121: Insanity or Demonic Possession?

June 19, 2009 Length: 33:35

After years of questions from concerned friends and loved ones about whether someone suffered from insanity or demonic posession (and how to discern the difference between the two), the sisters of St Barbara Monastery (OCA; Santa Paula, CA) turned to the patristic Church Fathers for answers. In this episode of The Illumined Heart, Mother Melania (Salem) tells host Kevin Allen what they discovered.





Kevin Allen: Welcome to this edition of The Illumined Heart on Ancient Faith Radio. Today my guest and I will be speaking about a topic I have interest in. And the question is this: Do the Patristic writers, the Church Fathers, distinguish between what we call insanity and demonic possession or oppression? Or do these writers see all mental disorders as being demonic oppression?”

Well this question came up on my radar screen some time back when I heard a secular psychologist once dismissively state that the demon possessed individuals that our Lord healed, in the book of Matthew for example, would be treated today with medication. Because of course he said, “We now know there is no such thing as demon possession, but only mental illness.”

Well my guest, while not a clinical psychologist, has written on this subject of the passions and the very subject we’re going to be discussing today, which is insanity and demonic possession according to the Church Fathers from the perspective of Patristic thought and writing.

She is also the author of The Twelve Great Feasts for Children, published by Conciliar Press, as well as numerous articles in Orthodox magazines and journals. She is also a frequent conference speaker. Mother Melania is a member of the St. Barbara Monastery community in Santa Paula, California (OCA) under the much loved and respected abbess, Mother Victoria.

Mother Melania, welcome back to The Illumined Heart on Ancient Faith Radio.

Mother Melania: Thank you very much, Kevin.

Kevin Allen: It’s good to have you. Mother, what is the reason and origin of your interest and study of the subject of disorders, like schizophrenia, bipolar, and so on, from the perspective of the Orthodox Church tradition?

Mother Melania: Our interest is extremely practical. People come to our monastery with concerns about their friends and relatives who’ve been diagnosed with schizophrenia, bipolar disease, or some other kind of similar disorder. And they’re asking, “Is this really a mental illness or is it demonic possession?” So we just have the practical need to be able to give a response to these very sad questions.

Kevin Allen: Yes, very heartbreaking and sad questions when you have family members and loved ones and friends suffering with these things. So where did you go? What were your sources in your study to determine kind of the mind of the Church and Holy Tradition on these matters?

Mother Melania: We looked in a variety of places, mostly at what we had on hand, which is the liturgical books and the writings of the Holy Fathers. In particular what we used was the Ante-Nicene, Nicene, and Post-Nicene series, which we were able to do word searches through because we had it on a computer. We also used the lives of saints, particularly St. 3:35, what had been translated at that time, which was from September to February.

Kevin Allen: It’s sometimes hard when people say, “What does your Holy Tradition consist of?” It’s kind of hard to give a definitive answer. I think you’ve done a pretty good job of it. Scripture, lives of the saints, our liturgical books, and the writings of the Patristic Fathers. That’s about it.

Mother Melania: And I forgot to mention the obvious thing, which is that we started with Scripture. We started first with looking with looking at what the Scriptures have to say, and from there moved on to what the Fathers had to say.

Kevin Allen: Right. Well what does the Church and Church tradition state in terms of distinguishing between mental illness and demonic possession? Does it distinguish between them at all, and are there sharp and clear distinctions between the two?

Mother Melania: It certainly does distinguish between them. If by sharp and clear distinctions you mean that there’s never any question about whether a person is mentally ill or demonically possessed, no. There are certainly times where it’s not obvious to the layperson’s eye what the difference is.

Kevin Allen: Let me come at this another way, perhaps. Are there cases where you found in the Patristic writings, for example, where the Church Father or Fathers acknowledge that there may be a mental disorder, which is clearly non-demonic and maybe simply a medical condition?

