“You are damned,” the demon said, addressing the exorcist… “I go away, but… you and your companions, you are going to be persecuted for life!” (from The Rite, by Matt Baglio). Those words of a demon that was cast out from a woman a few years ago are significant for our understanding of spiritual warfare. There are two important points brought up here. First, the demon says: “I go away,” which means that demons can indeed be cast out, and we should be encouraged by that. In its pride, the demon makes it look like it chose to go away, but the account of the exorcism makes it clear that it was forced to depart. Second, the demon said that it would still persecute the exorcist, and this should be a sober reminder that even though the demons can be defeated, they have to be repeatedly defeated, because they will always be on the prowl, as St Peter says (1Peter 5:8), looking for some way to devour souls.
We have in today’s Gospel (Mt. 8:28 – 9:1) a very brief account of Jesus casting out the demons from two possessed men. The other evangelists give more details, so it may help to refer to them to get the whole story. All that St Matthew says about the demoniacs is that they lived in a cemetery and were “exceedingly fierce,” but St Mark, who mentions only one possessed man, says that he was able to break the chains with which he was bound, and that he cried aloud, gashing himself with stones. St Luke adds that he wore no clothes, that is, he was reduced to the level of an animal, the demon having stripped him of his human dignity.
St Mark adds an interesting detail. He says that when the possessed man came up to Jesus, he worshipped Him (or, at the very least, prostrated himself before Him), before he shouted at the Lord to leave him alone. If the demons hate and despise the Lord, why would they worship Him? Well, it is certainly not their choice to do so! They are forced to do so by the sheer weight of the truth that they are creatures and God is their Creator.
This was clearly brought out in the exorcism that I mentioned at the beginning. Several saints were sent from Heaven to assist at the exorcism, and since the demon could see them, the possessed woman saw them as well, and the demon cursed and blasphemed them through her. The Mother of God was there, as were St Gemma Galgani, who, during her short life had been severely attacked by the devil but emerged victorious, and also Blessed John Paul II and Blessed Mother Teresa. The exorcist commanded the demon, in the name of Jesus Christ and in the name of the Immaculate Virgin Mary, to say: “Eternal Father, You are my Creator and I adore You!”
The demon went ballistic, of course, and cursed and refused to acknowledge the greater power of God, and it threw the woman into convulsions. But in the end, the intercession of the saints and the power of the name of Jesus weakened the demon to the point that it choked out the words, and that is when it left, cursing and threatening the exorcist with a lifetime of persecution.
So this is what was happening in the Gospel when we are told that the possessed man worshipped Jesus when he first came up to Him. The sheer power of Jesus’ divinity, even before Jesus ordered the demons to go, forced them to fall prostrate before Him. They still tried to verbally assault him before they had to leave, though: “What have you to do with us, O Son of God? Have you come here to torment us before the time?”
As a little aside, this whole episode should indicate to us the importance of accepting the word of God in its entirety and not selecting a few congenial passages and leaving out the rest. In the epistle for today (Rom. 10:1-10), St Paul says that we are saved if we believe in Jesus in our hearts and confess Him with our lips. He says many other things as well, but some people latch on to this one passage and say: “Hey, I’m saved, because I believe in Jesus and confess Him with my words!” Well, St James reminds us (2: 17-19) that even the demons believe, but that wasn’t enough to save them. And here in the Gospel the demons are confessing Jesus to be the Son of God, and even worshipping Him, but they still have to spend eternity in Hell. Their forced acknowledgement of the Lord’s superior dignity and power is not the worship that is pleasing to God. So we have to remember, as Jesus said (Mt. 7:21), that it is only those who do the will of the Father who will enter the Kingdom of Heaven, and this is the one thing the demons have always refused to do.
Jesus did make one concession to the demons’ demands, as a sort of symbolic gesture. Since they were unclean spirits, He sent them, at their request, into unclean animals, the herd of swine. As it turned out, the demons were far more unclean than the pigs, and the pigs asserted their own dignity by refusing to host the demons, since the swine were quite noble in comparison, and they thwarted the demons’ designs by rushing to their own deaths so the demons had to go back to Hell. Perhaps Jesus had this in mind all the time. It was a greater humiliation for the demons to be snubbed by a bunch of pigs than to be overpowered by the Almighty God. In any case, a single word from Jesus—“Go”—was enough to send them away.
