Tuesday, April 21, 2020

Saints Raphael, Nicholas and Irene and the Exorcism of Theodora in the Year 2000

By Athena Peglidou
Department of History, Archaeology, and Social Anthropology, 
University of Thessaly, Volos, Greece

During the winter of 2000, Theodora, thirty-eight, a housewife and mother of a thirteen year-old daughter, having undergone psychiatric observation for four years, and been diagnosed as suffering from depression, finally decided to have herself exorcized. It was her confessor, whom she had consulted for five years, who suggested it. During her treatment — it was a difficult case — the priest contacted the abbess of the Saint Raphaël convent on Mytilene, an important center of pilgrimage, in order to ask her to pray for Theodora. The abbess soon came to the conclusion that the convent’s three saints (Saint Raphael, Saint Nicholas, and Saint Irene) could help to cure her soul. The personal diary kept by Theodora, to which she gave me access, was a particularly interesting document as far as following the conflict between the different treatments as she experienced them was concerned. Her husband, Giorgos, always accompanied her to the Mytilene convent.

January 2, 2000: I saw the saints. I waved to them. They had a discussion about the pills. Saint Raphaël seemed very severe. I cried out because they had thrown the pills away. I saw flashes of lightning (it was the evil spirits). I had an argument with Saint Raphaël, “I want the best for you,” he said. He threw the pills into two dustbins. I asked his forgiveness. He banged his hand down very hard. “I am in charge,” he said. The other two saints followed him. I asked him: “How am I going to get to sleep at night without my pills?” Finally, I took them at five o’clock in the morning.

January 3: I took the morning’s pill at 3:30. I was retching. I wanted to be sick. I saw Saint Nicholas and Saint Irene leave the icon. Saint Raphaël remained there. I did not take my afternoon pill. I took it in the evening. I saw the icon evaporate. All the saints had gone.

January 6: I saw various things all day long. Him again (Saint Raphaël). He wanted to throw the pills down the toilet. I said to him “no don’t do it, don’t touch them.” I shouted at him: “The doctor is the person in charge here, not you.” I didn’t take any pills this afternoon. I took the evening pill at 6:00 in the morning.

January 7: I saw all three of them beckon to me from the icon. With their hands.

January 8: I saw the abbess. Saint Raphaël tore at my heart with a knife. Then he stitched me back up again. He took a pair of pincers and cut round my breast. He appeared as a surgeon and he was holding a pair of scissors. He also cut something in my head.

January 11: I was in a hospital. They were standing by my bedside. I kept my mouth shut and Giorgos was trying to open it. I kept it tightly closed. He tried again, even harder, and I screamed. I was carried into the operating theater. I told them not to touch me. I saw the lights from the operating theater. Saint Raphaël was smiling and Saint Irene, who was wearing a white dress, had a syringe in her hand. Saint Raphaël was very fierce and put some hard, fine wires in my head. Something spurted out of my head, a column of water under pressure, and he blocked it up with a plug. He tore my stomach and took out the pills, so many pills. I saw their gloved hands.

Saint Raphaël wrestled with a dark man and won. “I am in charge,” he said. At that point, he asked me if I wanted the devil and I replied that I didn’t.

January 12: I had a terrible headache. Fear, pain, and a facial contraction. I saw the dark devil very clearly with my eyes shut and even with my eyes open. I asked him to tell me where he was going. He was going into the undergrowth, near the clouds. He asked me for water and I refused. I started to cry when he left.

He was dark, tall, and had horns. I saw a black snake and the devil’s tail, I was afraid and in pain. I opened my mouth and told Giorgos to pull them out. I was retching.

I saw Saint Raphaël open his eyes wide and say to me, “It’s me and I have got rid of him.” It was a miracle. I greeted him, very pleased. I saw Saint Raphaël arrive in a little boat. I greeted him and he said “I’m coming, I’m coming.”

January 13: I saw Saint Raphaël coming out of the altar. He was tall and imposing. He was coming towards me and I felt his power. I hid under the covers to protect myself. I was shaken as though there was an earthquake. The priest came with a parcel of books sent to me from Mytilene. Without knowing what it was (in the parcel), I hid in the freezer. He put the canon of vows on my head and it was as heavy as a stone. He read it and there was an earthquake. I told myself that today a miracle would surely take place.

January 14: I saw the saint go and fetch the large bag with the pills. I told Giorgos to take it before him. He succeeded and dug a hole in the floor of the church and then covered it over. The three saints, who were pleased, threw the medicine high in the air. I saw a large ray from the sun that penetrated me. I told myself that a miracle had taken place. The devil told me that he could do nothing for me. I took the medicine, but my body was allergic to it. I was struggling, in pain, I wanted to be sick, and I was staggering about. I opened my mouth and told Giorgos to pull the snake out along with the pills. I saw Saint Raphaël a number of times on the ceiling, the curtains, and the walls.

