that makes our loving frantic,
dreams that cloud the soul with fright.

Silence, Lord, the unclean spirit,
in our mind and in our heart.
Speak your word that,
when we hear it,
all our demons shall depart.
Clear our thought and calm our feeling,
still the fractured, warring soul.
By the power of your healing
make us faithful, true, and whole.

This hymn was written in 1984 and published in the United Church hymn book, Voices United, in 1996. It wasn't written in the Dark Ages, nor even in the 1950s. No, it is recent by hymn standards, and though I am no longer a part of any church, I am astounded and appalled at the primeval horror of mental illness expressed in this hymn. Apparently, folks like me, well-meaning bipolar sorts who are just trying to live a good life, are actually demonically possessed and need Jesus/God to drive those devils out. It seems to me the actual "devils" live in the black, black hearts of people who would write and promote such rubbish in the name of "worship".

There is one small but very significant change in this hymn which I recall from its first printing in an earlier United Church hymn book. The original line read, "Silence! Frenzied, unclean spirit" - but in the "updated" version, that exclamation point has been replaced by a comma. Much depends on punctuation - I don't need to tell you, you know all the jokes. But this subtle change is immensely powerful. 

When you say, "Silence," the room may just quieten and hush down from all its chatter. But if you exclaim, "Silence!", there will be a stunned, abrupt ceasing of all noise, all talk, everything. The room and everyone in it, including those unfortunates with demons skulking around in their "grey cells", will have effectively been silenced. 

This was the only change made to the hymn in its "updated" version. But who was it that changed that exclamation point to a comma, and why did they do it? Why this dishonest softening-down of the exorcist's harsh command, allowing all that other primitive garbage to stand? Did the editor believe that "one small change" would somehow make it more palatable, or (more likely) just slip by unnoticed? This gives the church the ready, easy "out" of, "Well, nobody else has complained about it" (case closed).

But Jesus wouldn't have gotten very far with a polite request. These are DEMONS, for Christ's sake, those horrendous unclean forces lurking in our grey cells (meaning, I presume, the human brain). This is mental illness, guys, the big-time! This isn't just any old blindness or lameness or leprosy.  Asking nicely just won't work.

It seems to me the original was more true to the philosophy of mental illness as something that must be forcibly driven out by a powerful, supernatural "rebuke". Hey listen, I'd even try this if it worked, but all it does is perpetuate the most dire mistruths and distortions, sick myths that should have been flushed down the toilet decades ago, things that HURT people and even make them DIE. I happen to know that this repulsive crap is still being tra-la-la'd mindlessly in liberal churches all over the nation (the United Church being, as one wag called it, "The NDP at prayer"), and even taught to children. I remember singing it countless times in church, and nobody complained or really seemed to even notice. I felt very uncomfortable, but I kept on singing. I'm a different person now, but curiously enough, I'm still bipolar, so all that "Silence!" stuff obviously didn't work. But I have to wonder why the church continues to support the idea that a person's "demons" must be silenced. For survivors of abuse, it's a truly horrendous thought.

"Oh, it's just that we didn't SEE it." "Those were different times." That's how the excuses go, always. But why not? Why is mental illness the very last stigma to fall? It still stands like a ghastly totem, each carven image representing the leering face of a different demon (just kidding! Most of them look a lot like me.) I have an idea: rather than taking another fifty years to "raise awareness" and "start a discussion", let's take a chainsaw to this fucking thing. Just burn it to the ground. 

POST-SCRIPT. And here's the evidence. Buried in what we used to call "the green book" (Songs for a Gospel People), an older hymnary we sometimes used which tended more towards the "traditional" (perhaps, the Progressive Conservatives at prayer), I found this, the original hymn by Thomas H. Troeger, written in 1984 (though the words are more appropriate for 1884). And in this, the original version, the Lord cries, "Silence! frenzied, unclean spirit", not "Silence, frenzied, unclean spirit". What a difference one punctuation mark makes. But unclean is still unclean.

Let Sir Laurence Olivier have the last word. Driven to the hell of divorce and remarriage by his first wife Vivien Leigh and her inconvenient mental illness, he had this backhanded praise of the way she bore her supernaturally-charged cross:

In 1960, she and Olivier divorced and Olivier soon married actress Joan Plowright. In his autobiography, Olivier discussed the years of strain they had experienced because of Leigh's illness:

"Throughout her possession by that uncannily evil monster, manic depression, with its deadly ever-tightening spirals, she retained her own individual canniness—an ability to disguise her true mental condition from almost all except me, for whom she could hardly be expected to take the trouble." 

Those final words are petulant and even hateful. What he appears to be saying is that his bipolar wife did not even bother to dissemble and conceal her mental agony from her husband. She shared it, she let him in on it, and though sharing everything else in a marriage is considered essential (remember "in sickness and in health"?), well, apparently, it's everything but this. It goes without saying that it is simply in a different category.

The references to "possession", "evil monster", "deadly ever-tightening spirals", etc. are even more hateful than the archaic, terror-saturated language in that vile, detestable hymn. I feel as if I am shouting into the wind here, and I never EVER wanted to become an "advocate" for anything, but as this pandemic grinds on and on and no one in my position can find any support at all, this blog is just evolving that way. 


  1. even sounds demonic. This is horrible stuff.

    1. And yet, when I was a member of the United Church from 1991 to 2005, this is a hymn we sang in church without anyone questioning it. It made me profoundly uncomfortable, but there was this sense of "well, what can you expect". I was also told "the words aren't important", and it's true, I was in the choir and people would praise anthems, but not have any idea of the content because they weren't paying attention.