This was a great victory, but we know that it was not the end of the devil’s machinations, and we have to learn a lesson from this. Even when the devil dared to attack Jesus personally when He was fasting in the desert, and Jesus ordered it to leave, St Luke notes rather ominously that the devil “departed from him until an opportune time” (4:13). So the devil comes back even after he is sent away. I’ve said in the past that the devil has only one virtue, and that is perseverance. He is determined to make us fall, to break us, to deceive and ultimately to destroy us, so that our immortal souls will end up in his miserable and horrifying domain forever, and he will harass us relentlessly until the verdict on our eternal destiny is finally pronounced.
After all, what else do the demons have to do? They’re all stuck in the burning sulfur pits forever, so they’re not going to admit failure just because they lose a few rounds. They are obsessed with dragging as many souls into their own tormented eternity as possible. One might think, looking at the situation in much of the world today, that the devil ought to be to content with the numerous souls he has already ensnared, and with each year’s dramatic increase when the census of Hell is taken. But I read recently that the devil is always angry and frustrated, because even though he evidently has been given a fair amount of freedom to wreak havoc in this world, God never permits him to do everything that he wants to do. If the devil had his way, the whole world would be nothing but a stinking, smoldering wasteland, populated with the few maddened and diseased wretches that haven’t yet fallen into the burning caverns of the eternal netherworld. And the devil is enraged with every soul who is saved by the grace and mercy of the Lord, every soul who sees through the demonic deceptions and freely chooses the way of the Gospel, the way of the Cross.
So what shall we do, to make sure we are on the winning side forever? We want to be so filled with the grace and authority of Christ that we too can say to the demons, “Go,” and they go. Well, we have to start with what we heard in the epistle today: Believe in Jesus from the heart, and confess with our lips that He is Lord, that He has died for our sins and is risen from the dead. But then we have to go the rest of the way—because up to this point the demons can still say: “Yeah, we believe too, and we also can say that He is the Son of God and all the other lip-service you fools are accustomed to offer.” So the final element is that we have to do the will of the Father. The demons have no counterpart to this; they cannot say that they do it too, for they hate and curse and blaspheme the will of the Father. It is because they rejected it untold ages ago that they are where they are now, and they blame God for all their torments. And now they spend all their energy trying to get us to reject the Father’s will, deceiving us with what they call freedom and pleasure and power, so that we will end up in flaming straightjackets and forever under their dreadful domination.
So we have to make use of all that God places at our disposal to fight the good fight, to unmask evil and see it for what it is, and to command it to leave our lives and our world, so that, as prophesied in the Book of Revelation, the kingdom of this world will become the Kingdom of God and of his Christ, who shall reign forever and ever (see 11:15).
We know from the Bible and from the whole of Christian Tradition—as well as from what is revealed in exorcisms to this very day—what routs the demons: the word of God, the power of the name of Jesus and the grace of the Holy Eucharist, the intercession of the Immaculate Virgin Mary and of the saints and angels, the power of sacramentals like holy water and blessed medals and icons. But these are not meant to be employed only when we are in direct confrontation with the powers of darkness. They are supposed to be our way of life. Go to confession regularly, receive the Body and Blood of Christ, read the Scriptures, be devoted to Our Lady and the saints, rely on your guardian angel(s), wear blessed medals, etc—all the time. This is what it means, as St Paul says, to live in Christ, to be rooted in Him and built up in Him and established in the Faith (see Col. 2:6).
Exorcists will tell you that the purpose of casting out demons is not simply to rid persons of that evil presence. It is also an exhortation for them to live a profound prayer and sacramental life, to do the will of the Father and to reject the ways of the world, the flesh, and the devil. I have read testimonies concerning people who went in for exorcisms just to be rid of the evil spirits, but then did not bother to turn their lives wholly over to God. Of course, the evil spirits then returned, as the Lord once prophesied, and the last state was worse than the first. Remember, when the devil is cast out, he awaits an opportune time, looks for some vulnerability created by our laxity or sin, and then he returns with a vengeance.
It has been said that that best exorcism is confession and Communion, along with a penitential and prayerful lifestyle. The devil has no way to enter a soul that is constantly turned toward God in faith and love, in the consistent effort always to deny oneself for the sake of doing the will of the Father.
May our names not be found on the census of Hell but rather in the Book of Life of the Lamb of God. By his grace and the support of his saints and angels—and all that his Church provides for us—we shall have no fear in the valley of the shadow of death but will rejoice in sharing the victory of our Lord Jesus Christ.