One time, as Jesus had come to the region of Gerasenes, he met a man who was possessed by demons. As Jesus stepped out of his boat this man (who lived alone in the graveyard) came running up to him. This man was prone to self harm, beating himself with stones. He also stayed up all night yelling and making strange noises. People had tried to force him to stay in the town but he always escaped and lived alone in the graveyard with his demons. In this article I will be using demons as a metaphor for chaotic and disordered thoughts, you can read more about that HERE.
As the man ran up to Jesus he bowed down and begged him for mercy because Jesus had commanded the unclean spirit to come out of him. The next thing Jesus did is very important. He asked the demon, “what is your name?” When Jesus wanted to heal this man of the demons which were tormenting him, it was essential that he ask the demon its name. In like manner, if we want to address our own inner demons we must first name them because we cannot change what we do not understand.
The demon responded to Jesus, “My name is legion for we are many” and by this we can understand that there is not one demon in each of us, but many. Some people will struggle more with certain demons than others but we always have to keep our eyes open. Despite the fact that this man had a particularly large number of demons, Jesus was able to take all of them out of him and sent the man home to his family to sing praises of God’s goodness. Perhaps Saint Anthony had this story of Jesus in mind when he suggested that we begin our discernment by demanding the demon tell us its name. He said,
“Whenever some apparition occurs, do not collapse in terror, but whatever it may be, ask it first, bravely, ‘Who are you and where do you come from?’ And if it is a vision of holy ones, they will give you full assurance and transform your fear into joy. But if it is someone diabolical, it immediately is weakened, finding your spirit formidable. For simply by asking ‘who are you and where do you come from?’ you give evidence of your calmness.”
We can know a good thought by the fact that it brings us joy. Joy in this instance does not mean fun and entertainment or sensual pleasures, but rather a deep and grounded sense of God’s peace and beauty. As Jesus said, “You will know them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thorns, or figs from thistles? In the same way, every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit.”
We can discern the presence of angels by the peace and joy which they inspire within us. The angels relish in truth and so they always welcome you to ask their names and by doing so we transform our fear into joy. The demons, on the other hand, do not want to tell you their names at all. They will try to hide and avoid the question. They are immediately weakened just by us asking for their name. The question “who are you and where do you come from” arises from a place of apatheia and therefore is a blessed way to seek inner peace.
Evagrius of Pontus was the first to systematically categorise the demons so that they could be more easily named. He decided that there were eight primary thoughts which injure human beings. John Cassian picked up the eight thoughts/demons from Evagrius and called them vices. These eight vices later became the seven deadly sins, though there was much nuance lost in that transition.
Cassian was not able to publicly admit that he was following the teachings of Evagrius because Evagrius had been labelled a heretic by church authorities. So, even though Cassian drew heavily from Evagrius and carried on his system of eight thoughts, the name of Evagrius was no longer publicly attached to them. The early Celtic monks picked up the Evagrian system from Cassian and used it as the basis for their penitentials.
Demons are metaphors for habitually destructive patterns of thought. When we ask our inner demons “who are you and where do you come from?” we are really trying to understand the nature of those thought patterns. Over time the monks who lived in the desert combatting with the demons realised that there are certain patterns which are common to all sorts of people. There is not space here to discuss all the different patterns of thought which human beings tend to fall prey to, so I will discuss one in particular.
Perhaps the most insidious trick which the demons use against us is to distort our self identity. Sometimes the demons overwhelm us so much that we can no longer see where we end and the demons begin. We begin to imagine that we ourselves are demonic. When we start to identify with our unhealthy thoughts we lose the ability to talk back to them. Pelagius described this so well when he said,
“I do not want the mind to become negligent and sluggish in its pursuit of virtue. This often happens to the mind which does not believe in its own ability to achieve virtue. This mind assumes it does not possess the ability to achieve virtue simply because it does not realise what is present within itself.”
The demons will lie to us and tell us that we are the same as our thoughts. Instead of thinking of ourselves as a person who is experiencing unwanted sexual thoughts and desires, we start to think of ourselves as sexual deviants. Instead of thinking of ourselves as a person who is experiencing anger we consider ourselves to be an asshole. Instead of thinking of ourselves as a person who experiences unwanted desires for food, we label ourselves a fatso.
If we experience social anxiety and therefore label ourselves as being an awkward person then we give power to that anxiety. But when we reject that false identity we begin to unravel it and weaken the power of the demons. When we have accepted a demon as part of our identity then it feels impossible to change. When we realise the truth that we are not our thoughts and feelings then change becomes possible once again.
Jesus described this trick of the demons, where they give us a false sense of identity, in a story from the gospels. In this story the false identity is one of pride rather than one of shame. Jesus had just cast a demon out of someone and the people around him accused him of doing so by using the power of Beelzebub, the ruler of the demons. Jesus rebuked them by saying that a house divided against itself cannot stand.
A house divided against itself is a metaphor for a soul which is not in harmony. If we try to cast out demons by resorting to other demons, our house will be laid waste, but if we cast out demons by the finger of God then the kingdom of God has come upon us.
This is the principle of contraries – chaos is driven out by harmony not by an alternative form of chaos. The goal towards which we move is a house in harmony with itself, a soul in the state of apatheia. The state of apatheia, however, is not who we are either. If we begin to take pride in our spiritual accomplishment, then we take a false identity upon ourselves. Immediately after this scene unfolded Jesus gave the following warning.
“When the unclean spirit has gone out of a person, it wanders through waterless regions looking for a resting place, but not finding any it says, ‘I will return to my house from which I came.’ When it returns, it finds it swept and put in order. Then it goes and brings seven other spirits more evil than itself, and they enter and live there, and the last state of that person is worse than the first.”
Even when we are successful in dispelling the demons, and when we have gathered our soul into a state of recollection, the demons may still return. The demons can often be found dwelling in a house which is in order. The desert monks regularly warned against the demons of vanity and pride because they attack us most fiercely when we have made great progress in the spiritual life.
If we label ourselves as someone who is victorious against the demons rather than someone who is currently not experiencing them, then we have a false identity. We are never so great that we cannot fall once again. If we find identity in the fact that our house is in order, then the demons which we have diligently dispelled will return sevenfold and we will be worse off than we were in the beginning. Even angels can be deceived by pride, and when they are they fall from grace.
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