Mother Melania: Yes, in a way. But it was so well understood that they weren’t talking about it. You don’t go out of your way to say something that everybody knows. And so most of what they’re saying isn’t “Look, we’re wanting you to know that these are different things.”

It’s just that they would speak of something in passing about this person who had a particular medical kind of mental illness. And they would just say it in passing, without any indication at all that they believed that it had specifically to do with demons. Because well before Christ was born on Earth, the Greek physicians believed in mental illness that was not demonically induced.

And the Byzantine physicians and of course the Greek physicians before the time that Constantine had legalized Christianity, they were the heirs to this tradition. And they don’t go out of their way to say these authors are all wrong.

And the interesting thing is there is one case in which they do. And that is the case in what you can translate into English as lunacy, which looks more or less like a form of epilepsy. And it’s a very, very confusing thing that I don’t have time to get into.

But the boy in Matthew that in modern translation it usually says he is epileptic. In the King James, it says he’s lunatic, which is a direct translation of the Greek word, which basically means affected by the moon or moonstruck.

And in this particular case of lunacy, which I believe is something of a subcategory of epilepsy, which was related to certain phases of the moon, there seems to be a uniform insistence “No, this is not medical. This is demonic.”

And so that is, in a way, the exception that proves the rule because they never go around and say that in other things. But then they get to this, and they go “No, no, no. This is not medical.” So that, I think, is part of the strong case to believe they had no problem with the medical beliefs in their day.

Kevin Allen: Having said that, I would think and I’m not trying to put words in your mouth and correct me if I’m wrong on this, the Church Fathers tend and we tend to believe that even if there is something that is specifically considered mental or medical, demons can still exploit those weaknesses and physical infirmities. Right?

Mother Melania: Oh of course. And they can exploit anything. So if you have a mental illness, there is certainly the probability that the devil is going to do the best he can to make that turn you away from God. Just like if I have a tendency toward diabetes, he can do the same thing.

Kevin Allen: Right, which is one of the reasons why a purely scientific or allopathic or medical treatment approach may not be enough in the case of these mental illnesses in the case of these mental illnesses, because there’s obviously, I think we can say, a fine line between those medical and demonic influences.

Mother Melania: Yes, and also I think that the Church Fathers in general lived in a world that they didn’t have sharp demarcations between body, soul, spirit. And so it was just understood that what affected your body affected your soul, and what affected your soul affected your body.

And so there are instances in the medical books where they will talk about something having physical basis and mental illness and physical bases in mental illness, but they also talk about your thoughts.

Kevin Allen: I don’t know if I should call it a litmus test, but is there some sort of test that the Fathers referred to or used in distinguishing between a mental illness that is distinct from demon possession?

Mother Melania: In Early Fathers, I haven’t found anybody who specifically set it out. Now that’s not at all to say that somebody hasn’t; I just haven’t run across anything. But with recent elders, like within the 20th century and I’m sure 21st century too, you do find that a general litmus test, if you want to use that term, has to do with a couple of things.

Does a person react violently to holy things? And this is especially true if they shouldn’t know it’s there. So for example, a priest might be holding a cross in his hand and both of his hands are closed, and the person can’t know he has a cross in his hand. But if they’re demon possessed, they may really fix their gaze on that hand.

And sort of a related thing is that they might have knowledge of events that they can’t reasonably be expected to have. But those are litmus tests, but they’re not foolproof. You need a discerning elder. It would be like the difference between going to a general practitioner and a specialist.

I could look at someone and say, “Well these are the general things, and they’re present in your case or not present in your case.” But that doesn’t mean that there might not be a God-inspired elder who would know that this person, even though he’s not showing those things, still in fact does have a case of demon possession.

Kevin Allen: What does the general attitude, if we can speak of such a general attitude, of the Church Fathers in general with regard to the mentally ill and possessed? How do they regard them?

