Friday, October 10, 2008

Twenty-first Sunday after Trinity

Eph. 6:10-20

"For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places. Wherefore take unto you the whole armour of God that ye may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand."

In the nice world of religious pleasantries, today’s text from Saint Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians has no meaning. The idea of spiritual warfare, striving against demons, is seen as quaint, outdated, the product of an age of ignorance rendered irrelevant by scientific rationalizations. In other words, it is disregarded due to the bigotry of our modern age, and the arrogant assumption that the little bit of knowledge we have gained about material things gives us wisdom about the invisible world and its realities. The words of Shakespeare’s Hamlet speak to our age : “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

The problem with the modern Rationalist prejudice is that people who suffer from it think it is not a prejudice. They do not know the difference between being rational and being a Rationalist. I, for one, am rational enough to know that the belief that there is a scientific explanation for everything, is simply a new dogma that rests on faith without evidence- the very thing they accuse us of. They say “a rational explanation” or “scientific explanation” because they either disregard the true meaning of words, or do not know what the words mean. By “rational,” they do not mean the use of reason, but rather the prejudiced dismissal of belief in natures supernatural to those natures below them. By “scientific” they do not mean the acquisition of knowledge through empiricism, but rather, the dismissal of facts that cannot be explained in strictly material terms. For these reasons, I do not regard the Rationalists, or believers in what is called "Scientism" (as opposed to simply "science") as being either rational, scientific or sophisticated. Quite the opposite.

On the other hand, a large number of people these days who escape the influence of the Rationalist prejudice look for the supernatural in all the wrong places. A few years ago I was watching something, that passed for a documentary, about a family that had been living in fear and torment because their daily experiences indicated to them that their house was haunted. In fact, they feared that the spirits were evil, and even called them demonic. But, to whom did they turn for help? They called in a man who supposedly was a “Doctor of Paranormal Psychology.” I don’t know where they found this D.P.P., but, I do know that there is no university anywhere that would bestow a doctorate for something called “Paranormal Psychology.” That is, of course, unless Mr. Haney from the old comedy “Green Acres” has opened his own university. And, who did this alleged doctor call in for “expert” help? A psychic. And, did the "psychic"- that is, medium- offer any help? No. Just very bad advice, namely, to regard the tormenting affliction as a rare “psychic” gift. Finally, after finding no help from the psychic, they asked their pastor for help. It turns out that they were members of some sort of Pentecostal denomination. It was obvious, from a scene filmed in their church, that theirs was not one of the kooky fringe snake-handling types, but a simple old fashioned Protestant congregation with a seemingly reasonable pastor, one who seemed to know how to pray in faith. I wonder why these church-going people failed to go to their pastor first.

I mention this because, if any of you are impressed by psychics, or fortune-tellers, or go to seances, or any engage in any other occult practices, I want to be clear with you. The kinds of evil spirits that Saint Paul speaks of in today’s Epistle are very real. If you are looking for the supernatural in all the wrong places yourself, there are two things you need to know. First of all, it is a sin. It belongs to a forbidden world of idolatry and magic that the Biblical prophets referred to as a spiritual form of adultery, because it is unfaithfulness to God. Secondly, it is forbidden because it is dangerous. You may think that demon possession is only a Hollywood genre within a larger genre of horror movies. No. It is real, and the Church has always maintained that it is real. I have had to perform an exorcism on a real life demon possessed person in my time (more than one really), and I know it is real. Just as I know that miracles of healing still happen by the power of Christ, because I am an eyewitness to them. It is all of it quite real, everything you see in the pages of scripture, all of those supernatural events recorded in the New Testament (and, by the way, if you think you may need someone to do an exorcism, don’t call in a psychic. It is a job for a priest, not a circus sideshow act).

We live in a natural world that interacts with a world of holy angels and fallen angels. The holy angels are God’s servants, and the fallen angels are called "demons" (δαιμόνιον, daimonion) in the New Testament (translated as “devils” in the King James Version). The latter seem not to be super-human, but sub-human. The evidence indicates that they resent us, because we are destined to be, by God’s grace in the Lord Jesus Christ, “partakers of the Divine nature.” (II Pet. 1:4) Satan and his fallen angels were defeated when Christ died on the cross, the sinless One for the sins of the many. If you saw Mel Gibson’s The Passion, you may recall that right after the Lord gives up His spirit and dies, and the earth quakes, that Satan cries out in agony from being defeated. That is not a bad scene at all; it makes a very true point about Christ in his cross defeating the enemy of mankind. Because we live in the time of Easter, that is Christ’s resurrection, and because we live in the time of Pentecost, that is, because we are the Church of Christ filled with the Holy Spirit and His gifts and power, we need not fear any evil power such as the spirits mentioned in today’s Epistle. They are, as the Lord Jesus told us, subject to us. If I may be critical, an exorcism is not something to be tried or attempted. It is, rather, something to be done. When it is the appropriate thing to do, it must be done with faith, faith that it cannot possibly fail.

