Demons are real. Spirits are real. We Christians should know all about spirits. We carry one, dare I say are possessed by one, all the time. The Holy Spirit, the Advocate that Jesus sends, is Very God of Very God, just as Jesus was and is, and in baptism we are sealed in that particular Spirit. But the world is full of spirits of one sort or another. Demons, the loa of the African Diaspora religions, lesser gods/goddesses, some good like the feeling that our dead grandmother is somehow near, some really bad. The Scriptures are full of references to spirits, mostly evil ones, and gods which present themselves as carved images to distract kings to abandon the Holy One of Israel. At least these gods give the prophets something to preach about. Those evil spirits are the stumbling block keeping us poor broken and confused humans from the fullness of the Kingdom of God. That is why Jesus came, to teach and absolve and heal and banish evil spirits, he who is our Great High Priest. Today we read a profound and, for those of us who mess about with spirits and their banishment, true teaching (Matt 12: 43-50). When some poor soul has been beset by evil spirits they can be swept out by prayers and Sacraments and Scripture and the teachings of the Church and by the community’s love and support. We have a lot of weapons against evil, if we use them. Once the person recognizes a spirit as a demon and takes part in banishing it, they are turning again toward God. The person may find peace.
But not for long. Because we live in a complex world, and we constantly face anxiety, loss of hope and faith, the insecurities of life, the loss of a dear one, the breakup of a relationship, the difficulties of a job. . .the list is endless. Without vigilance, prayer, sacraments, and good company that big hole where the previous demon lived, now all nicely swept out, is pretty empty. And demons just love empty spaces to move into. And the more devout, the more seeking God, the more discerning, the yummier a morsel we are for the Father of Lies and his horde to move in. To take this out of the realm of traditional language and metaphor, which I feel is both useful and true on a spiritual level, we can see this return of evil spirits every day. Our children come home from school battered by navigating their social interactions, some more than others, but pretty much the case for everybody. And their hearts hurt. And they get angry, grumpy, depressed, confused, scared. And it doesn’t get a whole lot better as we grow up. And we become demon meat. And that is what all that formation and reading Scripture and those ethical and moral teachings are all about. All those psalms that talk about taking on the armor of righteousness, or the armor of light (Rom 13: 12), and God as our shield, a good old battlefield shield, that is how the practice of religion upholds and protects us when the going gets rough.
Jesus was literally right. An empty soul is an invitation for invasion by bad stuff. So what do we need to fill that hole? The strongest of all spirits, the Holy Spirit, not as a weird metaphor, but as a real living presence within us. All the time. And which binds us to each other. She is just about the only thing that can keep us from killing each other over trivial insults and minor irritations. Like road rage. Domestic abuse. Oh, and the big ones, like genocide and war. We walk on a knife edge. Why can we accept this image of protection readily from Captain America, let’s say, but find it so hard to wrap our heads around the words of Scripture as having some deeper reality? Probably because there are those who abuse the notion of evil and create a theology based on Satanic horrors everywhere. They beat the devil out of children and kill doctors and close women’s clinics. They promote fear. That is not of God, of the Spirit. That is from the very Evil One they are so obsessed with. I am not advocating that. What I am suggesting is that if we can learn to see our behavior and our going off the rails periodically as demons confusing us, we can banish them in Jesus name pretty much at will, or at least long enough to catch our breath and really find out why we are so mad at our spouse or why our teenager is being so rebellious (okay, hormones here).
Of course, we are all living in a world which tries to fill that hole with bling and shiny things. Rock concerts may be fun for some, building up creative energy from the enthusiasm of the crowd, the bright lights and sheer overwhelming volume of the experience, but they may not actually fill that empty place in our hearts for long. A weekend at Disneyland may be quieter, but it addresses the same principal. Ritualistic expressions are pretty close to the bone in human experience. In fact the dignity and beauty of liturgy or pilgrimage or religious festivals also address that same need for periodic renewal. But the only thing that really fills that void is filling it with the Holy Spirit, and that is a gift of God, nothing you can buy. Only humble prayer can even have a chance of opening our hearts to that power that is ours by Grace and letting in the Comforter and keeping out the demons. Try it out as part of your rule of life. Either take stock and make a simple confession in your prayers before bedtime, a form of the Ignatian examen, or become sensitive to your feelings, and when they start to spiral, stop and inspect them. Are they life giving? If not, banish them in Jesus name. Some need to be kicked out more than once. Then move on. It just might save your marriage, job, children, souls. And pray, find joy in your companions, nature, your cats and dogs and other critters. Fill that space with God’s good works, with joy, with simplicity. And go easy on social media.
And just a word on the rest of the reading, one of those places where Jesus isn’t very nice to his family starting with his mother Mary. While we venerate her as the Theotokos, after Jesus was born and she had half a dozen other children to care for and after Jesus went on this crazy ministry, the very human Mother of God was just as baffled as everybody else. Even his boon companions, who loved him, couldn’t see the larger mission most of the time. And so Jesus says that his true mother and brothers and sisters are those who hear and abide in him and his words. And we do cling to our chosen families more than we do to our blood relatives. We are all chosen family through Christ, by adoption to our Abba/Amma. And that is a family which will forgive and protect and love us no matter how many times the demons of life surround us and invade us. And faced with the Spirit of God the demons don’t stand a chance.
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.