Mother Melania: With incredibly great compassion and, at times, even admiration. I have a couple of quotes here. Augustine, he speaks of the compassion of those who minister and

those whom they greatly love as if they were their children, or some very dear friends in sickness, or little children, or insane persons, at whose hands they often endure many things; and if their welfare demand it, they even show themselves ready to endure more.

And St. John Chrysostom says:

Physicians, when they are kicked, and shamefully handled by the insane, then most of all pity them, and take measures for their perfect cure, knowing that the insult comes of the extremity of their disease…if we see persons possessed by devils, we weep for them; we do not seek to be ourselves also possessed.

Kevin Allen: You mention, I don’t know if you’re referring to St. John Chrysostom or just in general, an admiration of the Church Fathers toward those who were possessed. How so?

Mother Melania: I have found that specifically in Chrysostom. I haven’t found it in anybody else. Although I found a couple stories that you might be able to take that way. But yeah with Chrysostom, he admires them, and again this is a quote with a few things taken out. He says:

The demon makes men humble…Great is the admiration it calls for, and many the praises, when struggling against such a spirit, they bear all thankfully.

So the key things are humility and thankfulness.

Kevin Allen: Speaking specifically for a moment on demonic possession, and I want to ask you this about the prayers of exorcism, if you can speak to this, are they always to be prayed in our tradition by the priest only?

And the reason I ask this is that I came out of a Pentecostal charismatic tradition where exorcisms, although they weren’t really called that, and casting out of demons by just normal and unskilled laity happened all the time. How do we view that and so on?

Mother Melania: We view that as dangerous and can be quite foolhardy. I do not know if only a priest can ever read the prayers of exorcism. But in The Book of Needs in the service where they give the instructions, it starts out by saying that the priest, because of the serious nature of this, should consult the bishop.

So it’s a very serious thing. Not just any priest should be casting out demons, and especially without speaking to his bishop. There are indications in the early Church that there were exorcists. That was a minor order. And it appears that a lot of what they were doing were the exorcisms of the catechumens before Baptism.

But as far as I know, there were also exorcists of people who had classic demonic possession, if you want to say that. So as far as I know, nobody now except for priests would be praying the prayers of exorcism. But there certainly may be, and there have been in the past, holy lay people with this gift. But it would be a special charism.

And there’s a great story that illustrates one of the problems with this. Elder Cleopa had a novice, and I’ll just read this to you.

After only a few months in the monastery, a novice came to the elder and said, “Father, I have a big grudge against the demons. Grant me permission to read the Exorcism of St. Basil the Great.” Father Cleopa said to him, “You? Oh my goodness! You have a grudge against the demons? May you see what a grudge they have against you. Be sure never to do such a thing. Do you hear? He came just the other day in the monastery and now he wants to curse the devil and read the Exorcism of St. Basil the Great, a great hero.” Thus the elder humbled the spiritual pride of the novice.

And see that is the big problem. It’s so easy to be proud. When you read the stories of the Fathers who do actually have this gift, they are always doing things to protect themselves from pride. And of course, if you read the account of the seven sons of Skiva in Acts, they were set on physically by the devil.

So in addition to the pride that can lead to delusions and total apostasy, you also stand a great physical danger. So yes, it is not a thing to be done lightly at all.

Kevin Allen: Thank you for that. I think that’s very instructive and cautionary, obviously. You wrote in your piece that we read about various figures, especially Old Testament personages if you will, that have become mentally ill. How do the Patristic writers regard them, certainly not all in the same admiration?

Mother Melania: It would depend on a variety of things as to how they became mentally ill. You have for example in the Old Testament the two that I think of off the top of my head is Saul who was not called mentally ill, but he had a demon. And that happened in his case specifically because of disobedience and pride.

And then the other person is Nebuchadnezzar. They never say that he had a demon. He lived like an animal out in the field, and then he comes to his senses. And so in their cases, these were things that were inflicted upon them because of their sin.

And in the case of Nebuchadnezzar, it did him some good because he came out of that and, at least in some way, offered praise to God and recognized Him as being the one true God.

