I have been discovering something about Lent which I had heretofore missed. It is a time when the demons get out. Demons? This is the twenty-first century, isn’t it, and the only people who believe in such entities are the ignorant, superstitious, and biblical literalists who often resort to draconian methods to drive out demonic possession. All true, except I think there are demons. We welcome the indwelling of the Holy Spirit as a protective spirit, don’t we? Does that not predicate some acceptance of spirits? There is just too much language in Scripture about Jesus, and those he sends, casting out demons, unclean spirits, and talk about the temptations of Satan, to totally ignore that there must be basis for this. The simple answer is to smugly rename them in terms of psychology. And there certainly can be truth in that, but I don’t think it encompasses everything that is meant by the many acts of casting out evil.
God lets bad things happen to good people because our God is not a puppet master, and sudden death, misfortune, slander, victimization at the hands of some demoniac can happen. I really question what goes on in the mind of someone so blind with rage or in such despair about being bullied or mocked or hated that their only response is a blind killing spree. And this is where I step off into the deep end and say gun control is not the entire answer. Yes, it is a good part of the answer in terms of legal and social control of such tragic massacres. But something else drives a killer or a group of killers who plot and plan for some kind of revenge against, well, against what? Emptiness? Meaninglessness? Hopelessness? A sorrow that bursts out from the depth of the shooter’s soul that can’t be quenched. Frustration is perhaps the first demon we can name. Society says, too young? Accept it. Too old? Accept it. The wrong gender or gender identity, size, color, ethnicity, whatever can be used to demean, ignore, belittle, accept it. While others seem to effortlessly gain all the things yearned for. I was taught in the words attributed to Thomas Aquinas that everything except the love of God is straw. Those may be words of spiritual comfort until that last perceived insult brings some person to the snapping point. And then the demon arrives and fills the hole inside where Love should dwell.
In the Gospel of Matthew (12:43-45), and in Luke (12:24-26), Jesus teaches that a person is like a house swept clean of unclean spirits, but that leaves a vacancy and the expelled spirit can invite in its own posse, sevenfold or more. Self examination and repentance aren’t one time things. They are constant, if the demons of discontent, hate, annoyance, and all the great and petty things are to be kept at bay. This is not an invitation to paranoia. It is keeping watch. Often it is the outside world that rips open that tender place and brings in the demons. All Souls are Mine Sayeth the Lord, our parish proclaims. And if we were to exclude the odd, different, hurt, creative, we would do so at our own peril, and definitely to the peril of that other one’s soul. That phrase comes from Ezekiel (18:4), as “Vengeance is mine,” comes from Deuteronomy 32:35. Paul’s answer in Romans (12:17-18) reads, “Repay no one evil for evil. Have regard for good things in the sight of all. If it is possible, as much as depends on you, live peaceably with all.” In Christ we are given the harder task, both for ourselves and for our treatment of others.
So back to demons. The number of references of Jesus confronting and expelling demons are too many to list, and if you add to that all the healings, which are another kind of exorcism, and the number of demons which Jesus’ followers cast out in his name, the list is enormous. So we have to take them seriously. Lent, if followed devoutly, opens us all up to a lot of places where we probably would rather not have looked. And those places are where demons dwell, or where demons can find the food of discontent, uneasiness, regret, even despair, and move in with their demonic friends. Tempers can grow short. Perhaps all that fasting adds to it, but in general Lent has the effect of drawing us down, even if the down is in reverence to the Way of the Cross. So what do we do about demons, when we feel the tug to anger or resentment, or when others suddenly do things to us which makes our lives miserable?
Treat demons as if we were doing a healing or blessing. 1) We don’t drive out unwelcome spirits or urges or attitudes. Jesus does. So we do this invoking the name of Jesus, and in the faith that we are only vessels of grace, not the initiators. We don’t do magic. 2) About prayer, we ask, we do not tell. We humbly bow to the will the Holy One. 3) We pray. The Lord’s Prayer is good. So are a many of the Psalms. The penitential ones are just fine. Psalm 51, 19, 22, for a start. Or just look through the Psalms. Pick one or two and use them for your Lenten discipline to keep you steady in times of stress. 4) Honesty counts. Do this with another or others, but people whom you can trust not to turn your needs into a blame-game, or a chance for power inequity. 5) Receive the Eucharist as often as possible, believing in the strength given by Christ’s abundant love. 6) Pray the Great Litany, and review the Baptismal Vows. 7) Give thanks even if you still feel shaky. We have the spiritual technology. Use it.
Reframing the basic Lenten discipline of self-examination, repentance, confession, and reconciliation in the traditional terms of demons floating around and distracting us from the presence of the Holy One is another way to dig deep, to name and expel the end of winter annoyances which Lent brings to the fore. And it links us to the words of Scripture, gives us a more honest understanding of the people who first walked with Jesus to Jerusalem. We are modern people who choose not to discard our past, but to seek out inner meaning, in ways that are perhaps more profound and holy than the current lexicon of psychological terms and notions, which come and go, and are, as often as not, biased by current societal models as any arcane belief.
It matters not if demons are real or a metaphor. If we are hurt by someone’s unclean spirit, it will still hurt. There may never be restitution. But in Christ, we can be protected as far as is possible in this vale of tears. And the Resurrection is coming soon, and with it Redemption.
Dr. Dana Kramer-Rolls is a parishioner at All Souls Parish, Episcopal, Berkeley, California and earned her master’s degree and PhD from the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, California.