The End of an Exorcist

Michael Strong - Conclusion

They brought Father Michael back from Hong Kong to Ireland in early July 1948. For five months he stayed in a rest house with the Medical Sisters, in County Meath. By December he felt strong enough to make the trip to his hometown, Castleconnell, in County Tipperary. There he had flocks of married nieces, nephews, and cousins. And there he lived until his death in October of the following year.

Michael was extremely uncommunicative about himself. But the townspeople gradually got to know his condition and some general facts of his recent past. They took him for granted, as one of themselves who had come home from the big, unknown world “outside” where, as they put it, “those haythen Chinks and Bolshies had given Father Michael a rough time of it.”
Michael never ventured out into the narrow streets of Castleconnell and rarely went into the garden surrounding his house.


Morning and evening his housekeeper opened the French windows so that the old man could sit on the porch in the shadows and look out at the grass, the apple trees, and the trellised walls. Now and again he tended the Virginia creeper which he loved, or he puttered about the radishes, onions, and parsnips growing in the small vegetable patch that occupied a narrow space beneath the south wall. He slept lightly and very little at night, read only the Sunday editions of the newspapers, and seemed to be lost in thought and reverie most of the time.

A young curate said Mass in his bedroom at 6:00 A.M. every morning. Once a month or so Father Michael himself said Mass; but it took him almost two hours. The effort was an obvious strain. Other visitors were rare and stayed briefly: a niece or nephew with their children each Sunday, an old seminary friend, or the bishop. Yet none of them ever got to know anything precise of what he had been through and what was the reason for the peculiar lull, the hush of waiting, in which Michael obviously spent his last years. He seemed to be waiting for something, expecting something.

My uncle was resident G.P. of Castleconnell. And as a young seminarian I heard about Father Michael Strong months before I finally saw him face to face and started to visit him from time to time. My memories of him are fresh some 25 years later; certain phrases and words of his remain indelibly with me, together with his tones and expressions. When I met him, he gave the impression of a great fragility. Big and raw-boned, he had obviously lost much weight.

But the fragility was not chiefly the effect of his thinness, his mop of gray hair, his bony hands or hollow cheeks. It was a general appearance of delicate survival, as of a hair’s-breadth balance in him, between life and disappearance from life. There was a transparency about his face and person that clothed him in a quiet tension. Imagined or not, a silent dialogue seemed to be always in progress between Michael and a world I was too crass and physically flesh-bound to perceive. Only its aftertones registered somewhere within me, cautioning me against any abrupt movement or aggressive way of talking.

He talked willingly and easily of China and of the work he had done there. Those in his small circle of acquaintances knew the general profile of his story. But of Thomas Wu he spoke sparingly and with difficulty, rarely in any detail. At first, I thought this was due to some repugnance in his memories of those times. But then, when we did speak of his recent past, I began to discount that reason for his reticence. When I put questions about his exorcism of Wu, he started to recollect and to answer, but then he trailed off, as if still waiting for some explanation, some finale, some bottom line to be written to his story.

There was a soft silence for ten or fifteen minutes. He stirred in his chair finally:

“Well. All in God’s good time. . . . The glass will clear. Must clear . . .” or some similar remark was all he would say.

And I learned that at such moments (not before) you rose and left Father Michael alone with his thoughts and his abiding presences. He had characteristic gestures: the palm of his right hand on his forehead; rubbing his chin with the back of his wrist; holding the fingers of his right hand in the left hand. All the while his eyes looked straight out, not dreamily, not awake-looking, not blank and wide in remembering, but filled with narrowing details or a present panorama invisible to all others. This was why the few townspeople who saw him reported: “Poor Father Michael. Shure, he’s waitin’ for the good Lord.”

Waiting was the keynote of his personality in those months, as if “waiting for the glass to clear . . .” When now and again he went as far as the gateway to say goodbye to a visitor, he had the same look on his face. He seemed to be scanning the road, the horizon, the sky, waiting for something or someone whom he would recognize the moment they came into view. An old acquaintance, I often thought in the beginning, a messenger. You never knew.

I got the same impression from his long vigils on the porch, and his hours spent sitting bolt upright in his study looking toward the door or the window.

