You are of your father the devil, and the desires of your father you want to do. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he speaks a lie, he speaks from his own resources, for he is a liar and the father of it (Jn 8:44).
At their request, I am speaking this evening (29 November 2007) at St John the Baptist Orthodox Church (OCA) parish here in the Youngstown area. My topic, again by request, is the occult and the demonic. I would hardy call myself expert or even knowledgeable about such matters. Frankly, I’m not sure anyone is, because, given their nature, I don’t think anyone can be. After almost seven years in northern California, I am certainly acquainted with the topic however.
Some 75% of the adults in the part of California where we lived and served have no religious affiliation at all. While Roman Catholics are the largest single religious group, the vast majority of the population that identified themselves as Christians are Mormons, Jehovah Witnesses, or some form of contemporary Evangelical Christianity. What unites all of these groups is an absolute absence of any commitment to even a vaguely recognizable adherence to the historical Christian understanding of baptism. In many cases, especially in the Jehovah Witness and Evangelical Christian communities, there is an explicit rejection of the sacramental character of baptism.
What this meant for me is that, for the first time in my life, I lived where almost no one I met was baptized. Quite literally, I served as a priest surrounded by a truly, pagan (and not simply, non-Christian) culture more widespread and deeply rooted than many other places in the world. In addition to the almost absolute absence of baptized Christians, many, many people engaged in some form of occult activity.
I met Wiccans, self-professed vampires, and practitioners of the art of black magic. All of this was highly sexualized and often associated with drug and alcohol abuse. Very quickly I began to think of middle aged New Agers as quaint. Or at least they seemed so in comparison to many of those often (but not always) adolescents and young adults who came through the door of my church. Sadly, a significant number of those involved in the occult also professed to be Christians. Usually (though again not always) these people were in a charismatic or Pentecostal congregation. Sadder still in more than one or two cases, the person was an Orthodox Christian.
What I found most distressing though were not those who dabbled in the occult. Yes, certainly such activity is spiritually, psychologically, and spiritually dangerous. Typically an interest in the occult reflects more immaturity then it does a serious commitment. No, what I found frightening was the number of people whose interest in the occult led them deeper and deeper into demonic activity.
For most of us our view of the demonic is informed more by Hollywood and the popular media rather than the Scriptures, the witness of the Church or any firsthand experience. Looking back on my childhood and early teen years, I would certainly have to include myself in the former category. I grew up not only on the classic horror movies of the 30’s and 40’s, but also the schlock, and shock horror of the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s. Like many, I read horror novels (especially Stephen King) and comics, played with Ouija boards and read my daily horoscope in the newspaper. Thank God, by the time I got to college, I put all that behind me. Or so I thought.
When I moved to Shasta County I discovered all this again. This time though the occult was not frivolous entertainment, the chosen life commitment of men and women I met on a daily basis.
Jesus calls Satan the father of lies. When our Savior says this He isn’t simply saying that the devil says untrue things. Demonic lies are often mostly true. This is where they get their power to deceive. St Augustine says that evil is the absence of a good which should be present. Evil is also the presence of a good which should be absent. While not absolute, human beings tend toward the former, the demonic toward the latter. Satan brings disorder with him—the word diabolic (from Greek, “throw across,” from dia- “across, through” + ballein “to throw”) carries within itself the connotation of division, disorder, chaos. It is the opposition of symbolic, (from syn- “together” + stem of ballein “to throw”) or that which throws together, or brings about a union (since they unite us to Christ, the sacraments are “symbols” in the etymological sense of the word).
The devil’s lies are twisted. If he can through his lies he causes us to doubt or reject what we know to be good, and true, and beautiful, and just. The temptations of the devil, and I saw this again and again in California, is not so much that the devil tells us things which are untrue. It is rather more the case that he tells us the truth, untruly. Origen’s words about the devil are applicable to the whole of the demonic realm: “And the reason why truth is not in him is that he has been deceived and accepts lies, and he has himself been deceived by himself.” This is why, Origen concludes, the devil “is considered to be worse than the rest of these who are deceived, since they are deceived by him, but he creates his own deception himself.”
St Augustine reminds us that Christ does not say “‘The devil was naturally a stranger to the truth’ but that ‘The devil did not remain in the truth.'” The devil falls because “he refused to submit to his Creator and proudly exulted as if in a private lordship of his own. In this way he was deceived and deceiving.” To encounter the demonic is to encounter a twisted fabric of truth offered in the service of falsehoods; freedom in the service of slavery; life, happiness, faith, hope and love in the service of death, sorrow, doubt, despair and hatred. The devil is a unity that service chaos.
