Sermons from St Faith's
Testing the Spirits
Fr Simon Tibbs, Merchant Taylors' School service,
July 10th, 2013
Travel broadens the mind – if we let it –
enabling us to do what the New Testament calls
‘testing the spirits’
A powerful experience of testing the spirits came for
me during an amazing three-month stay I had in the
Solomon Islands in 2008. I went there to teach
Biblical Studies in an Anglican training college.
The Solomons are hard to get to. It took me
seventy-two hours and four flights to get there from
the UK, via Seoul, Sydney and Brisbane.
What I found when I got there was a very unfamiliar
environment – an earthly paradise, once you got used
to the tropical climate, with high temperatures that
barely fell over night, and very high humidity, that
at first made it hard to sleep.
Mosquitoes were also a bother. I had to take
anti-malarials daily, and use a foul-smelling
mosquito-repellent on any exposed skin.
The facilities in the College were basic. You could
forget about a mobile-phone signal. The college had no
internet, and one very unreliable coin-operated phone
serving a community of a hundred and fifty people.
There was no running water anywhere – I washed from a
bucket using rain-water collected off the roof,
watched over by lizards and spiders.
The place was beautiful, with lush vegetation, teeming
with life, all around. There was a beach I would walk
down to every afternoon, with palms and tropical plans
extending down to pure white sand, lovely warm sea to
swim in, and never a soul in sight.
Paradise indeed. But I also encountered hell during my
The people were wonderful, the most different from
people at home of any I’ve encountered during
extensive travels. There was a gentleness and kindness
about them that will never leave me, and the students
in the College were embarrassingly grateful that
someone like me should have come half way across the
world to teach them.
But it seemed as I got to know the place that people
lived in hellish fear.
They feared sorcery and witchcraft. They feared the
vele-man, an evil sort of goblin that lived in the
bush. Most of all, they feared possession by evil
This fear was brought home to me one weekend, when I
was staying with a wonderful community of Anglican
nuns down in the south part of the island.
I was woken in the dead of night by horrendous
screams, and made my way down to the Chapel, where the
noise seemed to be coming from. When I got there, I
peered through the unglazed windows of the Chapel. By
the flame of an oil-lamp that had been put on the
altar, I could just make out the nuns’ Chaplain, and
two or three of the sisters. Lying on the floor at the
Chaplain’s feet was the form of a woman.
What ensued was the eeriest thing I have ever
experienced. The woman had sought out the Chaplain, a
famous exorcist in the area, to cast out an evil
spirit. Through a process lasting several hours, the
woman variously barked like a dog, shouted loudly in
clear English – a language I was later told she did
not speak – and moaned or whimpered like an animal in
pain. At one point she writhed like a snake. Between
these various episodes there would be muttered prayers
from the Chaplain, and he would bend down to lay hands
on her in prayer, or to restrain her when she was
agitated. I stood spell-bound for two or three hours,
and left, shortly before dawn, with the exorcism still
I went in some distress of mind the following morning
to the Sister Superior. She told me that the ‘casting
out’ had been successful, and the woman was now safe.
She wanted to know what I thought, so I asked her
straight-up whether she thought the evil spirits were
real. She said, ‘they are real because the people
believe in them. If they seek out a priest to help
them and he can’t, they can die’.
What to make of all this? I had met people there who
seemed intensely prayerful and close to god, yet those
same people lived with the most dreadful fear.
I was glad that they had the church to turn to. But it
also seemed to me all wrong that, knowing the power of
God, they still felt subject to attack by harmful
unseen forces. I really struggled with this. The New
Testament, after all, teaches that ‘perfect love casts
It was a challenge to my faith. Life is surely not a
boxing match with God in the blue corner and the devil
in the red corner, perpetually slugging it out. But on
the other hand, I could see that the cosmic battle in
which they found themselves gave them the strongest
possible motivation to pray, and to try and live well.
The third beatitude of Jesus, sometimes rendered,
‘blessed are the poor in spirit’, is sometimes
translated as, ‘blessed are those who know their need
This is not the time and place to try and unpack the
theology of what I experienced in the Solomon Islands.
But to all of you, both those who are further down the
school, and just starting out asking your own
questions and forming your own individual identity,
and to those who are now looking forward to making
your own way in the world, I would say this.
The people of our world are more wonderfully various
than you may realise. It’s important as you go out and
start encountering more of them, that the secularism
and materialism of the society that has produced you,
and its faith in technical and scientific answer to
life’s basic question, put you at a disadvantage in
understanding how most people in our world operate.
Most of the world’s people recognise, as we mostly no
longer do, that at his core, man is a praying being,
one in whom the instinct to seek God, and worship him,
and to ask for his help in trouble, is strong. Nothing
is more important in our world today than religious
understanding between people of different backgrounds,
and we are not well served in our dealings with people
different from us if we adopt a superior attitude to
their beliefs. Our developed society in Western Europe
is unusual, and arguably, defective, in its sense that
it has out-grown religion. Many of us decide much too
early in life that God is a lie and religion a
judgemental, pretentious waste of time. In
consequence, we are spiritually illiterate, and
inclined to dismiss the religious beliefs of others.
So my advice is this. Travel if you can, and use the
encounters travel affords to develop your own
spiritual awareness. Don’t nail your own colours to
the mast too soon as regards the claims of religion.
And always test the spirits.
Return to St
Faith's home page