The first breakthrough I had in gleaning some information about the Thomas Wu exorcism was in May 1949. A local farmer of Castleconnell, John Gallen, had killed his neighbor, Jim Cahill, with a billhook late one night. It had been just one more act in a long-standing family feud: either a Gallen or a Cahill died by violence in every generation.

Michael talked to me about Cain and Abel in a rambling fashion. Then he turned his head and asked me abruptly: “Has John Gallen got something on his chin?” Without waiting for my answer: “Anyway, what would you know about that? Thank God. For your sake.”

But he had revealed something, I felt, and it was worth pursuing even with a guess.

“Had Thomas Wu something on his chin, Father Michael?”

He looked around slowly. His eyes normally a faded blue, were burning: “Young man, there are things better learned by you only when they happen to you.”

Then one of the long silences. I waited.

Finally, stirring, he said surprisingly: “Well . . . now that you’ve a little inkling, I suppose you’d better know something more. But not today. Some other day.” After a pause, the inevitable, “Please God.”

I did not get out to see Father Michael again until the middle of July. It was one of those long summer evenings rare in that part of Ireland, beneath a cloudless sky after a long day of dry heat. By the time I arrived, all brightness had gone from the sky. There was only a soft light streaked here and there with tiny broken lines of bronze reflections from the Western ocean where the sun was setting. A light wind was beginning to freshen everything after the hot day.

Michael was down by the trellis picking some leaves off the Virginia creeper. They had reddened prematurely. He placed each one carefully between the pages of his Bible.

“I’m glad you stayed away so long,” he said. “Time is so necessary.” He closed the Bible on the last leaf. We walked back slowly to his chair on the porch.

We chatted for a few moments about local news. Then I asked him about the mark on Thomas Wu’s chin. He was very insistent: it was a personal mark. “Like what a potter would put on the bottom of a vase he made. Or a painter on his picture. Satan me fecit sort of thing.” He added some details about Thomas Wu. Apparently Wu had spent some years in Japan in the early 19305. When he returned to Nanking, he had completely changed: rabidly anti-Japanese, rabidly anti-Kuomintang, constantly talking about the Communist leaders in North China; and something else in him, all his friends felt uneasily, was now totally alien to them.

Wu, Michael added, had given himself body and soul to that old, old force, the one which led Cain to murder his brother, Abel, in the fields, the one that tried to impede God’s creation of man’s world. The oldest. The strongest. For all of them. “Them,” in Michael’s mouth, were the Japanese, the Chinese, the Russians, the Americans. They all acted as if death were the final arbiter and the strongest ally in all the universe. Cain’s father was a murderer from the beginning, as Jesus was the first to state in the Gospels.

I wanted to know something of Michael’s condition in 1948 when they brought him home. But at the mention of “home,” he interrupted me saying he had not yet gone home. He couldn’t, he said. Not before he finished the business he had begun at the exorcism in Puh-Chi. I noticed the tears at the back of his eyes, and looked away.

The wind was stronger now. We could hear the lowing of cows across the way and the barking of dogs as they herded them into the barn for the oncoming night. Michael called for a rug to wrap around his waist and knees.

There was another of his fifteen-minute lapses. It ended when the housekeeper brought out his supper on a tray. He ate in silence. When he had finished, the sun was below the trees, and the countryside lay in the half-light, half-darkness of dusk. Away to the northwest, a flight of wild geese was hurrying home to the fens and woodlands of Connemara. Michael pulled the rug tighter around him and filled his pipe.

“Home. Yes . . .” His voice died away into a mumbled hole of silence for another minute or two. Then, as if there had been no pause or interruption, he went on talking.

The tears I had seen earlier were not of regret or revolt, he said, just of homesickness. Since 1938, he had been alone and in the dark. Everybody else could go home, but he had to wait.

I looked at him. His gray hair and pale face were melting into the shadows. Only his eyes were clear, visible pools of light, looking toward the bottom of the garden.

“Believe me, once you mess with Exorcism, and above all if you don’t pull it off, something departs from you. And the rest of you yearns to depart also.”

