We don’t like to talk about demons. When is the last time you brought up the subject of evil spirits at home with your family or at work with your colleagues? Have you ever heard a homily about demons, even when they appear in the Scripture passage at Mass?
This is not to say that we are not fascinated by the subject. The long lines at horror films and the mega sales of ghost and occult stories show an appetite in our culture for exploring what is dark, hidden, forbidden and frightening.
I thought of this the other day when demons played a prominent role in the weekday Gospel reading. In the first chapter of his Gospel, Mark describes the early public ministry of Jesus: Simon Peter’s mother-in-law is sick and Jesus “grasped her hand and helped her up, and the fever left her.” When news of this healing spread, the whole town flocked to the house and “brought to him all who were ill or possessed by demons.” Jesus cured the sick and “he drove out many demons, not permitting them to speak because they knew him” (Mark 1:29-39).
Every once in a while a word or phrase in the Bible jumps up and grabs your attention, as though you had never come across it before. These words hit me: “not permitting them to speak.” There has been much written and said about why Jesus did not want the demons to speak; basically, he didn’t want his identity and ministry to be revealed yet. But that’s not what intrigued me about those words.
What struck me was the fact that these were really demons – evil spiritual beings with an identity and a voice. You see, I had been educated in the modern skeptical tradition, by Catholic scholars who thought themselves smarter than the tradition of the Church. I had been told that the demons in Scripture were not really personal beings; they were really manifestations of some sort of psychological illness that people at the time did not understand. People who were thought to have demons really had epilepsy or some sort of psychosis, and Jesus healed them not by driving out these demons, but by affirming their humanity and reintroducing them to the human community.
I never really bought this explanation, but there seemed to be some truth in this way of reading Scripture. After all, the evangelists wrote their Gospels in the language of the time, using the idioms and understandings of their readers to communicate a deeper spiritual message; just as the Genesis authors used the concept of “days” to describe the creation of the heavens and the earth – the message being that God is the Lord of all manner of time, matter and beings.
Yet this phrase in Mark’s Gospel, “not permitting them to speak,” stuck in my mind. Mark did not write that Jesus forbade the afflicted persons to speak; Jesus forbade the demons to speak. Once separated from the possessed, these demons had a voice of their own, and a will and a personality of their own – they knew Jesus and he knew them. Clearly, the Gospel is not describing a psychological illness or epileptic siege. These are demons.
Exorcists say that demonic possession can often accompany mental illness, and mental illness can often give the appearance of possession or “obsession” by demons. So they must always rule out physical and psychological causes before deciding that demons are truly involved in the life of a troubled person. But they also are clear that demonic possession does occur. Demons are real. They are personal, individual spiritual beings who are smarter than humans and intend to do us harm.
I think we all know or suspect this fact. Demons are more than things that “go bump in the night.” A friend of mine recalls an exorcist saying: People may scoff at the existence of demons or the devil, but when they see a possessed person walking on the ceiling, they tend to believe.
I write this not to scare anyone, but to wake us all up to the reality of this evil. Demons, of course, have no direct power of us, and we can combat them through prayer, sacraments and the power of the name of Jesus Christ and his Precious Blood. God’s love and mercy expressed through his Church is stronger than even the devil himself, who is the biggest loser of all time.
St. Michael the Archangel, defend us in battle!