Listen to these words from the tenth chapter of Luke’s Gospel:

"And the seventy returned again with joy, saying, Lord, even the devils are subject unto us through thy name. And he said unto them, I beheld Satan as lightning fall from heaven. Behold, I give unto you power to tread on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy: and nothing shall by any means hurt you. Notwithstanding in this rejoice not, that the spirits are subject unto you; but rather rejoice, because your names are written in heaven." (Luke 10:17-20)

This brings us to an unavoidable question: If they are subject to us, and we can trample all over them, and they cannot hurt us, why does Saint Paul tell us to put on the whole armor of God? Why are we in a fight? The answer is to be found in scripture, and also in the tradition of spiritual warriors throughout the history of the Church, such as Saint Anthony and the desert fathers; it is continued today among monks such as my younger brother got to know on the famous Mount Athos, and many others who have been spiritual directors. The demons work hidden from our view through temptations into sin, and they work mainly through deception.

In the New Testament we see that false teaching is attributed to the work of demons. The scripture speaks of “seducing spirits and doctrines of demons,” “the spirit of error” and the “spirit of Antichrist.” How do you understand that in our time the former Episcopal bishop of New Jersey attracts audiences and readers by proclaiming that it is high time for Christianity to abandon belief in God? How is it that many cults exist that cause people to suffer both spiritual and physical harm? Apart from the countless and shocking examples of heresy, ask yourself how much you are willing, in your own mind, to abandon the direct teaching of the word of God in the scripture as understood by the Church in every place and age, in favor of ideas that you like better? Where do those ideas come from? These ideas, that we all must fight by wearing "the helmet of salvation," are capable of reaching the flesh because it has sympathetic vibrations in its tendency to sin. All of us must wear the armor, the whole armor of God, and we must consciously and deliberately put it on every day.

My dear brothers and sisters, it is time we all took heed to Saint Paul’s words. It is time we all put upon ourselves the whole armor of God, and gave ourselves to prayer.


Albion Land said...


poetreader said...

Father Hart,
It's been a long time since I heard anything as straightforward as this, and about time it is! In my Pentecostal days, while I did witness a great deal of hysteria and attribution of perfectly "natural" things to demonic power, and while I found that misaprehension repulsive, I also witnessed many events (even though a minority of those so attributed)that I am fully convinced were indeed demonic. I see no reason that phenomena of this sort would not be on the increase in a time when God is increasingly denied and occult phenomena increasingly sought after. "Be sober, be vigilant, for your adversary the devil goeth about as a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour; whom resist steadfast in the faith."

I suspect that ministry of this sort is going to be more and more needed as time goes by.

Though I recognize that hypnosis is a scientifically grounded procedure and may indeed have therapeutic value, I share your hesitation. Anything that removes one's conscious volition and leaves one open to external direction risks opening the floodgates of demonic activity within oneself. Hypnotism certainly has that potential, but is not alone. "Talk therapy", though definitely the best choice for many conditions (and especially Freudian psychoanalysis) can easily be used to open one to receiving such influence. "Recreational" drugs and even wrongly used prescription drugs can do so also, as can any of several forms of "undirected" non-Christocentric meditation.

We do need to avoid the baby/bathwater syndrome. Some of these techniques may have genuine medical value, but they should never be approached without care. The identity and intent of the practitioner do matter, and the degrees on the wall are little help in that. Every such procedure should be appruached with prayer, perhaps with fasting, and certainly wuth the godly counsel of one's priest or sopiritual director.

Well, this is more than I intended to say.


Fr. Robert Hart said...

I wrote this three years ago, and had forgotten the mention of hypnosis. But, though this practice may have some good use with genuine doctors of medicine, I don't recommend it. Surrendering to anyone to such a degree- "submitting to" having been my phrase- requires caution.

Canon Tallis said...

Father Hart,

When my wife was dying of cancer and we found her to be allergic to almost all pain killers while the others simply made her ill in another way, my eldest daughter took us up to a skilled hypnotherapist who taught us both auto hypnosis to combat the pain. As long as she was able to do it herself, it cleared the pain like nothing else available to her and when she could no longer do it for herself I was able to do it for her. The only unfortunate dark side was that it led the children to believe that she was not nearly as close to death as she was . One of them said when leaving, "we are going to be very busy and won't be able to get back for another six weeks." I had to tell her that she would be back much sooner than that. And she was.

The point I would make is that hypnosis is like any other tool. In the hands of a skillful and moral professional it can be used to medical and psychological wonders while in the hands of a scoundrel, there is very little end to the mischief and evil than could be worked. But that is true of almost every other real tool or real knowledge that we have. Everything depends upon the morals of the person or persons using it.

I know that it is treated like magic or sorcery, but it is not. And I am personally very grateful for the relief from great pain that it gave my wife while she was dying.

On the other hand, I have had more than a little experience of real demonic power and the use of exorcism by the power of Jesus' name and they are quite different things. The latter is not to be played with by any except those with great theoretical knowledge of same and a very strong prayer life. it is very much like juggling welding torches with no room for error. No amateur should approach it and the knowledgeable priest or exorcist does so only in absolute necessity.