It is perhaps appropriate that this Gospel (Lk. 8:26-39) is proclaimed just before Halloween, which is one of the major satanic events of the year, at which ritual sacrifices are offered and all manner of evil spirits are invoked, so as to spiritually pollute our poor world even more than it already is. But from the Gospel we take courage, for Jesus manifests Himself as stronger than all the powers of darkness, for He casts them out with a word; and in the power of his Holy Spirit, we can do the same.
This doesn’t mean that we are all called to be professional exorcists, for this requires both a specific calling by God and some specialized training. But we all have to deal with the devil in our lives, for he tempts and harasses us in various ways, and we need to learn not only how to be strong against his attacks, but also how to understand the dynamics of temptation, so that with the help of divine grace we can emerge victorious in the bitter spiritual battles.
Therefore, since I’ve pretty much covered the exegesis for this Gospel a number of times over the past few years, I’d like to concentrate on the basic theme of overcoming the power of the evil spirits in our own lives. For this I will draw on two sources that I’ve come across in recent years.
The following description is from Fr Basil Maturin’s Christian Self-Mastery: “To persons [who at one time were faithful and later fell into sin] the memory must still be clear of the first approach of the temptation that was later to take so firm a hold upon them, of the recoil of the mind from it, with terror and repulsion, and yet with a kind of horrible fascination. It came again and again and stood at the door of the soul, awaiting its admission with a kind of insolent assurance that if it waited long enough, it would have its way. By degrees, the mind… bid it begone in tones of less confidence. It gradually became habituated to its presence outside the soul, feeling its influence, although never yet allowed deliberately to cross the threshold. Then it seemed to gain a certain strange influence over the various faculties, exciting an unaccountable curiosity and forcing them, as it were, to look at it, if only so that they might realize how hateful it was. At last it pushed open the door in a moment when conscience was off its guard and entered, and in an instant demoralized the whole household of the soul, loosened the passions, won over the imagination, and hypnotized the will. And although it was driven out and the doors barred against it, in that moment of its entry, it had made allies for itself, and now the passions and the imagination would loosen the bolts and the will itself would open the door for it. So it entered without hindrance, with an ever-weakening protest from conscience…”
Do you see yourself anywhere in there? The author must be a man of experience, for he articulates it very well! One way of preventing this is to enter directly into dialogue with Jesus, reiterating that you love Him more than you love whatever you are being tempted with (thus also reminding yourself of your noblest aspirations), and that you belong to Him and are committed to doing his will. At least this way you open the door to grace.
Another thing Fr Maturin suggests is self-discipline in small things, apparently unrelated to that by which you are tempted. Learning to say “no” in one area can strengthen you to say it in another, because it is the person who is being strengthened. Does the Church ask us to fast because food is not good for us? Of course not. But the discipline of self-denial will aid us when we are called to renounce something that is bad for us, something for which we may hunger as for food. Success in any endeavor begins with training, and the training for success in overcoming temptations is largely the practice of self-denial and daily faithfulness to the commandments of the One who loves you.
One thing to learn (and take warning) from Fr Maturin’s analysis is the way our thoughts and even our conscience can become habituated to what is bad for us, simply by small concessions, a bit of curiosity, or some specious reason for investigating the nature of the temptation. You could find yourself eventually in the spiritually dangerous situation of realizing that your conscience is losing its power to object to evil and is learning how to rationalize and compromise.
Next I’d like to refer to the book of Fr Livio Fanzaga, called The Deceiver. The title of the book really says it all, for temptation is all about deception. That’s something that seems hard to sink into our souls, even though we may give intellectual assent to it. Realizing clearly, however, that those suggestions to sin, which make it seem good or desirable, are deceptive, false, misleading, and even destructive, anyone with an ounce of common sense simply wouldn’t follow them. But all too often we do anyway, to our subsequent shame and dismay.