Kevin Allen: Let me ask you this, Mother. You said here so far, at least that’s what I’m understanding, that while the Church Fathers make a distinction between insanity and demonic possession in specific cases, and we acknowledge there’s fine lines between them; you also wrote that most instances of terms related to insanity that you came across and you refer to words like mad, frenzied, irrational, beside oneself, that these were not applied by the Patristic writers to the mentally ill. So my question is, to whom then are they applied?

Mother Melania: Everybody else. And the way that we first began to realize this rather astonishing thing, that basically the Fathers considered everybody but a saint insane, was we were doing word searches through the Nicene, Post-Nicene, and Ante-Nicene Fathers series.

And I think well over ninety percent were talking either about pagans or heretics or Satan or Adam when he fell or careless Christians. And at first, we were just thinking that’s the way we talk. We say, “Oh that’s crazy. How could you do that? That’s a really mad thing to do.”

But they do this so consistently. Everybody does it. And they hit everybody. And it occurs in some places where there’s no reason to believe that they’re just taking cheap shots. Like in the Ecumenical Councils, anytime they denounce a heretic, as far as I know and I think anytime, there’s always some word like mad or frenzied or insane.

And when a Christian is getting ready to be martyred, he will often be accused by the persecutor as being insane. And the Christian will often retort, “No, you’re the one who’s really insane.” And if they didn’t mean that, that would be totally out of character that they didn’t mean what they were saying. And so what we came to the astonishing conclusion was that the only ones who aren’t insane are the saints.

Kevin Allen: Well then, that really says that we must, if you will, redefine what insanity means, at least in terms of the Patristic Fathers and the Patristic writers. So how would you re-frame or redefine that word? What does it mean to be insane in the Patristic sense?

Mother Melania: Well let me preface this by saying, I haven’t found any Father who gives a definition of it. This would be what I have called from what I’ve read. But basically I think, in the very broad sense, if you’re insane, you can’t perceive or respond correctly to reality. And in the cases, your basic westerner of our day and age, we only think of that in terms of everyday reality.

So if you think you’re a gorilla, well you’re insane. But if you think that you can go to Heaven by crashing into the World Trade Center and killing yourself and many, many innocent people in the process, you’re not insane because your subculture, not only holds that to be sane, but actually laudable. Now the Fathers would say that both of those people are insane.

Kevin Allen: I sort of thought that modern secular philosophers and evolutionary people told us we were gorillas. I’m only kidding.

Mother Melania: Oh well that’s true. Close cousins anyway.

Kevin Allen: There you go. Mother, how is sin related to this discussion of insanity from the Patristic definition?

Mother Melania: Well, getting back to where we just were with the man who thinks he’s a gorilla and the man who thinks that he can go to Heaven by killing himself and many innocent people in the process, the one is clearly sinning. And he is clearly wrong about a much more fundamental reality than the man who thinks he’s a gorilla.

Because he is wrong about God, who is so fundamentally real that if I say He’s real, I can’t say I am and if I say I’m real, I can’t say He’s real because He has to be more than that. So for me to think those kinds of thoughts about the God who in fact came down and died for us and who has that much love, then that is incredible insanity.

So anytime I’m sinning, I am misperceiving or acting wrongly towards the fundamental reality who is so real I can’t say I’m real if I say He’s real.

Kevin Allen: You spoke about astonishment with regard to where your study and your research led you. What I was astonished by, in speaking with you and reading the work, is the conclusion you reach that according to Church tradition those who willfully stay enslaved to their sinful passions, as we’ve been discussing, are actually in worse shape than those who are considered clinically insane or mentally ill.

Mother Melania: It is surprising. It surprised us. But on the other hand, if you stop to think about it, if you will grant that both the person who thinks he’s a gorilla and the person who thinks he can go to Heaven by killing many, many innocent people, if you will grant that they’re both insane, I don’t think anybody is going to say that the second fellow isn’t obviously much more insane than the first.

