We continue our lectio by praying with the next few verses of Mark’s Gospel…
THE HEALING OF THE GERASENE DEMONIAC
For those of you who have been following this lectio you will know that we have just spent an explosive time with Jesus and his disciples in a boat in the middle of a storm. In the eye of that tempest the disciples learned something more about who Jesus is, and he showed himself master even of the elements – truly the Lord of creation. Now we accompany Christ and his followers into another storm, and no less frightening. In fact, in all the gospels this story has to be counted as one of the most harrowing that we read.
We have noted before that, at this time, it was not uncommon to attribute wild behaviour in persons to demons and devils. There is a conviction that the person is possessed by a force which is other than himself, and which is bent on controlling and even destroying him. And this experience – how we confront an almost personalised evil which manifests itself through human persons – is still a reality with us today. And it is difficult to explain and difficult to come to terms with.
The devil is not a person, of course, and should not be equated with such. Personhood is an aspect of being which is consecrated by the Triune God – in God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, we encounter personhood in its perfect form, perfectly expressed, and perfectly lived in a shared love. It is precisely in this personhood that the human person shares, through the gift of the life-giving Spirit, God’s breath, the Soul of our soul, the deepest expression of what we are and who we are. Such personality, even though he is a created being, and spiritual, does not belong to the devil, who is, at best, un-person. This must be a matter of the greatest torment to him, that, desiring so greatly to be God’s equal, and better, he cannot even be equated with God’s highest creation, the one who is made in God’s image and likeness. Unable to lay a finger on God himself, he contents himself with degrading God’s image and likeness, the human person, who, because of our own fallen state and attraction to sin, have the possibility of cooperating in this degradation. For this reason, theologically and spiritually, we cannot set aside the notion and reality of the devil and his presence, as if it were some kind of morality tale with which to frighten children and the simple-minded into better behaviour. The witness of Sacred Scripture, and the witness of the Church’s experience right down to our own day, cautions us to the contrary.
We read in the introduction to the Manual of Minor Exorcisms:
“The Scriptures and the teachings of the Church attest to the existence and activity of angelic beings. Angels continually offer hidden yet real service to the Church. Some angelic beings have rejected God and exercise opposition to God and the Church. They are diabolic and seek the undoing of God’s work of salvation in individual lives. The Scriptures describe the chief demonic spirit under a number of names: Satan, the Devil, Prince of this World, the Father of Lies, the Tempter. Other fallen angelic beings are called evil spirits, demons or unclean spirits. These demonic spirits work towards the spiritual destruction of human beings.
“The history of humanity is marked by the great contest whereby evil spirits seek the destruction of the quality of human life and the perversion of the works of God. God has acted decisively in the sending of his Son, Jesus Christ, and by his death and resurrection has definitively broken the power of Satan over humanity. Though conquered, evil spirits continue to afflict human beings. There is a spiritual battle that continues and will continue to the end of time.
The struggle with the powers of evil is part of the experience of every human being. While human beings have a natural orientation towards the good we find ourselves confronting evil in various ways. We can speak of three dimensions to this experience of evil: temptation, oppression and possession”.
So, as we move through this piece of Mark’s Gospel with our lectio, prayer and meditation, we keep in mind that this is a reality presented to us, and not merely a literary vehicle or device.
Firstly, there must be a note of thanksgiving as we begin this piece – the disciples reach the other side of the lake with Jesus. It could have been so very different for them! Had Christ not been with them in the boat, had they not cried out to him in their desperation, had they not come to the point where they were ready to let go and lose control so that he could take over and intervene, it’s likely they, or at least some of them, would have been lost. So, although Mark doesn’t say so, the simple statement that they reached the territory on the other side should be enough for us to take stock.
If we take a moment to give thanks for this deliverance then we must automatically turn to the God who is continually making himself felt in our lives. God is not passive but does not control us – he leaves us with the beautiful gift of our freedom intact, inviting us to use it as an expression of our reflecting him, the one who is utterly free, and therefore utterly loving, in all that he does. Secondly, we ask ourselves what we have taken away from such an experience of near-disaster, even near-death. How has that changed us, for the future and how we undertake things of little or great concern? Sometimes we forget all too quickly lessons that experience teaches us, and yet our experience is a manual teaching us about life, with ourselves, with others, with God. On each occasion, I resolve to tell God how this moment of crisis or opportunity has impinged upon me. Undoubtedly the disciples talked about it among themselves – did they talk to Jesus? – God – about it too, telling him how it made them feel?
Just when they were wiping their brows with relief, out of the tombs in front of them comes a man, shouting, howling, possibly bleeding, probably naked or at least in rags (see verse 15 – at that point he is said to be ‘clothed’), obviously possessed.
