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FASCINATING BOOK RECOUNTS CASES WHERE THE EXTREMES OF PSYCHOLOGY OVERLAP WITH POSSESSION
This is a fascinating book, even if we may take issue with many aspects. It's a re-released book by a French neuropsychiatrist named Dr. Jean Lhermitte, who died in 1959, and it investigates possession.
When is demonic attack for real? When it it psycho-physiological? When is it faked?
The examples -- the case histories -- are what astonishes.
There was Marie-Thérèse Noblet, a mystic in New Guinea, originally from France, who had a history of miraculous cures. As a youngster, and then in adulthood, Marie would suffer afflictions such as appendicitis, deafness, and even complete blindness -- and then suddenly find herself healed. One illness was cured at Lourdes and became the 32nd historically documented there. She had stigmatic-like marks. She had visions. She claimed the devil urged her to do or say bad things. He came as a "gorilla," a "dog," sometimes "a horse with flashing eye" (reminding us a tad of that sculpture in front the Denver's airport). He came as a "creature of light" with "terrible beauty" but eyes filled with hate. He came as a former beau who had wanted to marry her.
A case for a psychiatrist?
"The exorcist was then at his desk, when he saw her come in, with pale face and fast beating heart," writes Dr. Lhermitte in True or False Possession? "Unable to speak, she pointed to the drawing room. The exorcist at once went in; not a soul was there, but the air was filled with a cloud of yellow smoke, rising slowly to the ceiling."
That's tough to file away as psychiatric (though Dr. Lhermitte often tries).
Rejected by the Carmelites, due to her frailty, she eventually was to become professed, contrary to canonical procedure, as mother superior for a new congregation of sisters.
Always serene, her fruits included thousands of conversions.
Was she a mystic, or demonized? Or both?
Was the demonic aspect something sent as a suffering? Or -- as Dr. Lhermitte wonders -- "demonopathic hysterical madness."
It was after Vatican II that the Church lurched to more naturalistic explanations. But skepticism strains at many junctures. There are shades of The Exorcist. During one of Marie-Thérèse Noblet's many exorcisms, the arc of a circle made by her body gave the impression that only the heels of her feet and tip of the back of the head rested on the ground. "Her face changed, I did not recognize her," said the priest. "She had jerky movements. At first, she became rigid in great spasms. Gradually her limbs became rigid as iron. Her head was turned backwards in a terrifying way."
"Is not this a most realistic account of the demonopathic attack of hysterical patients?" asks the author, who left us this valuable recollection. "It is an attack that all the neurologists -- attentive and conscientious observers -- have often observed, but unlike others they have not been duped by it." Using a slew of newfangled medical explanations -- pathological mental automatism, dissociation from the superego, sensitive-sensorial disorder, mythomania, somnambulism, hystero-epilepsy, "mass hysteria" (vaguely defined as an aggregation of many other psychological abnormalities) -- Dr. Lhermitte challenges the supernatural nature of most cases because they bore similarities to cases in his own file that he had classified as psychiatric.
Yet, the "demonic" attacks, he noted, while on the surface very similar, were quite unlike epilepsy in duration (lasting longer, yet without the same level of exhaustion). In many cases, is there a joining of psychological and demonic? Do spirits -- which operate at the intersection of mind and body -- exacerbate "mental" illness? Or have we created new and often convoluted theories and terminology (as evolutionists have created complex theories of randomness) to explain in mundane terms what Jesus simply called "legion"?
There was Sister Jeanne of the Angels, prioress of an Ursuline convent at Loudun, who -- like so many -- was taken to convulsions, including "violences, vexations, howlings, and grindings of teeth," which in this case left her exhausted and soon, curiously enough, spread to other nuns (an infestation; mass hysteria?).
In one case sister's eyes rolled back and when she stuck out her tongue it was swollen with the texture of black leather. On her arm appeared a raised ruddy area, about an inch long, representing the name "Joseph," and soon the Names of Jesus, Mary, and Saint Francis de Sales.
Hysteria? Trickery? How do markings and blood materialize?
