My mission experience, like most mission experiences, was memorable for a number of reasons. There were the usual spiritual experiences, friends made, people served, companions fought with, tracting despised, etc. More dramatic experiences include witnessing a gang-style assassination and trying to save the victim (I ended up covered in his blood and he died on the scene); being chased for several blocks by a large, terrifyingly athletic man screaming about the horrible things he was going to do to me (luckily I reached my bike in time before I could find out what that was like); contracting back-breaking dengue fever and ending up in a hospital exactly like what you might imagine a remote third world hospital might be like (several horrible things happened there but I just walked out in my hospital gown the second time a nurse bent a needle inside my arm). You know, the things you don’t write home to mom about.
I also “performed” three exorcisms on my mission. I say “perform” because I’m not entirely sure what to make of these experiences, what standard(s) of measurement to judge them by. Before my mission I had never thought in any serious way about “spirit possession.” Accounts of encounters with evil spirits among missionaries were, however, alive and well in my mission in Guatemala, and I would continue to occasionally hear about various similar stories after I returned home.
I was a junior comp in my first area in a remote village in Guatemala called Jalapa. I had had a few months in the area at this point and my Spanish comprehension had finally kicked in, though speaking was still not without its difficulties. One night I was on splits with a member while my companion was with the bishop, visiting another member. The bishop was pretty young, maybe 26, 27. We really liked him a lot. He was very assertive, dynamic, funny. At the end of our appointment we all met up again at the church. I was surprised to see my companion was as white as a ghost. He looked genuinely ill. He said they were visiting with a semi-active woman and her children (she was maybe 32) and in the middle of the conversation she all of a sudden started laughing uncontrollably and screaming something in an incomprehensible language. The bishop then said we were going back the next day to “take care of the problem.”
We returned the next day. I didn’t know what we were going to do; the bishop had simply said he would do the talking and we should follow his lead. When we arrived we just chatted for about 20 minutes. Her husband had been in the States working for 7 or 8 years and would return once a year. (Many men left their families to work in the US and few returned, in my experience). According to her kids, her strange behavior had begun a few months before and it was quite scary. Now it was happening almost daily. Then, precisely as my companion had described it, without warning she began laughing and crying uncontrollably. To that point it was the most frightening I had ever seen or heard (until later, when the sound of crying twin babies would easily replace it). I vividly remember her voice sounding unnaturally deep and echoing throughout the house, though she didn’t say anything in an incomprehensible language. The bishop then turned to my companion and calmly asked him to say a prayer and invoke a blessing on her, her children, and the house. When he finished, the bishop instructed us to kneel on the ground and raise our arms to the square. I don’t remember his precise wording, though I did not get the impression he was not repeating some specific priesthood or religious rite. He said something like, “By the power of the holy Melchizedek priesthood and in the name of Jesus Christ we command you to leave her.” He had to repeat himself a few times because she didn’t stop. Finally she calmed down and started weeping, softly. She said she felt at peace for the first time in a long time. We left, my companion and I in a daze. The bishop didn’t seem fazed; he said he had encountered demonic possession a few times in his mission in western Guatemala and he “knew what to do.” A couple weeks later, however, we had a report of it happening again. So we went with the bishop again to her home and repeated the same process. Then the bishop told us to scour the house looking for “evil objects.” The only things we discovered were these strange paintings of topless women riding bears and tigers (a purchase of her husband years ago that she somehow kept on her walls without throwing away. I had the sense she was frightened of him even after years of little to no contact with him). The bishop told her we would be taking them and destroying them, which she agreed to. The three of us then returned to our apartment and built a large fire in a nearby field and threw them in. We stood there silently watching the paintings slowly curl up and burn to ash. The bishop confidently said that that should take care of that and he left.
For a couple weeks, our exorcisms were all we could talk about, though for some reason we were reluctant to discuss the experience with the other missionaries in our district and we did not inform the mission president. Gradually, though, it faded into the background of the usual work missionaries do.
Months later I had returned to the general area of Jalapa, though now I was assigned to a village called Monjas about 30 minutes away. One day my companion and I traveled to Jalapa in order to track down some birth records which we needed in order to help a couple marry so they could be baptized. Walking through the village market I heard someone call my name. It was the bishop. He said he knew (somehow) I would be in town today, that the demon had returned, and he would need my assistance. Apparently I had a talent for demon-dispensing (though also apparent was that he and I were both not very good at it since this would be the third time with the same woman). So, the Guatemalan Mormon Exorcism Task Force was reactivated.
This time she had lost it in the middle of a ward activity and nearly frightened everyone to death. I found her in a Sunday School classroom and the bishop said he didn’t want my (junior) companion to see this because he “wasn’t prepared.” So this time it was just me and Señor Merrin. We performed it again, the same as before. After it was over and she had come to herself, he laid into her, berating her for clearly having been doing something she shouldn’t and inviting the evil spirit to return. She tearfully admitted to taking her son, who had been sick, to see a witch doctor, and told us it had been her husband’s idea, who had returned briefly a few months before. This was also, we discovered, what had happened the first time. The bishop replied, no more witch doctors, and she fervently agreed. I transferred out of Monjas a short while later and haven’t spoke to anyone involved in it since.
At the time, I was bewildered and amazed, but mostly bewildered, I think, largely because it was as much a foreign experience culturally as religiously. I have no idea where the bishop had learned the “forms” of what he had done, though it seems apparent that other missionaries had taught him on his mission. I suspect it was ultimately a combination of Mormon priesthood performance/prayer and exotic Latin American Catholic sensibility. Latin American culture and religion is, after all, drenched in its own evolutionary Catholicism. I don’t remember simply taking it as evidence of the power of the priesthood so much as unique mysterious contact with another world.
Naturally, in the modern world we would assume that she had psychological and/or neurological problems for which she should have sought medical help from professionals. As a modern myself, I’m inclined to think that even if it could be shown that she was possessed, professional medical attention would have also been necessary. Interestingly, as a missionary, it never even occurred to me to interpret her experience as some kind of a mental illness. I was in that world, a world of miracles, angels, and demons, where God’s influence and Satan’s influence were competing for souls. Now, as a scholar of philosophy and religion, I’m also sensitive to the paradigm of Enlightenment rationalism, which often has a tendency to subsume all discourses and forms of life into science, thereby making science the arbiter of all other discourses. For what it’s worth, I follow Ludwig Wittgenstein on this particular point, with his notion of a “language game,” which is that there is no normative meta-language (like science) that all other languages (including religion) must reduce to and be translated into. Religion is a language of its own, with its own paradigms. Science as well. One does not reduce to the other. Nevertheless, languages do bump up against one another and overlap with each other, since most individuals live the forms of life inherent to multiple language games. It’s a complex tension, and appealing solely to science or solely to religious experience doesn’t seem to relax it any. I guess even today I don’t quite know what to think about these experiences.
(I should also note that a couple BCC folks are working on scholarship on Mormonism and exorcism as we speak and what they have so far is extremely fascinating).