Because again, he is totally turning his back on the fundamental reality. But I think the really shocking thing isn’t that. I think the shocking thing is that even demonic possession is less serious than this willful enslavement to the passions.

Kevin Allen: You’re choosing a kind of extreme example with the person who believes he’s going to go to Heaven by driving a plane into a building, but now you kind of nuanced it a bit and talked about demonic possession being less serious than enslavement to the passions. So put that in more specific contexts.

That means what? If you turn yourself over flagrantly say to pornography or other passions, that means that from the Fathers’ standpoint that’s actually worse than demonic possession?

Mother Melania: Yes, it is. The mentally ill person and the demonically possessed person, granted that most of the time they’re going to be out in left field and not know what they’re doing. But when they do come to their senses, if it’s once in a year or once in twenty years, the one thing they know is that they’re a mess and that they need a lot of help.

And the one thing we refuse to admit to ourselves is the incredible mess that we are and how far we walk away from God. And very often, we’re walking far away from God when we’re the president of the board of our church.

We are walking in our pride and we look around at the people around us and wonder why they’re not as holy as we are. Although we don’t use those terms to ourselves, because if we do we notice what we’re saying. But we’re good at hiding from ourselves what it is we’re actually saying.

And so that is worse. And the reason it’s worse is it is in fact a form of demonic possession because we were made to be temples. At any given time, we’re making ourselves more fit to be a temple of God or a temple of the demon.

And so the person who’s demonically possessed, in the classical sense, didn’t ask for that. But we do. We ask to be proud. In our culture, we thought of that as a great thing in many ways and we ask for a lot of our passions. And so that is why it is a worse form of demonic possession because we’re not fighting the demons, we’re on good terms. God forgive us.

Kevin Allen: Very, very strong point you’re making. So to make sure we’re getting the point, it’s because of free will and a choosing of our passions even if we may not be necessarily conscious that we are choosing them?

Mother Melania: Yes, it’s true. Sometimes we don’t realize that we choose them.

Kevin Allen: Especially non-Christian people or non-Orthodox people who are just influenced by the consumerism and the prevailing culture around us. I mean, it’s become anecdotal that people speak about their passion for something in a positive sense. Now maybe what they’re saying is, maybe it’s not the passion in the classical sense; maybe they’re just talking about this real commitment to a cause or a great or intense interest in a subject.

But it is interesting that now it’s a virtue to be passionate about something. And obviously, it is not a great virtue in the Orthodox context. I found one of your Patristic quotes by St. interesting, in light of our discussion here. And you say that he says that Satan works on the inside, in the soul, before Holy Baptism. But that after Holy Baptism, Satan and the demons can only work from the outside.

And in your piece you wrote, “He [Satan] uses the bodies humors to befog the intellect with the delight of mindless pleasures.” And then a little bit later, you come back and write that St. contradicts himself or seems to when he says that “demons cannot dwell in baptized believers’ souls at all, but he also talks of their moving parts of the hearts of believers”

So my question, Mother Melania, is which is it? Can demons possess or dwell in the baptized soul or not?

Mother Melania: That is a somewhat confusing thing, and he’s saying this within a few pages of each other. So he’s obviously isn’t purposely saying two completely different things. So the way I understand it is that he’s talking about the deepest part of the baptized believer’s soul; that no demon can come there because the Holy Spirit resides there. But they can and do lurk in our bodies and souls.

Kevin Allen: You could take this on the one hand, that issue and contradiction of sorts, not really a contradiction, but the two statements of St. where he seems to contradict himself, it can be somewhat depressing that we who willfully give into our sins and passions are worse off than the demon possessed and mentally ill.

Mother Melania: Yes, in a way, it should be more than somewhat depressing. It should be shocking, and it should be the kind of thing that makes us realize that we haven’t seen the world the right way.