There was Marthe Brossier, whose belly puffed out as if she were pregnant during her attacks, and who claimed the devil took her on spiritual journeys around the world.
While genuine convulsionaries experience extreme fatigue, we are told, such was not the case with Marthe, who also turned her head around frighteningly and gritted her teeth and seemed to know Greek and Latin without studying these languages. Meanwhile a voice seemed to come from her stomach.
This they explained this as "ventriloquism."
Was she faking it?
There is the fact that nothing happened when she was offered Holy Water, without knowing it was blessed, yet went into violent convulsions when given a key that had been wrapped up and presented, in a test, as a fragment of the True Cross.
Lies, simulation, dissimulation, heterosuggestion. These also have been seen in certainly questionable modern "mystics."
Yet then there is the most extreme case, that pertaining to a Poor Clare named Magdalen of the Cross, during the fifteenth century, in Cordova, Spain.
As a young woman at prayer in a church, it was said an angel had appeared to her; she described him as young, handsome, and in a resplendent light. One day, after seeing a vision of Christ in glory, she ran out of church, knelt down, went into an ecstasy -- and instantly cured a poor cripple.
"Still more extraordinary, someone who observed her from close by thought he could see, reflected in her eyes, the image of the Holy Trinity, surrounded by the company of the elect," notes the author.
Blood would flow from her feet and hands; afterward her flesh would miraculously close. She could go months without food. A Host would materialize on her tongue.
For many, it was proof of sanctity.
But we see why the Church is cautious:
Magdalen of the Cross, who because of her mystical gifts, including apparitions and revelations from the "Mother of God," was made abbess, was eventually convicted of fraud; she had had food snuck in when she was supposedly going without it; she had kept a secret pyx. But here's a mystery: While walking in the cloister, drops of Holy Water were sprinkled on her habit without her knowledge and she was seized with sudden convulsions (falling to the ground "as if struck by lightning").
She also fell into convulsions and "ecstasy" when a confessor was summoned -- during which she didn't respond whatsoever to deep pin pricks, unless the needle was dipped in Holy Water.
She eventually was to confess that from the age of five, she had been "vowed" to the devil.
Promising to play the part of a pious nun, she claimed she had even signed a pact in blood.
This demon too at first appeared as a young man glowing with light (see 2 Corinthians 11:14). She also admitted to faking the stigmata.
In our own time strange outbreaks of nervous or "psychological" abnormalities, including irrational inability to stop laughing, or epileptic, demonic-like fits, have been noted from Upstate New York to India and East Africa (where schools are often plagued by what they claim is demonism).
Demonopathy? Mythomania? Hysterics?
Or, as Jesus often indicated, the devil?
There is good and bad in all of us. The psychological, the fraudulent, and the spiritual can all be part of the same package. People who are "demonized" often respond to medical psychiatric treatment. (Of course, a physical illness caused by a demon may likewise be treated.)
In yet one more case, there was an "epidemic of demonopathy" at the grave of a deacon who had been the model of sanctity and whose tomb was a pilgrimage destination for the sick. Dr. Lhermitte points out that while there were cures (from ulcers to cancer), many at the tomb fell into "paroxysmal" attacks. "For example, spinning their heads as if on a pivot and with great speed, and sometimes to be found with their noses between their shoulders," wrote Dr. Lhermitte.
This gets tough to explain physiologically or psychologically; perhaps in some cases. Perhaps not in others. What of levitation? Just bad sight in a dark room? What of those spontaneous eruptions on the skin, or arcane knowledge?
Life on earth is a constant challenge (which is why we are called to pray without ceasing) and full of mysteries.
There certainly are cases where it is psycho-emotional-demonopathy.
There are good visions. There are bad visions. There are imagining. There is exaggeration. It is why we place everything for "discernment." Many cases are confusing and seem to be a mix. People can exhibit good and bad phenomena. Life has many gray areas. Beware of pride. Pray and fast before getting too close to any unusual person or situation.
Take only what is good; leave the rest (1 Thessalonians 5:21).
We learn one thing: the phenomena were astonishing.
[resources: True or False Possession? How to Distinguish the Demonic from the Demented]
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