The Apostle Paul reminds us that “we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places” (Eph 6:12). St Jerome tells us in his commentary on Ephesians that
Satan has cleverly transformed himself into an angel of light. He is striving to persuade us to regard him as a messenger of goodness. This is how he throws his full weight into the struggle. He employs deceptive signs and lying omens. He sets before us every possible ruse of evil. Then, when he has so ensnared us that we trust him, he says to us, ‘Thus says the Lord.’ This is not flesh and blood deceiving us. It is not a typical human temptation. It is the work of principalities and powers, the rulers of darkness and spiritual wickedness.
There are two responses to this that we should avoid.
First, we might want to response with anxiety, or fear, or even terror and panic. While understandable, these are simply distractions. St Teresa of Ávila, the great reformer of monastic life in the West, says that we ought not to fear the devil because he is a poor and pitiful creature who does not even know how to love. Again, as Origen points out, the devil and the whole of the demonic order have first and foremost deceived themselves. There is no need for anxiety; much less is there any reason for fear, or terror, or panic.
The one thing I learned in my ministry with those who opened themselves to the occult and the demonic is that this whole darker realm is powerless against Christ and those who are in Christ. The demons, St Anthony the Great teaches, have only that power over us that God grants them. Any power they have beyond tempting us, they have because we have given it to them. Nothing the demons would tempt us with is true or will come true. If God gave them leave to do more than tempt us, then—greedy beings that they are—they would do that and leave behind in scorn even the possibility of doing us the lesser harm.
Second, and this for many years was my shortcoming more than the first, we ought not to dismiss St Paul’s observation that we fight against evil spiritual beings. We ought not to doubt that there is evil. But this evil is not in the world, it comes from outside the world. Everything good in our life comes to us by God’s grace, that is from outside of us. In a similar fashion everything wicked and evil comes from outside of us, that is, from the devil. In neither case are we without freedom or responsibility. Rather, in both cases we are called to exercise our true freedom and responsibility. Our freedom is the freedom to respond—to say “Amen!” or “No!” since in the face of divine grace and demonic temptations, both words are possibilities for us.
Curiously the more I realize that sin is first and foremost the human ratification of demonic deceptions, the easier it is for me to be both compassionate with others in their weakness, but also firmer in my unwillingness to collude with their sin.
Who among us has not been deceived? If even the devil has been deceived by the devil, who among us can truthfully say that he or she is free from deception? We must understand that we have all been deceived, and, in our own way, been the deceivers of self and others. This must be grasped if we are to have any compassion for each. At the same time we need to grasp our own sinfulness so that we do not, by our very compassion for one another, ratify and collude with evil. To paraphrase St John Chrysostom’s words about the priest, more of us have fallen from compassion then lust.
Understanding and compassion are not meant to rob human beings of our freedom and responsibility—after all we are not simply victims, but also all of us victimizers. A true compassion and understanding will always see human freedom and responsibility within a wider context. Too often, and in an ironic imitation of the devil, we imagine that we human beings have “a private lordship,” that somehow our rule of ourselves is absolute. It isn’t. To quote Bob Dylan,
You may be an ambassador to England or France,
You may like to gamble, you might like to dance,
You may be the heavyweight champion of the world,
You may be a socialite with a long string of pearls.
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody, yes indeed
You’re gonna have to serve somebody,
Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody.
“The battle is not against flesh and blood or ordinary temptations,” St Jerome observes. “The scene is the war of flesh against spirit. We are being incited to become entrapped in the works of the flesh.” And what are these works?
Now the works of the flesh are evident, which are: adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lewdness, idolatry, sorcery, hatred, contentions, jealousies, outbursts of wrath, selfish ambitions, dissensions, heresies, envy, murders, drunkenness, revelries, and the like; of which I tell you beforehand, just as I also told you in time past, that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God (Gal 5:19-21).
Compare the works of the flesh to the works of those who say “Amen!” to Christ: “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. Against such there is no law” (vv. 22-23).
In the end, the only real temptation I’ve ever encountered in my experiences with those who associate with the occult and the demonic is to forsake the “fruit of the Spirit.” Lose that, and you cannot stand against the powers of darkness. As St Augustine says, “These spiritual fruits reign in one in whom sins does not reign. These good things reign if they are so delightful that they themselves uphold the mind in its trails from falling into consent to sin. For whatever gives us delight, this we necessarily perform.”
The whole of the Church’s sacramental and ascetical life has as a primary goal the fostering in us a delight in virtue and in the fruit of the Spirit—and in the face of this delight the occult and the demonic are revealed as they truly are, impotent.