It did not seem a good moment to pursue his “waiting” to “depart.” So I asked him about the Confrontation with Evil Spirit in an exorcism. What was it like? What effects had it? It was a meeting, he said, a personal meeting. What the exorcist met in person was something that existed in a state where the all-important, the only, reality was a “living not.”

I wanted to stop and ponder that for a while, but he went on to talk of a reality that is not beautiful, not true, not holy, not pleasant, not bright, not warm, not large, not happy, not anything positive.

I started to say that all this sounded like Hell or how people used to describe Hell. “No,” he interjected distinctly and firmly. “That is Hell. Just to be utterly alone and immutably without love. Forever.” In the exorcism the exorcist knew that what he was up against existed in that state. He just knew it.

The effect of all this? I asked the question still very tentatively, not wishing to increase any pain he had. Did he feel he was in a box or a prison? Did it make him dispirited and lose initiative?

The effects were far deeper, he said. Years before in the seminary, he loved music, flowers, a good book. He could laugh the loudest of all; he enjoyed swimming, tennis, a good meal, and so on. He loved children. They made him happy, just to hear their voices. And many other things he liked also-singing and dancing and long walks, and the sound of waves on the shore, and smells such as new-mown hay, flowers and grass after a light shower, a turf fire in the early morning. And he slept like a top. Always he woke up ready for the world, rain, hail, or shine.

After Thomas Wu’s exorcism was over, all that had changed. No, it wasn’t age, he answered some unvoiced remark of mine, but something else.

The housekeeper appeared, and he nodded to her. It was time for him to turn in. She left.

I asked: “What does it really mean?”

He was standing up now. The moon had risen over the back wall of the garden. We both looked at it with upturned faces.
“You are never quite at home in this human world ever again after an exorcism,” he said slowly. He sat down again and explained.

After an exorcism the exorcist hears and sees and thinks and talks as he always did. But now he perceives on two planes. Spirit is everywhere. Flesh and matter is only “our picture” of what’s there. And it’s not all good. There’s evil and good hidden in that “picture.”

After an exorcism you always know, if you didn’t know it before. You are now walking with double vision, a second sight, as the old people used to say.

And the exorcist never really sleeps, not as he used to. He dozes off. Some deep part of him is keeping watch, always watching, and doesn’t want anything to escape him even momentarily. All sleep is escape. And he knows that escape for him is impossible.

He eats, he must in order to stay alive. And he breathes. His heart beats on. But he has a terrible option always: not to breathe, to let his heart stop.

As we entered the house he said quietly: “Come back in a few weeks. I’m getting to the end now. There isn’t much time.”
Before his death in the following October, I saw Father Michael twice more. Once was in early September, and again a few minutes before he died.

“Yeh’ll find Father is changed,” the housekeeper whispered when I arrived in September. “He nivir goes out anymore.”
Michael was in his study sitting in an armchair facing the door. The shutters were drawn, so the only light came from two candles that burned steadily on the mantelpiece. He did not look at me as I entered, but raised his hand in salute.

“Want me to let in some fresh air and sun?” I asked, after greeting him. I moved toward the window. For a minute there was silence.

“If you open those shutters,” he said patiently, like a schoolmaster explaining a problem to a pupil, “you’ll be blotting out the only light I have. Come, sit down and stay by me for a while.”

There was no flurry or annoyance in his voice. It was even and factual. I crossed over and took a seat facing him. The candlelight fell directly on his head and face.

The change in him was devastating. His face had shrunk, not inward, but upward. All its form and character seemed to have departed and receded from the jawline, the mouth and lips, up past the nose to an invisible dividing line running through his cheekbones. There was no definite expression on the mouth. The jaw and chin had lost some firmity, some configuration that had made them his. Now they might have been anybody’s or those of a lifeless statue. His complexion was not exactly a pallor, nor white. At first, it seemed colorless. Then, clearly I saw a tint of yellow and off-white, but nothing that belonged to a normally healthy face. It had too much transparency, too much glaze. The words “immobile,” “immobility” kept jumping to my mind.

The right eye was permanently half-closed, like a shutter. Both eyes were overlaid with a filmy gauze of liquid that oozed gently from the corners. There was little or no expression in them.