We look at the mentally ill person, and we congratulate ourselves that we are not in that mess. And we are probably in a considerably worse mess. And so that should shock us, but once we’ve been shocked, and St. John Chrysostom goes out of his way to shock people with this, by comparing the proud man with the demon possessed and the lustful man with the demon possessed.

And he goes point for point and shows what a mess we are. But he also in his homilies on Ephesians, in that part where it talks about wrestling not against flesh and blood but principalities and powers, he [Chrysostom] says this:

He that wrestles is still held fast, but it is enough for him that he has not fallen. When we depart hence, then, and not till then, will the glorious victory be achieved. For instance, take the case of some evil lust. The extraordinary thing would be, not even to entertain it, but to stifle it. If, however, this be not possible, then though we may have to wrestle with it, and retain it to the last, yet if we depart still wrestling, we are conquerors.

So I find that incredibly encouraging. I don’t have to win right this minute. I just have to submit myself to God and continue wrestling. And that’s enough, to pick yourself up everyday. For most people, that’s a pretty serious struggle in and of itself. And that’s what we’re at.

Kevin Allen: That’s good. Thank you for that. If as most of us who are trying to be honest about our lives and our inner condition know that we are influenced by forces and tendencies that are in contra-distinction to what we would prefer to have, what is the therapy for that?

Mother Melania: It’s the whole life of the Church. We absolutely must immerse ourselves in the entire life of the Church, and that includes the liturgies, the rest of the services that prepare us for the Liturgy, the daily prayers, the fasting and almsgiving, and confession.

Because this is the basic sinful condition. This isn’t anything that some particular person has to struggle with. We all have, to some degree, given ourselves over to the devil. We have, and this isn’t surprising to the Fathers. And so Christ, in His incredible mercy, has given us the path of healing, and it’s in His Church.

Kevin Allen: I would like to end, if I could please, with coming back to where you started, that is when you said that you have people that come to the monastery and inquire of you and Mother Victoria and the other sisters in the monastery about whether something is demonic or truly a medical condition.

When someone comes and asks whether a diagnosis of schizophrenia or bipolar or compulsive disorders are simply a medical condition or spiritual malady, what do you tell them?

Mother Melania: We don’t pronounce definitively because we’re not elders, and we wouldn’t dare do that. What we would do is tell the person to go to their priest and make sure he’s talked to his bishop and ask them to help connect you with whatever the right help would be. So that would be one thing that we would suggest to the person.

And the other thing is just to comfort them and to let them realize that although you have this situation, it’s not because you’re a second class citizen in the kingdom of Heaven, if you’re going to be in the kingdom of heaven at all. Rather, it’s that you have an incredibly strong trial.

And in a very, very ironic way, it takes a lot of strength to be weak; to have that kind of a weakness, especially a weakness where you cannot trust your own mind. And there’s a beautiful story that Mother Victoria, our abbess, tells of a woman that she knows who is schizophrenic. And she was a spiritual daughter of Elder of the Holy Mountain, who is a great light on the mountain and a great ascetic.

And she wanted to be a nun, and he told her you cannot be a nun, because a person who has a mental illness you do not profess them as a monastic because they have enough of a struggle. Sometimes they have been cases where people didn’t know that someone was mentally ill, and they professed them and they lived that out.

But in general you wouldn’t profess a mentally ill person, because they’ve already got a huge struggle. You don’t need to add another huge struggle. So here’s what he says to her, “You can’t be a monastic, but your path to God is through your schizophrenia. And He’s given you a harder path than He’s given me.”

And so what we need to let that person know is that they’re not a second class citizen. It’s more like they’re the one in the big, huge fight, and I’m almost certainly not strong enough to be in the big, huge fight that they’re in. But what I can do is I can offer them water and help wipe away the blood and cheer them on to keep going. And that’s basically what we would say.

Kevin Allen: Well said. Thank you for that and all of it, Mother Melania of St. Barbara Monastery and Community in Santa Paula, California. Thanks for being my guest today. I appreciate it.

Mother Melania: Thank you very much, Kevin.