Dear Donagh,

I have a question about the miracles in recent gospel readings. I have a hard time understanding the meaning of things like possession by demons and exorcism….
            I guess the basic problem I have is with the apparent disavowal of responsibility that is implied in the medieval worldview that features demons, possession, exorcism, etc. The implication is that we are powerless and we need an exorcism. Psychology on the other hand emphasizes our responsibility for the state of affairs we are in.
            People often come to a psychologist (yes, I'm a retired one) because of the weakness of the narrative discourses that they present: the incoherence, inconsistency, and lack of explanatory force in the way they tell their lives. Disavowal of responsibility is always part of the problem. "I know I did it, but it was really not my fault" (it was the demon in me; my genes; my unconscious; because my parents treated me badly; etc).
            Patients usually start with a passive (I'm the victim) and defensive (not my fault) version of their tale; it is the job of the therapist to help them create an increasingly authentic (I am largely responsible for this state of affairs) version of their tale. That is to say, psychotherapy reinstates the human being as a personal agent. The life story is re-told in terms of goals, reasons, purposes, etc….
[The therapist seeks to] establish the patient as a single, fully responsible, even if conflicted and puzzled, agent. Now the patient is someone who is acting as a person in a world made up of other people who are also agents. Gone is the demonic, possessed, animistic inner world of victimhood, and gone is the posture of the detached, passive, helpless witness of dramatized psychological events….
            Versions of our lives in which we are passive victims shield us from unwanted emotions, like guilt and shame. But they also hide adaptive alternatives, and prevent us from taking responsibility for our lives. Doesn't a worldview featuring miraculous intervention and passive suffering imprison us in a way of being that is relatively powerless and even irresponsible? How are we supposed to interpret these stories where people are passively healed through the miraculous intervention of Jesus?

May God watch over you.



Dear Paul,  

Thank you for your profound question.  This is a topic that holds interest for many people, and it is good to see a professional healer looking at the healing stories that form part of the gospel narratives.  I hope I have not omitted any essential points of your question in the abbreviated version above. 

Yes, the ancient and mediaeval worlds were quick to see demons and demonic possession in human life – the ancient more than the mediaeval.  There was a belief that the soul temporarily left the body when a person sneezed, and demons were waiting to gain entrance.  This ancient belief may lie behind the surviving custom of saying ‘God bless!' or 'Gesundheit!' when someone sneezes.  In the time of Jesus most people believed that the air was thick with demons who were watching their opportunity, especially when a person was taking food.  They were believed to be the cause of illnesses of all kinds.  A question for Christians is whether Jesus shared that view.  Opinion is divided, but the balance of opinion among scholars seems to be that he did not.  (He and his disciples neglected precautions such as ritual washings: see Mark 7:1-5.)  Just as there was a severe cutback on angels in the New Testament, the cutback on demons seems to have begun with him too.

It’s rather surprising, then, to read the Life of Antony, written by St Athanasius in the 4th century.  There, demons abound.  “Once, [Antony] visited a populous town, and his disciples tried to protect him from the crush of people; but he told them to be at ease: ‘These are no more numerous than those demons with whom we wrestle on the mountain!’"  But Antony’s case is fascinating, and it has been at the back of my mind for many years. 

Antony the Great, 'the Father of Monks', lived in the desert from age of 18 till his death at the age of 106. He wrestled incessantly with demons, and gave detailed advice on how to deal with them: “how to recognise their traits: for example, which of them is less wicked, and which more; and in what kind of pursuit each of them exerts himself, and how each of them is overturned and expelled….”  His methods were the exact opposite of modern psychological ones: a modern person would say he projected everything shamelessly outwards.  However, it was not a form of alienation or a refusal of responsibility; on the contrary, the man was hard at work every day, doing battle with his demons; and the battle was for his spiritual life. Modern people in therapy sometimes do battle with pillows, but pillows could never be more than a pale imitation of Anthony's demons. There is little of interest that can be said about their various traits or about the pursuits they exert themselves in, or how they are to be overturned and expelled. 

I remember a therapy group, years ago, that used to use a centre I had set up in Cork.  What I remember especially is the punishment they used to mete out to the cushions I had just bought.  One man continued to kick a rather expensive one around the room until he actually disembowelled it.  He had focused his feelings towards his father on that unlucky cushion.  He said he was helped by this, and it may well be the case.  At least there was some sort of release of pressure.      

Is it possible that projection is not always a bad thing; that it is harmful only when it is a shirking of responsibility, an attempt to blame other people or circumstances for one’s own ills?  But what is to be said for it?  Perhaps it can open a way forward by releasing some of the steam in that inner pressure-cooker.  Then it would not be so much a case of projecting as externalising one’s problems – a kind of exorcism.  Anthony externalised his demons into the air, so keeping his inner being free and even spotless in some sense.  He was not blaming the demons.  He was studying them, as he kept repeating: “how each of them is overturned and expelled.”  He also kept repeating that one has no need to fear them, “for they are nothing and they disappear quickly.”  They disguise themselves, urging exaggerated forms of asceticism.  “They pretend to speak like the devout, so that by means of the similarity of form they deceive…. They do not do these things for the sake of piety or truth, but so that they might bring the simple to despair.” 

While not wishing it back, I like to see Antony’s method as a sort of primitive therapy, a “discernment of spirits,” as he called it himself.  And it was subtle enough to unmask false spirituality.  His engaging personality was the diametrical opposite of Edward Gibbon’s view of him in his History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire: “a hideous, distorted and emaciated maniac, without knowledge, without patriotism, without natural affection, spending his life in a long routine of useless and atrocious self-torture, and quailing before the ghastly phantoms of his delirious brain.”  If this were even partially true, it would be hard to explain how the story of Antony played a major part in the conversion of St Augustine. 

But to come to the gospels: when you look closely there is nothing automatic or magical about the healings that Jesus performed.  A good example is John 5:1-16.  This is about the healing of a man who had waited for 38 years by the pool of Bethzatha.  “Do you want to be healed?” Jesus asked him.  This seems an odd question when you consider how long the man had been waiting.  But of course it is a real question.  People often have compelling reasons for clinging to their sicknesses.  We can imagine him elaborating it: You will no longer have people to take you around – do you want to be healed?  You will no longer have sympathy from everyone – do you want to be healed?  You will have to work, and you are not used to it – do you want to be healed?  He wanted to be healed.  Then Jesus said, “Stand up!”  This too seems odd at first sight.  Jesus was asking him to do the very thing he could not do.  Then the miracle happened: the man went to stand up.  He overcame the habits – physical and mental – of a lifetime.  His mind and will said, “Stand!”   That was an amazing achievement.  Then, when he went to stand up, he found that he could.  The miracle was not worked ‘on’ him, it was worked ‘with’ him.  This is not to say that it was just mind over matter.  It was the presence of Jesus, but that presence in this case required the full conscious presence of the paralysed man. 

Jesus did not typically say, “I healed you, I saved you,” but rather “your faith has saved you.”  See Mt 9:22, 29; 15:28; Mk 5:34; 10:52; Lk 7:50; 8:48; 18:42, etc.  He is often said to be “casting out demons,” but this may be more a matter of speaking a language that people understood.  Only once was he said to have ‘projected’ them into some other creature, and that was into a herd of swine in Mk 5:1-20 (and parallels).  These, for Jews, were unclean animals, so the demons had met an appropriate fate.  At the end of the story the demoniac is “clothed and in his right mind,” and restored to his family.

I'm sorry, Paul, that this response is overlong.  I hope there was something in it to address your question. 


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