Behind the apparent fixity of the staring eyeballs, I could see or feel a darting, lively presence, an intelligence alert and aware. His forehead was smooth and clear of all wrinkles. Michael had a domelike head with a hairline that had never receded. His gray hair had been cropped into a crew cut. He was cleanly shaven.

Breeda, the housekeeper, had told me not to talk too much.

“Father Michael, how are you?”

He said he was fine. He had a request to make. Before my visit ended, I should remind him of it. But he wanted first to say something further to me about the effects of the exorcism on him. “It helps me to talk about it all”-this by way of explanation.
It was the double vision: he had not defined it properly, he said. I waited, because, as Michael spoke, a wave of misery swept over his face. The veil of immobility was withdrawn for an instant, then fell back again. For that quick instant I had seen a load of pain and sadness framed in lines of a gently resolute hope. His whole expression said: I will not give up my trust, although I have nothing to rely on but that trust.

Then he went on to describe the double vision. It was not like seeing another table beside the real table or another wall beside the real wall. It was not a vision of eyes or a hearing with your ears or a touching with your hand. It was another level of reality. An exorcism sharpens your awareness of that reality, he said. You know what stands behind and around and beneath and above all that is visible and tangible. The intertwining cords of spirit appear everywhere. Good and bad spirit. Beauty and ugliness. Holiness and sin. God as a tremendous majesty. Personal evil is a formidable force. Nothing escapes those cords.

He fell silent at this point. After a pause, I could not resist asking him directly about his failure to complete the exorcism of Thomas Wu. Did it entail any special liability within this sphere of his double vision?

“Of course.” The words were loaded with an ache and a distress which silenced me.

Once pronounced, they hung in the air between us as silent signs of his suffering.

“I can now hate. I can choose to hate,” he said drily. Before the exorcism of Wu, he had never even thought of hating. Now, to hate was a living option for him. Before the exorcism, he never even imagined what it would be like really to despair. Now it was a real option. “Real.” “Real.” He repeated the word several times. The idea of rejecting Jesus as a charlatan now came to him as a real choice.

All those choices and others too unspeakable to mention were like plates of food placed in front of him continually. His pain was that he was forced to consider each one as a possibility. Before, he had them all banded together and thrown into a box, and he had thrown away the key. Now he had to take a taste of each one. Slowly. Realistically. He stopped at a certain point, groping for an image. It was, he finally said, as if a mad wolf were allowed sniff and smell and nose around his naked body, always threatening to bite and crush, always moving, moving, moving. He bent his head on his hands. There was a pause of about five minutes.

And all the waiting, I finally asked, why all the waiting? He had failed in the exorcism, but he had not accepted Satan or evil or hate. Why, then, the perpetual waiting?

“Simply put, my young friend,” he said thickly, “evil has power over us, some power. And even when defeated and put to flight, it scrapes you in passing by. If you don’t defeat it, evil exacts a price of more terrible agony. It rips a gash in the spirit with a filthy claw, and some of its venom enters the veins of the soul. As a price. As a memory. As a lesson. A warning that it will return again.”

It was time to go. I stood up. He said nothing. I touched him lightly on the forehead. It was cold.

As I went out, Breeda smiled at me: “Now, young man, don’t worry about Father Michael. He knows what he’s doin’.” Somehow, this old woman understood more that I had ever understood.

Then I heard his voice calling after me: “Malachi! At the end, be sure and read Paul, First Corinthians, Chapter 15, verses 50 to 58. All of it.”

I hurried back into the study. But he told me to go with the usual silent wave of the hand.

It was an early October morning when Breeda telephoned. The day was heavily overcast, and it rained continuously. A thunderstorm was moving in from the Atlantic. Michael had received the Last Rites of the Church, Breeda told me.

When I arrived at the house, all was quiet. The doctor had seen him that morning, had left, and was back again. He was an old friend of Michael from their distant schooldays in Castleconnell. Michael’s relatives had come and gone. The bishop had sent a monsignor with a special blessing. Only Breeda and the doctor remained.

