Troubled by the recent rise in evil, I headed off to Rome the other week to attend the “Exorcism and Liberation” symposium given at the PURA, or the Pontifical University Regina Apostolorum. This year was a very special one, billed as the “thirteenth” annual. Not to be missed. Thirteen is the number of demons, of chaos, of hazard, of the darker forces seeking to undo the very reliable order that humankind has placed upon the world. I was very much hoping to see some unlucky babbler’s head explode in a rain of pea soup.
The main lecturer was some grizzled old pontiff that, like Noah and Methuselah, had been around for half a millennium, whacking people over the head with a crucifix, grabbing their mouths with both hands and forcing the orifices open to peer down their throats and yell at Satan to come out of his hidey hole. The crowd of canonical scholars seated in the hall furiously scribbled notes. There has never been a more critical time in history than now to address the rampant degeneracy. The modern age has ushered in a whole new host of express lanes and super highways to transport devils, demons, incubi, tormentors, ghouls, goblins, gremlins, and gargoyles to the hearts and minds of Us, the Chosen Species, and it was high time that the Guardians of the Faith pull a Chris Christie and clog those arteries up like it was the bridge from Fort Lee.
Many important things were discussed at the PURA this year, like how Satan hides in your cellphone and then jumps into your mouth when you aren’t looking. Then he does a little cloven-hoofed dance and backflips off the tongue down the gullet. Behind the lectern was a giant anatomy diagram of an anonymous head and torso, and the old cardinal traced a laser pointer trajectory down the esophagus, showing the tiny spot near the heart where the devil hunkers down like a parasite. The lesson was interrupted, though, by the cardinal’s own I-phone 10 suddenly going off, an abrupt, pealing ringtone that I recognized as the fiddle-fighting scene from “The Devil Went Down to Georgia,” by the Charlie Daniels Band. The cardinal pulled the gadget from his robe and paused for a moment as he tried to figure out how to answer it.
“Fire on the mountain, run boys run.
The devil’s in the house of the rising sun.”
An eerie song to hear at an exorcism convention, particularly since I live in Georgia these days, and didn’t want any undue associations. After the interruption, (it took the old man a minute to figure out how to put his phone on vibrate), he continued about atheism, general witchcraft, and dance music. Nothing was more symptomatic of the Dark Prince of the Underworld inhabiting a body than watching a mud-soaked hippie flail back and forth in front of a stage at Bonnaroo.
Feeling enlightened, I had many questions. In particular I asked about the sudden emergence of craft beer breweries, particularly the hubris involved in men turning water into a hoppy pale ale. I wondered if Jesus might’ve just been a really good water skier. The hermeneutical theory that the serpent in the garden was actually Eve’s tongue. Gay unicorns on the ark? Alice Cooper’s reprisal of King Herod’s Song? Elmer Gantry, barker or savior? Twitter rants: the devil in 140 characters or less?
I was able to ask all these questions because I had paid the extra $300 to have my own translator. The Italian cardinal fielded my questions with reluctant decorum, until my translator rushed up to my side and ordered me to shut up. “I already have to modify everything that you ask!” he whispered. “If I translated your questions verbatim we’d both be burned at the stake.”
“They still do that?”
“When necessary,” he hissed. “Which it may very well become. Some of the other translators are taking notice. I can’t sit around and protect you all day. You can have your money back.”
Things settled down a bit, and our instructor went on to say that things were so bad these days that machines were also being possessed by Lucifer’s minions. Il Diavolo Ex Machina, so to speak. He flashed a slide on the back wall that showed the recently shattered engine of the Southwest Airlines jet. Indomitable proof of ghostly saboteurs at work. He noted the twisted shards of metal, the splintered casings, the gashes and wreckage. If these devils can do that to a million-dollar turbo prop, imagine the destruction to the human conscience. Luckily God had landed the plane safely, he added. I made the joke that while most pilots think they are a god, it was a relief that one actually is. The cardinal’s face went red. He could stand me no longer. He started to get saltier than Lot’s wife, and my translator ripped his headset off and ran out of the room.
“Scherzo!” he cried at me, and seconds later I was thrown out of the class by the Swiss Guards, a couple of walking Christmas ornaments in striped pantaloons and plumed casques. Doubly ridiculous.
As I was waiting for my flight back home I stared at my airplane with a tickle of dread. I didn’t know what I would do in the event of an emergency. I pictured myself with my oxygen mask atop my head like the tiny fez on an organ grinder monkey as I choked on the freezing air while trying to rip the tray table out from the seat in front of me in order to beat other passengers away from the emergency exit. I considered sneaking down to the tarmac with some chicken bones and a pint of blood to purge any insidious forces from the aircraft, but decided against it. My modern faith is simply to go with the flow. As long as one person is in control, and as long as it is the right person, all of us passengers can flounder around like happy lunatics. I reminded myself when I got back home to mail a donation to the New Church of Tammy Jo Schultz.
More Alembics to come.