A Voice From The Isles:
Possession by evil spirits is a very difficult question to address in our culture. The common assumption is that such “possession” is really nothing other than a distressing psychotic illness and that the practice of exorcism… such as we find in the Gospel today of the deliverance of the Gerasene demoniac… is an abusive and potentially dangerous procedure. There are dangers in exorcism but they usually don’t concern misdiagnosis unless the priest concerned is inexperienced or uninformed. The danger is that vulnerable persons, exorcists who have serious unrepented sins or who lack a strong commitment to Christ, will endanger their own spiritual or psychic health through transference. The Legion of demons that fled the Gerasene demoniac, you will recall, were safely despatched into the herd of pigs that flung themselves headlong off the cliff and into the lake.
Sometimes over the twenty seven years I have been in ministry, nearly fifteen in Orthodoxy, I have had parishioners come to me in great distress, anxious that they might be possessed. Now there is a very important difference between being oppressed by evil in the sense of having very strong temptations, something that ALL of us experience from time to time without exception, and being possessed by evil spirits.
With true possession there are several disturbing phenomena often present…. extreme physical strength, aversion to the name of Christ, speaking in strange tongues or languages with many personalities and clairvoyance… the ability to see spiritual things, albeit briefly and during an attack. All of these features are found in the gospel story. The demoniac had to be bound with chains (physical strength), he told Jesus to leave him alone and not torment him (aversion to Christ), he spoke with many voices (multiple distorted personalities) and he had spiritual insight into whom Jesus was but, crucially, without saving faith (clairvoyance). Needless to say the overwhelming majority of persons who present themselves as possessed are no such thing at all. Rarely, therefore, will most of us be presented with the practical and spiritual challenges described in the gospel account. However, that does not mean that the gospel has little to teach us in the context of our ordinary Christian lives. Far from it. Often in life we may notice certain principles at work in extreme cases and apply those insights to circumstances where some of the factors may be similar if not the same. For example, the Twelve Steps to recovery from alcoholism have much to teach us about dealing with our own weaknesses and how to overcome them by ruthless honesty and the grace of God. Indeed an Orthodox priest has written a book on this theme, (“Steps of Transformation” by Fr. Meletios Webber, Conciliar Press, 2003). So, in like manner we all have much to learn from the story of the deliverance of the Gerasene demoniac.
We may note how he lived outside the village, uncared and unkempt, bound in chains and naked. This is how we are without Christ. We may have lived for so long in this condition that we have failed to notice the tragedy, seriousness and suffering of our own condition. Even with Christians this can be the case. Some serious unrepented sin, some well hidden hardness of heart, some external ungodly influence in our own past or the past of our family or upbringing can have led us to this miserable place. Moreover the danger amidst the tombs of these troubles and sins is that they can give opportunity to the devil to harass us with more deep rooted problems. The remedy is clear, however. We must repent and to repent we must have good counsel about what it is precisely that ails us. This is largely achieved in the confessional or in Christian counseling as an individual ministry but nonetheless there are some universal guidelines in approaching this soul work, this diagnostic task of exposing evil:
(1) First there is the need to reject and cease to practise anything which is contrary to God’s law. In this list the Church includes astrology, magic, divination, wicca, Ouija, levitation, freemasonry, spiritism and spiritualism, recreational drugs, New Age practices, faith healing which is not centred on God and any other pagan practices redressed for the modern age. Practices must stop, books and artefacts should be destroyed, preferably by the user him / herself.
(2) Next, there must be a life commitment to repentance and confession. Just like the desert fathers and mothers of old and their teaching, our thoughts, feelings, practices and actions must be laid before Lord continually and wherever possible to our confessor so that we can avoid occasions of both self deception and despair. With this continual repentance in the Name of Our Lord Jesus Christ all that is evil will be put to flight. This is what we learn from the gospel in terms of the possession by the pigs of those evil spirits and their drowning in the waters. We drown the devil, or rather God does, in the waters of baptism and subsequently in the cleansing of confession.
(3) Finally, as in our Lord’s parable of the swept room where the vulnerability of the newly delivered soul is recounted in terms of a room made clean but then subsequently soiled by other spirits, (Luke 11:24) we must realise that it is not enough to show the devil the door in our lives. We need to invoke, invite and receive the full power and personal Presence of the Holy Spirit into our hearts so that the Infinite Goodness of God may be our true possession. He will not do this unless we ask him to; so we need to ask, daily. “O Heavenly King the Comforter… ” is a good prayer to say in this regard. Make it personal. Make it your own prayer. When we are doing this we shall find ourselves, according to the third and final example of the gospel, “clothed and in our (his) right mind.”
So, the deliverance of the Gerasene demoniac is a story of great hope for us all… that there is a way of escape from the snares of evil and that this lies in the power of Jesus Christ to deliver us and in the Presence of the Holy Spirit to sanctify us. Even so, “Maranatha, Come Lord Jesus!”