Exorcising the Demons
Are brothers and sisters in certain parts of our country continue to grieve as family and friends are lost to tragic and violent deaths carried out by certain perpetrators. Two of the criminals were recently sentenced: 1) James Holmes who carried out the Colorado theatre shooting killing twelve and injuring seventy; and 2) Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, one of the Boston bombers who killed four and wounded 240 people. These two men exemplify numerous cases of persons taken by evil: one, whose mind was weakened by mental illness, and the other who was motivated by a radical ideology. In my opinion, when they committed their crimes they were indeed possessed by demonic forces. However, unlike many horror movies, old and new, the demons did not suddenly pounce on them and take them over against their will. In fact, most scary films present us with this false message of how evil and the devil work.
While the vast majority of persons with mental illness and radical ideologies do not commit mass murder, almost all who do, possess one of these traits. And we, each one of us, would be gravely mistaken to believe that only persons with mental illness or holding radical ideologies are subject to demonic influence and possession. We also would be mistaken to think that exorcisms are only for people who foam at the mouth, spin their head around and hurl vile curses towards God and his priests. In today’s Gospel reading, from the Tenth Sunday of Matthew (17:14-23) Jesus performs an exorcism on the epileptic who often fell into the fire and the water (vv.14-16). We are mistaken if we think we have nothing in common with the epileptic. For we too often let the fiery passions influence our thoughts, words and actions. And then we are burned by sin. We too are attracted to the pools of wealth and comfort and then ending up drowning in our own greed and avarice. Who will perform the exorcism on us and how will it be done?
Parents are often surprised that prayers of exorcism are read for their child during the Sacrament of Baptism in the Orthodox Church. “Wait a minute, my baby is so sweet and innocent. They do not need an exorcism. That’s just one of those old left over rituals that the priest has to do.” However, the child does need an exorcism because the demons go to work right away when we are born, trying to pull us away from God. In fact, it’s so important, three prayers of exorcism are read during the service.
Another mistaken belief is that we only need to be exorcized once at baptism and then we are magically protected from evil the rest of our life. Like all parts of the sacramental baptismal and chrismation services, the exorcism is a beginning and a paradigm for what should be a constant practice in our life—praying for God to expel the demons in our life and to continually protect us. In fact, the priest’s Service Book has prayers for exorcism than can be read whenever appropriate and they should be read and prayed long before we get burned by sin or drowning in our possessions. Even most versions of an Orthodox Prayerbook have an exorcism prayer—a prayer against demonic influence. So each one of us, whenever we feel we are being attacked by demons or evil, at whatever level, can pray for ourselves or for others who are experiencing the same. We can invoke the name of Jesus in the Jesus Prayer, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner and cleanse me.” And we can use Jesus’ words, “Get behind me Satan!” (Matt.16:23). Don’t wait until things get out of control but if they do, go see the priest right away so he can help you.
As I said before don’t think of demon possession in only it’s most extreme and outward form and in turn that exorcisms are also extreme. Don’t think of demon possession as someone else’s problem, because the devil is very crafty, sly and subtle in using these mistaken beliefs against us. He sends demons to influence us and if they can, to take up residence in our heart, mind and soul; hiding and lurking therein even without our awareness. We must see that our bad habits and sinful tendencies are the fires of self-centeredness, suffering and despair. Our bodies may not shake with seizures but we must see that we are often out of control: thinking, doing and saying things we know are wrong but cannot seem to exercise discipline over. If you cannot relate to what I am saying, then try to remember the last time you replayed a hurtful conversation in your head. Or try to remember the last time you gossiped about someone. Or try to remember the last time you bought something you really didn’t need.
Jesus rebuked and cast out the demon who possessed the epileptic in today’s Gospel. He did this for numerous people, perhaps hundreds if not thousands during His lifetime on earth. But Jesus power over demons is not a secret power or antidote. Jesus shares the formula for exorcism with His disciples right after He cured the epileptic. When the disciples asked why they could not cast out the demon (vv.16,19), Jesus tells them, “Because of your unbelief” (v.20) and then says, “This kind does not go out except by prayer and fasting” (v.21). So the three-part antidote to demonic possession is faith, prayer and fasting.
Regarding faith, we must believe and trust in God with our whole heart, mind, soul and strength. If it’s anything less than 100% that means we are starting to trust and believe in other things that are not God. That’s when the problems start. When we look elsewhere outside the Church, outside the truth of Jesus Christ, for guidance, strength and inspiration. We’ll get inspired all right--but by the devil and his demons—slowly and subtly. Jesus says if you have faith in Him, you can move mountains (v.20). But the mountain is myself--my entrenched habits and characteristics. It is you and I that must be moved. Change, adapting to change, letting God change us, is the mountain that must be moved to grow. The demons have no power over us other than what we give them.
However, faith by itself is not enough. Jesus said, “Not everyone who says ‘Lord, Lord’ will be saved” (Mt.7:21). Any automobile will eventually run out of gas or electricity if not refueled or recharged. Our faith in Christ will run out if we do not refuel at the pump of prayer. We must fill our tank daily prayerfully coming into the presence of God. We must participate fully in the Divine Liturgy at Church each week to get the highest octane. The Word of God and His Eucharist are the best fuels on the market for learning and growing in knowledge and truth. As I said before prayer can easily cast out the demons while they’re trying to sneak through a window or back door of our soul.
However, faith and prayer are not enough. Not only must we direct our heart, mind and soul towards God, we must also direct and move our bodies towards Jesus Christ. Fasting, the self-denial from types and amounts of food as well as the sinful passions, is one of the most powerful tools to build discipline of the body. Our body and soul must be working together to grow closer to God. Jesus Himself fasted in the wilderness to overcome the direct temptations of the devil. Are we any better than Christ that we don’t need to fast? Without fasting, without practicing bodily self-control, surely we will succumb to many sinful temptations.
Conclusion- As you go today ask yourself, “Is my life seemingly out-of-control? Am I often making choices that are not good for me? Am I having a difficult time getting my life on track to where I know it should be? If the answer is yes, then you might have a demon. That may sound shocking and your reflexive answer might be “No way, there is no way I can be possessed.” However, remember I said that the devil works slowly, subtly and secretively to take us over. Jesus says in the Gospel today that nothing will be impossible for those who have faith in God. Ask yourself, “Where is my faith? Is it in Jesus Christ and His Church? Am I using the powerful tools of prayer and fasting to equip myself for the battle against Satan? The battlefront is right here in your heart and mind and mouth and hands. It’s not out there or with someone else. We all need help to grow in faith through prayer and fasting. Seek out your priest, seek out your fellow brother and sister in Christ to get the help you need to begin moving the mountains in your life. Amen.