For six months, “the time of crisis,” to quote the psychiatrist, Theodora’s soul was weakened by the hard battles between the powers of God and Satan. Her demonic possession was of long-standing duration however and even, according to her, the principal cause of her illness. Theodora had been possessed by the devil since the age of seventeen when, in the company of her friends, she had asked the spirit of her dead aunt to reveal to her who she would marry. Even if her health problems did not manifest themselves until after her marriage and the death of her first child at four months, she blamed her illness on this incident from her youth. In addition, the priest, who regularly confessed her, told her that her subsequent interest in astrology had exacerbated the situation. Theodora’s violent reactions to his prayers and exorcisms confirmed his suspicions.

We must now continue with Theodora’s views since she agreed to be healed by the Church. The domination of Evil began to be broken and she came closer to the saints. By the grace of God, the latter were able to enter into her psyche in order to rid her of Satan and install Good and, consequently, peace and health. During the constant agonizing struggle between the three saints — believed by Theodora to be her protectors — and the evil spirit, taking her pills became a decisive factor. Linked to Satan’s powers, the medicine assumed a symbolic value in that its ingestion signaled the presence of the evil spirit as far as the patient was concerned. The saints stole the pills, threw them away repeatedly, and buried them. Satan was, on the other hand, the one who struggled to make her take her medicine, competing not only with the saints, but also the psychiatrist since he had taken over the act of prescribing. Robbed of her body and soul and subjected to conflicts between the “superior powers” (including the doctor), Theodora no longer had any control over the situation. She did not want to take the pills, vomiting and claiming that her system did not allow her to take them. However, since she was in the clutches of the devil, she took them but at the wrong intervals.

First of all, Theodora’s account shows the extent of her torment with regard to the question of her medication. She saw the latter as being associated with the devil and disease rather than as a remedy. Theodora showed considerable ambivalence to the psychoactive drugs. Sometimes, they were valued for their ability to cure and were considered as a remedy, phármako, and sometimes they were rejected as constituting a genuine remedy and were, on the contrary, endowed with destructive powers, whence the parallel with pharmáki, meaning poison. The saints were therefore called upon as catalysts and protectors against the unforeseen effects of the drugs. Thus, the conflict between the patient and the doctor as well as with the suggested treatment was transferred metaphorically into another conflict, peopled by divine figures. The patient was, in effect, unable to contravene the prescription and take the risk of defying her doctor by overtly refusing it; it was the saints who forbade her to take the drugs.

Theodora did not manage to convince her doctor to minimize the dose. The more she talked of apparitions of saints and Satan, the more he prescribed drugs in order to reduce her “delirium” or her “crisis.” After this troubled period, she once again found confidence in her doctor and the prescribed treatment, despite various visits to the Saint Raphaël convent on Mytilene with the intention of praying to the saints to make her stop taking the medicine. It was, finally, after she had been exorcised that she stopped the drugs, emerged from her period of anguish and that a cure was forthcoming.

The success of the exorcism does not depend solely on reciting and understanding certain prayers. It is rather the presence of the priest and the undertaking of acts associated with good (the aspersion with holy water, the anointing with oil, and the fact that the cross or the stole are placed on the head of the possessed) that ensures the expulsion of the evil spirit. In this two-way relationship between the priest and the patient, the supernatural, which might appear to be obsolete, continues to represent the hope of physical and psychological well-being, as well as an amoral and nonreligious salvation. The views of the priest, Philothéos, who cured Theodora, were developed along the same lines as a medical discourse, offering a diagnosis and finding a precise causal explanation for her sufferings:

“It is difficult for us to understand the moment at which the devil enters a person. He manifests himself as a light illness, gradually worsening and remaining indefinable. At this point, no doctor can offer a diagnosis. Then, it becomes apparent that there is a power in the person’s body inciting him to commit destructive acts. It is possible, in fact, that the evil spirits are gradually multiplying and, thus, that their presence is becoming more intense. There are people that have been possessed by two or three whole legions of evil spirits. They take over a person’s entire body: the blood, vertebrae, arteries, joints, eyes, nails, and hair. Likewise, every nervous illness may be the work of the devil. It is he who acts on the nerves and arteries; as we say in the prayers recited to grant wishes in our Church, he devours the soul day after day. Certain patients have sensitive systems that are unable to make the slightest protest. They remain motionless, refusing to take the initiative.”

Source: From Archives de sciences sociales des religions, “And So Who Is In Charge of My Soul?” Between Psychiatry and Religious Ritual in Greece, 2013/3 (No 163).