JANUARY 29, 2007: MARK 5:1-20

Not long ago I received, unsolicited, a gift of two books, rather the worse for wear, filled with handwritten notes and with pages loosely floating in their covers. They were sent to me by a rather eccentric gentleman who began sending rather curious letters to me off and on this past year. Bishop Fulton Sheen is the author of the first of these works. Published in 1948 it does more than expertly demonstrate the nature of Communism with its moral defects: what gives this work a continuing interest is its demonstration of the fact that the fundamental evils found in communism as practiced in Russia up to that time were imported from the liberalism of the West. The political and social circumstances of that country led to their being applied with a tyrannical ferocity that revealed their inhuman consequences openly, in a way that was not possible in our Western countries. A measure of reflection on our current society, however, discloses that the underlying philosophy with its materialistic values is operative in our society, undermining the moral and spiritual dignity of the human person.

The second book I received deals with a subject that is anything but popular in our time but arguably offers no less a timely indication of the forces hidden but very active today. It is a clinical, documented report of five Americans who suffered from demonic possession and underwent exorcism between 1965 and 1974. The author is a former Jesuit priest with a doctorate in Semitic Languages who taught at the Bible Institute in Rome. He knows all five persons personally and vouches for the veracity of his account. The sessions of exorcism were recorded on tape. One of the attempted exorcisms failed; another while succeeding resulted in severe physical injury to the exorcists that required some weeks of hospitalization. In short, it deals with extreme instances of moral and spiritual degradation caused by domination of the human spirit by an evil spirit.

Such a presentation is as far removed from socially and politically correct thought and interests as todayís Gospel text in which St. Mark provides a lively and very striking account of a man suffering from possession. The details of the victimís behavior are vividly recounted. Evidently, this a particularly destructive affliction that had proved resistant not only to cure but even to control. As a result the possessed man is placed in restraint and isolation but still remained a threat to himself as well as to others. To encounter such a person is to meet with someone who is hardly human; one cannot relate to a person subject to such psychic forces as render him unable to enter into conversation. [I might think this description exaggerated if I had not dealt with a patient who, prior to being admitted to the psychiatric ward with other patients, required to be locked up and kept in isolation for an entire year, so loudly, and almost constantly did he scream and shout in frustrated anger. His problem was not possession but psychological.]

Our Lord addresses the demon, not the individual man himself, and commands him- or them for they were many- to leave their victim. His word proves decisive and effective, so that the possessed is liberated and returns to a calm, human condition. Only then does Jesus speak to him personally, directing him to remain in his own area and witness to Godís mercy in healing him.

This encounter is the most striking of a whole series of instances in which the Lord casts out demons. In some instances, it seems rather clear the cause of a loss of control was natural and the Lordís intervention was rather another case of his healing power. But in this and others he truly exorcized demons. The existence of demons, nor belief in angels, for that matter did not readily fit into the materialist view of the cosmos that became widespread in the later Enlightenment of the 19th and 20th centuries. More recently, physicists theorize on the existence of parallel universes not accessible to the senses of man, suggest that the concept of intelligible worlds that influence the cosmos we inhabit, is at any rate not intrinsically impossible or necessarily alien to our human condition. Be that as it may, our faith in Jesusí teaching reveals to us that we are subject to the influence of good angels as well as tempted at times by demons in ways that are usually more subtle than the instance presented in todayís Gospel. Above all, we know by that same revealed faith that Jesus is Lord, with the Father, creator of all that is seen and unseen, and that in him we are given the light and strength to resist the evil spirits and to follow the promptings of the angels. Todayís Gospel and this Eucharistic sacrifice are given us as a pledge of this grace that not only overcomes all evil, but assures us of a part in the kingdom of God himself.

 Abbot John Eudes Bamberger

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