In his room, lit by two candles, Michael was supported by pillows in a half-upright position on the bed, his body slightly turned to one side. He looked as if he had fallen limply from a height. He held a crucifix between his hands. Both his eyes were closed. His mouth was open as he endeavored to breathe.

His face still had the devastated look. But now, as I tiptoed across the room, his face looked crooked to me, as if some hand had dislocated its general lines and destroyed its symmetry. The forehead was a mass of entangled furrows; the eyebrow line was crooked; one eyelid seemed more bulbous and puffy than the other; the nostrils flared irregularly; the nose and mouth were angular and seemed turned at the wrong place.

Almost immediately after my arrival a change came over Michael. Without a sound, he started to turn around facing front. His body grew stiff. The heavily labored breathing grew easy.

His lips moved; and, bending down close, I heard him say faintly: “Over there. In the corner. By the window. The candle. Please . . .”

I moved one of the two candles to the top of a low bookcase and returned to his side.

“It’s all very black, my friend,” he whispered as I bent down, “and ... it stings.”

The rest was lost in a moaning that streamed from between his teeth. Still bent over him, I opened Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians and started reading the verses he had requested, reciting them from memory as I looked at him, now and again glancing at the text.

“ ‘We shall all be changed ... in the twinkling of an eye . . . the dead shall be raised incorruptible . . . and this mortal must put on immortality . . .’ “ Michael was still moaning as if a great weight lay on him, holding him helpless.

“ ‘. . . then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written: Death is swallowed up in victory . . . the sting of death is sin. . . . Thanks be to God who giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ . . .’”

I stopped and waited. Michael’s chest had risen as he managed a large intake of breath. He seemed to be holding the air in his lungs, fearful to let go.

“I’ll open the window,” said the doctor. As the two shutters swung in, the room was suddenly flooded with the grayish white light of the sky. There was a rush of cold air and the drumming sound of rain falling on the trees, the grass, the stone garden path, the roof, and the special sound of gutters running with water. An occasional gleam of lightning lit the gloom. The storm was not very distant and was moving quickly in over us.

Michael, still holding his breath, clearly a man in great distress now, seemed to be trying to get something out of his throat or chest. His whole frame vibrated without moving from its place. His head shook sharply up and down in a little nodding motion. He raised his right hand slightly and pointed to the far corner: the candle had been blown out by the fresh air that had entered the room.

I hurried over to relight it, but was only a few feet from his side when I heard a sharp sound like the opening of a tightly closed door. Michael released his breath; and as he did, it began to resound in his chest and throat louder and louder. As he exhaled, the sound it made grew to a small crescendo. It was not a shout or a scream, nor was it simply escaping air. It was a tremulous pronouncement as near words as such a sound could be without using words. A death song sung with the only accents his dying permitted him.

I came back and knelt beside him. “His victory, Michael. His victory. Believe it! His victory!” I whispered.

The sound of his breath died away gently like the most finalizing of final statements ending all discussion, completing all expression. He lay there utterly still. Then both his eyes opened. The gaze in them held me hypnotized. Gone was the filmy gauze which had clouded them. There was no trace of the ooze and deformity that had distorted them in previous weeks. An invisible hand had wiped away the disfigurement and agony lines from all over his face. It was now smooth. Between his eyes and his mouth a triangle of joy shone in his smile and in his look. The faded blue his eyes had acquired in latter years was now luminous, not deep and sharp, but soft and glowing. All that I had ever known, read about, heard of, imagined of human happiness and of unalloyed joy in peace, and peace in joy shone out for that brief interval.

Then there was a tiny rattle in Michael’s throat. The lips smiled faintly. The eyes lost all light. I felt sure Michael had partaken in Jesus’ victory over death and that he had escaped death’s sting. But he had, indeed, paid the price for his failure of years before.

We will never know the exact note of suffering such a man as Michael Strong must undergo at dying, for it lies in the spirit unattainable by our logic, unimaginable by our fantasy, impervious to any clever methodology we can devise. But each exorcist could well have as his epitaph the most noble phrase Jesus ever pronounced about human love: “Greater love than this no man hath: that a man lay down his life for his friend."


Back to Contents