What would I do? Run! There is really no one like this man in the gospels – it is a frightening sight and picture, a man reduced to all the lowest ebbs one can imagine, more beast in fact than man. This is a pivotal part of the possession – the evil spirits in him have degraded him almost completely, so that he is robbed of his dignity and almost his human personhood, barely recognisable as a man. It would appear that this man is in a hopeless position.
It’s an arresting part of our own prayer and meditation at this point. I would hope not to see myself reflected in this presentation of person – someone so overwhelmed by their affliction that we barely recognise them. We note again that this extreme has even deprived the person of a name – we know the demons’ name, but not the name of the man possessed by them! To lose one’s name is tantamount to losing one’s identity, and name in Sacred Scripture has a fundamental role is our understanding of persons involved in the stories which are given for our consideration – it’s not just who they are but a statement of their whole mission and focus in life, and usually how that mission is lived out in cooperation with God’s will for them or others. Affliction can become so intense, so overwhelming, so suffocating that our very self is obscured, buried, forgotten. This man has become such a slave to his affliction that he cannot now answer for himself – the unclean spirits are the one who enter into conversation with Jesus.
Is this addiction, the complete loss of self-will and self-control and freedom to act as self? Certainly in the discipline of the afflictive thoughts the end point which we want to avoid is becoming my thought – our constant watch word is “I am not my thought”. We don’t know what the origin of this possession or affliction is but at some stage this man began the journey, he consented to something, and perhaps at the time it may have seemed quite innocent, even pleasant, a one-off distraction. Hence that observation above about temptation being the first rung of involvement with an unclean spirit or diabolical force – we consent, and so a conversation, a dialogue begins.
Yes, of course we can readily acknowledge different sorts of afflictions and addictions which all too commonly are still part of many people’s lives and many relationships. The abuse of alcohol and drugs still blights many lives and destroys many people. With the instantaneous nature of internet service and access to online material, pornography has become an addiction which has reached truly devastating proportions in all age brackets, and we know from science that frequent recourse to pornography rewires the brain in certain aspects, and certainly has drastically altered sexual experience and expectations, particularly among young people. Again, online services have made gambling an addiction which has acquired its own destructive power, both for the individuals involved and their families.
Each of us can think about how these forms of oppression radically reshape persons. But perhaps we’re missing the more subtle presence and work of oppression in our own lives – when was the last time that we reminded ourselves that our fixation with work or money, or status, had become the single greatest controlling influence in my life and was running me and contributing in an unacceptable way to my decision-making? When did I last look to see that my obsession with a particular relationship was in fact a matter of exercising control which had become abusive? Attitudes can quickly shift, deforming us and our lives to the point where we are no longer recognisable to ourselves or others.
Mark asks us to notice that this man lives in a place which is utterly inappropriate – among the tombs. Of course, to be in such a place, permanently, is at one level entirely unacceptable to the Jews of Jesus’ time – one is automatically made ritually impure by having this contact with the dead. And it’s not merely fleeting – this man lives here, it’s his abode, his habitation, his day to day environment. And we, of course, both shape the environment in which we live and are shaped by it. This is a place of death – and Mark wants us to recognise that it’s the appropriate place for the kind of possession which this man endures – his is a living death. It’s a state which is almost entirely devoid of the life which is the great privilege of the human person, a life, after all, which is God’s gift to us, a participation by reason of his divine breath within us, in his own life.
The battle lines, it would seem, are set – the one who is Life faces the one who brings Death.
To be really mired in our afflictions, to be completely given over, in a way which describes pride entirely, to a sinful way of life, is to be on course to a sort of living death. The death that we’re speaking about here is the death of the inner person – it’s an existence which is entirely devoid of peace. This poor man, tormented and tortured by his afflictions and possession, is anything but at peace, with himself, or with others, or with the world. He howls night and day – again, this is something that we associate with an animal, not a person – in pain, in confusion, or simply crying out to be noticed, to let people know he is still there. Is this, then, the man’s cry for help which has become his last way of reaching out? And again, perhaps as it has been for so very long, he has gone misunderstood.
Just a few verses earlier, the disciples cried out in the boat for Jesus to take notice of them – through wind, rain, and the terrible creaking of the boat in the midst of wave and storm, did they whisper or howl?
