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 trip.

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 spirits.

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 in progress.

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 out fear’.

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 of God’.
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.


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