Saturday, October 28, 2006

Casting Out Our Demons

We hear several times in the Gospels about Jesus casting out the legion of demons from the possessed man. Aside from the fact that these accounts proclaim Jesus’ divine power over the evil spirits and the whole kingdom of darkness, what can we learn from this mystery? What does Jesus’ casting out of demons 2000 years ago say to us today?

Let us look at a few basic elements of this story and then make the application to our own lives. The man was driven by the demons to live among the tombs, where he cut himself with stones and terrorized all who would pass by. Then He was compelled to confront Jesus, who had mercy on him and cast out the demons. Finally, Jesus told the man to go and proclaim all that He had done for him.

The first thing to note about the evil in our lives is that it is largely self-inflicted. Certainly the devil tries to influence or even push us toward evil, but to the extent we listen to him and follow his suggestions and impulses, the fault is ours, and we can’t get away with saying: the devil made me do it. So, like the man who lived among the tombs and gashed himself with stones, when we choose to do what we know is wrong, we dwell in the shadow of death and inflict spiritual wounds upon ourselves—and perhaps on others as well, insofar as we defile the Body of Christ. We may be able at times to produce excuses for our sins, but in the end they are just that: excuses. We still have to stand before the judgment seat of God, and his judgment is final and without appeal.

The next stage is the meeting with Christ. Whether this meeting is a loving encounter, or an anguished and fearful confrontation, as it was for the demons, such a meeting with Christ is inevitable in our lives at one time or another. He is the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end of all things, and everyone without exception will be ushered into his presence, for he is the meaning and destiny of all creation. So we come to Him in our sinfulness. The demons cannot stand his presence and want to flee from Him, but the Lord knows that the man under their influence can still be saved, so He has mercy on him by freeing him from the presence of the evil spirits.

I want to focus here on the experience of God’s mercy, and for this I have recourse to a book entitled Discernment: Acquiring the Heart of God, by a Jesuit named Marko Rupnik, who teaches Eastern Christian spirituality in Rome. The Christian life has as its foundation the experience of God’s love, and for sinners, this experience is primarily that of mercy, of the forgiveness of sins, which is the casting out of the evil of our lives. Like Lazarus, we hear a voice that calls us out of the tomb; we experience a new creation in which we enter into a regenerated life. We realize that a life without God at the center is hell, a demonic life, and we long to be liberated from it. Through accepting divine mercy, we allow ourselves to be reached by God’s love, and this changes the orientation of our whole life. Through repentance and forgiveness, the sinner meets the Savior, and all is made new.

Forgiveness doesn’t mean merely that God has cancelled our sins, but that God has taken upon Himself the life we lived without Him. By our repentance and confession, and the experience of God’s mercy, we discover what it means to be redeemed by the Lord. In forgiveness, a Christian rediscovers his whole life, gathered up into Christ. All the events of our life, even our past sins, now function as reminders of God; they speak of his love and enable the forgiven sinner to hold tightly to his Creator and Savior. For it is not just our sins that are forgiven, we are forgiven. We stand in grace before God, and we begin, as St Paul says, to live, no longer ourselves, but Christ lives in us. The penance given in confession should help us develop that living memory of forgiveness, of who we are in the mercy and love of God.

Since most of us aren’t actually possessed by the devil, the casting out of evil in our lives takes the form of repentance and forgiveness. Sin is the rupture of a relationship, and the awareness of sin brings pain to our hearts. But through repentance this pain is transformed into something like the pain of childbirth—new life is coming forth and our tears of sorrow become tears of joy. It’s not the heart that is shattered by the pain of acknowledging our sin, but rather the hard shell in which the heart was locked. When Jesus liberates us from the power of evil, our hearts can beat freely. Repentance is the movement that urges us towards God’s embrace; it is the measure of the authenticity of the path we have chosen. This is why the fathers urge us to penthos, compunction, for that keeps alive in our hearts the effects of repentance, the memory of mercy. The best memory to cherish in our souls is that of the first touch of divine love on our penitent hearts, and then constantly maintaining a living awareness of the effect of repentance, of forgiveness, and thus of rediscovered love.

Going to the last stage of the possessed man’s story, Jesus told him to proclaim all that God had done for him. For us, this does not mean merely talking about it, but preserving the state of grace in which God’s mercy has placed us, for our spiritual life can be healthy only if it is given constant care. That is why Jesus said in another place to beware, once the demon has been cast out, lest seven other demons more wicked than the first come and fill the emptiness of the soul.

In the experience of forgiveness, the encounter with God in which we surrender ourselves to Him in faith, love, and gratitude, we discover ourselves to be in Christ, in his love and truth. Christ, says Rupnik, is “God’s ecstasy” toward man, that is, God’s coming out of Himself, as it were, to meet us with his mercy; and in another way, in Christ we come out of ourselves to meet the Father. But once we have been set free from evil by God’s grace, and recognize that divine forgiveness is the element, the ambience, in which we live, we can be sure that the devil will not be content to leave us in peace.

We may stand in the grace of forgiveness, but St Paul says: “Let anyone who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall” (1Cor. 10:12). This “taking heed” is the whole work of ongoing repentance, prayer, and labor to ensure that we will not fall away from the grace of God, for the devil’s seductions are many, and the more we advance in the spiritual life, the more subtle the temptations become, so vigilance is always necessary. The devil tries to tear our thoughts away from the joy and peace of the new life that God has given us through his mercy, this fundamental orientation to God that is the fruit of grace. So the tempter presents obstacles, exaggerates our struggles, multiplies reasons for not advancing or persevering, tries to make us anxious, fearful, or discouraged.

His main work, especially upon those who are not easily tempted by the cruder sins, is to get us to focus on ourselves, to make sure that we gradually slide away from focusing on God. Even in doing good, if we are concerned with how we feel or think, whether or not we are being noticed or approved or successful, or if we look with satisfaction on our own labors or spiritual exercises, then the devil is winning the battle, for we have preferred the monitoring of our own emotional or spiritual condition, that is, we have not let go of our own wills in favor of doing the will of God alone. Even in the area of ascetical practices like fasting, vigils, extra prayers, etc—if we think these are ways to reach God, we are mistaken; they will only bear fruit if they are a response to what God has already given us, if they are an expression of a grateful love becoming more sacrificial. God loved us first; God brought us out of darkness into his light; God freed us from evil; God granted us gifts of grace. We could do none of that for ourselves, so humble gratitude, a spirit of compunction, and a renunciation of our own wills can be the only proper response.

Let us, then, give thanks to the Lord, for He is good, and his mercy endures forever. He has healed our self-inflicted wounds through a saving encounter with Him—faith and repentance on our part, and the divine power of grace and mercy on his. Now it is for us to proclaim his goodness, not only in word but in deed, in the determined and vigilant maintenance of our new life as loved and forgiven children of God. Then evil will find no place in us, for we know the truth, and the truth has set us free.