This possessed man gashed himself with stones. Undoubtedly we can suggest that the unclean spirits which possessed him drove him even to this – destroying the beauty of his inner, spiritual life, he expresses that loss and inner death by a loathing for the beauty of his body and flesh. So often, our outward expressions mirror the turmoil or peace which is the dominant character within us. St Benedict makes that remarkable assertion in the Rule at the climax to Chapter 7 on humility – after all the hard interior work on becoming humble is done it will be completely evident in the behaviour of the monastic. And it’s true – how often do we betray what we’re thinking and feeling by how we behave!
The loss of dignity and self-worth is, in itself, a destructive force in our lives, and can lead to self-harm and attempted or completed self-destruction. Failing to experience the love of others in our lives can easily lead to the thought that I am unlovable, even by myself. And if I cannot love myself, how can anyone else, even God love me? We don’t know what tipped this man into his cycle of self-harm and self-destruction – and we can be sure that it was a process which gathered pace to bring him to this juncture – but it may even have been something which, objectively and to others, seemed very slight. But from where he was standing at the time, and from the point of view of what he needed, it was a key which turned a lock which opened a door which took him to a place where he would rather not have gone. But he went.
The power of addiction and possession is immense. Once it gets control it’s difficult, if not impossible, to rein in and bring to heel. How interesting that people had tried to bind this man, with fetters and chains, and he had broken them all. A superhuman strength seems to be at work in him. Why did they try to chain him up? Because they regarded him as an animal and less than human? Because they couldn’t understand why he suffered so and so took a direct route to curb his behaviour? Because they wanted him to stop harming himself in this way? Of course, they never seem to ask, nor are we told, why this man has come to this pitch. Undoubtedly, there is an invitation here for us to look at origins and not just treat symptoms. Our behaviour, good and bad, has its origin in something, and depending upon those origins we will want to repeat what we are doing, or relearn so as to avoid it in future. Again, the man himself may have forgotten, over the passage of time, how all tis had begun – and sometimes that is a good thing. But if it is the one thing which determines his present suffering, then perhaps it has to be unlearned and moved aside.
And so Jesus tackles that directly – he addresses the source, the unclean spirits which are destroying this man.
The chains and fetters, of course, are something of a ruse – the man is already well chained and fettered! Nothing compares to the links which, wound around his emotions, spirit, intellect, and his entire being, hold him tightly. Perhaps, in that sense, his possession is an accumulation of many things, not just one affliction – the chains which hold him are made from links which he has forged over a lifetime of selfishness and dissipation. After all, the unclean spirits are many – Legion – as his sins may very well be. One is reminded of Jacob Marley, the former business partner of Ebeneezer Scrooge, whose ghost begins the conscience wracking journey of that Christmas Eve in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol – he too wore chains which he had fashioned for himself over the course of his life.
So much in this story speaks of the great desire to be set free! Ultimately, of course, it’s a freedom which Christ himself will win for us on the Cross, and it’s fascinating that, originally, Mark’s Gospel ended with the dead Jesus being placed in the tomb, the toimb being sealed and the women taking note of where it was (Mark 15:46-47). It’s a bleak ending, but we have already seen – we’re reading and praying it now – that the timbs, while they stink of death, are a place where Christ is Lord and Master. He undertakes the great work of freeing this man and giving him back to himself among the tombs and the dead.
What are the areas of my life in which I want to ask for this freedom, and for the grace to exercise the freedom to move aside the afflictions, temptations, yes, perhaps even oppressions which drive me down. Very often, before we get to that terrible stage of out and out possession, we know something has to change – within us, in our lifestyle, in how we relate to those around us, in how we relate to our environment, in how I take people, things, opportunities, relationships, even the freedom to be myself, for granted. In this sense, I’m walking about in the tombs, in a half-light, denying myself the chance to live in the freedom which is given to the children of God.
For this week in lectio, and in preparation for the next part, the encounter with Jesus in the midst of my reality, look at and bring before God the half-lights, the shadows, the unclean spirits and movements in your heart, the things which gain control and which you know are not you, so that next week you will allow Jesus to address them, and, dismissing them, he will address you. Then, pray with St Paul, as he did for the Ephesians:
“This, then, is what I pray, kneeling before the Father, from whom every fatherhood, in heaven or on earth, takes its name. In the abundance of his glory may he, through his Spirit, enable you to grow firm in power with regard to your inner self, so that Christ may live in your hearts through faith, and then, planted in love and built on love, with all God’s holy people you will have the strength to grasp the breadth and the length, the height and the depth; so that, knowing the love of Christ, which is beyond knowledge, you may be filled with the utter fullness of God. Glory be to him whose power, working in us, can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine; glory be to him from generation to generation in the Church and in Christ Jesus for ever and ever. Amen”Letter to the Ephesians 3:14-21
-Part of our continuous lectio divina on the Gospel According to Mark-