I attended a séance when I was a student and I would never do it again

I occasionally listen to The Archers on the car radio driving to Mass on Sunday mornings. Yesterday I was startled to hear Jennifer Aldridge tell her husband Brian that she planned to hold a séance; I suppose this was written into the script as a nod towards Halloween. Brian, naturally enough, opposed the idea, not for religious reasons but because it’s not the kind of activity that one should get up to in middle class circles in Ambridge. Jennifer laughed it all off; “It’s only a bit of fun” she told him.

That is the common view of Ouija boards – but actually, Catholics are sternly warned again the activity. That’s because we know the Devil is real and that it’s folly to ever consider dabbling in the occult. It’s not “fun”; it’s playing with hellfire. Again, because we have just celebrated Halloween, there has been a spate of articles on the diabolic. I read an article about the film of The Exorcist in Alateia magazine for October 31st. One particular detail stood out: that in the famous case in 1949 of demonic possession, which became the basis for William Peter Blatty’s novel of 1971 (then followed by the film of his book), the family of the youth involved, a 13-year-old boy from Maryland, “thought he might have been plagued by the spirit of a recently deceased aunt, who had introduced the boy to the Ouija board.”

The youth was exorcised in St Louis by Jesuit priests. William Bowdern SJ, the lead exorcist, was in no doubt that this was a case of genuine possession. The whole process lasted a month, ending successfully on Easter Monday. Significantly, Bowdern fasted during that month, in acknowledgement of Jesus’ own warning that fasting is as essential as prayer when engaging in serious spiritual combat.
The mention of Ouija boards reminded me of my own youthful folly in this area.

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As a student at Cambridge in the 1960s I took part in a séance organised in Magdalene College by some undergraduate friends. I was motivated by sheer curiosity to see what would happen and it was certainly bizarre and scary to watch the upturned glass move fast under its own volition round the table. I can’t remember the questions we asked the “spirit” we seemed to have conjured up and, feeling uneasy about the whole incident, I never returned for follow-up séances. I now see it was a stupid and dangerous activity to have engaged in.

I suspect that modern man rejects Satan because of films like The Exorcist; sensational Hollywood horror treatment turns the story into a creepy thrill that is dismissed as sheer fantasy. But as CS Lewis reminds us in The Screwtape Letters, the Devil doesn’t generally bother with spectacular phenomena such as possession or conjuring up spirits; why bother, when he can trap us with greater success through our own human weaknesses, our vanity, our egotism, our imprudent curiosity?

The genesis of The Screwtape Letters is described by Walter Hooper in his recent CTS booklet “CS Lewis: Apostle to the Sceptics”. Lewis wrote to his brother on 20th July 1940, mentioning that he had been listening to Hitler over the radio and finding that “Statements which I know to be untrue all but convince me…if only the man says them unflinchingly”. Still thinking of Hitler’s persuasiveness, he told his brother the next morning “Before the service was over…I was struck by an idea for a book which I think might be both useful and entertaining. It would…consist of letters from an elderly retired devil to a young devil who has just started work on his first “patient.” The idea would be to give all the psychology of temptation from the other point of view.”

I learnt from the CTS booklet that St John Paul II used The Screwtape Letters with his students in the 1950s. Also, that two-thirds of the large income Lewis made from his books and his wartime broadcasts was given away, anonymously, to widows and orphans through a charitable trust he set up called “The Agape”. Hooper asked Lewis, who led “a plain, almost threadbare life” why he had given away so much of his income. Lewis simply replied, “God was so good in having me that the least I could do was give away most of what I made in His name.”

That’s a lovely anecdote; if prayer and fasting are the classic weapons to use against the wiles of the Devil, I think generosity on this scale must also be high on the list.