The devil deceived Eve by presenting something evil in the guise of good, but rather than obeying the simple and clear command of God, she chose to do things the devil’s way and brought disaster on herself and on all subsequent human generations. After she went for the bait, and her husband followed suit, Scripture says that “their eyes were opened,” and they realized that they were naked, that is, they felt shame, which they had never felt before, and they were compelled to hide from the Lord. This is what happens (if our conscience still works) when we sin. We fall for the deception, and then our eyes are opened, that is, we realize the guilt of our sin and we feel it. It is imperative that we learn from our mistakes, recognize the strategies of the demons, and thus successfully ward off future attacks, unmask future deceptions. We must pray to see things as they truly are.
We have to realize something about the one who is suggesting to us things contrary to God’s will, but which seem good or pleasurable to us: he hates us. Stop and think—if someone who hates you furiously and is bent on your eternal suffering offers you something and says it’s good, the overwhelming odds are that he is lying, and you will experience quite the opposite of what he promises. He laughs us to scorn as we fall for his lies. “Behind the false light of an immoral life is hidden the sarcastic smile of the [devil]. Evil promises but does not fulfill.” Once we fall into sin, there are two, and only two, options: repentance or punishment. Either we turn back to God and are restored to his grace, or we remain turned away and receive just retribution for our sins.
Our spiritual fortitude must come from prayer, the sacraments, and the “sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God” (Ephesians 6:17). The best defense against temptation is a holy life. Demons study us and discover our weaknesses, chinks in the armor, and Achilles’ heels. Through the spiritual means the Church supplies we need to close every access point so that evil finds no welcome within us, no unguarded portal. We also need to practice what Fr Fanzaga calls the “exorcism of mortification.” That is, our self-denial and penance also strengthen us and keep us well-disciplined. But if it is true that self-discipline and mortification help keep the devil away, it is also true that a lack of these will invite the devil in. Attachments, obsessive anxieties, complaining, immodesty, white lies, gossip, little infidelities, unchaste thoughts, words, or looks, etc, all create fertile ground for temptation to end in sin.
If our fervent desire is to please God in all things, and we make use of the means He offers for that purpose, we will be well-protected against the wiles of the devil. It doesn’t mean that we will never have a weak or wavering moment, or that we will never commit even a small sin again, but it does mean that we will be walking in the Spirit—we will not be slaves to sin and we will be able to recognize and reject the lies of the deceiver. Never forget that Jesus Christ has definitively disarmed the devil and sealed his fate by dying on the Cross and rising from the dead. The risen Lord has given us his Spirit to continue his work of preaching the Gospel, casting out demons, and leading souls to Paradise. In Him we have the victory, and He does not forsake those who trust in Him.
Finally, many find the following Scripture passage to be a source of consolation: “No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your strength, but with the temptation will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it” (1Cor. 10:13).
God will provide a way to escape or endure the temptation without committing sin—if we are willing to co-operate with his grace. The Apostle uses both those words: escape and endure. Each has its place in the fight against temptation. The best means is to escape, for we can’t ordinarily trust that we have what it takes to outsmart the devil. He still does possess angelic nature, which is essentially superior to ours, though the devil’s is perverse and corrupt beyond repair. So the first thing to do is to ask God for the way of escape when temptations become severe. But it may be that, try as we might, and even pray as we ought, we cannot escape whatever is hammering us or relentlessly clamoring for our attention. In that case, God is probably asking us not to escape but to endure. We can do all things in Him who strengthens us (Phil. 4:13), so we may just have to ride the storm out, determined unto death not to give in, while raising our eyes to heaven in confident (if urgent) supplication.
If we do give in, mostly it is because at some level of our being we simply want to give in. We want to be overpowered so we can have an excuse for our lack of vigilance. It’s a kind of relief to succumb. But the relief is short-lived, and before long we find ourselves in the same battle all over again, so much the worse for having relented, and needing even more strength this time around. But if we do endure (and endurance will lead to escape, if we can’t escape immediately), we will find renewed strength and courage. If every defeat makes us weaker, then every victory makes us stronger.
God’s faithfulness isn’t necessarily manifested in protecting us from all temptation. Sometimes he allows such attacks so that we can prove our love for Him through fidelity in trying circumstances. Trust that He knows what He’s doing. The Russian saint Nil Sorsky says that if a potter knows just how much heat to apply to a particular vessel so that it becomes strong yet does not crack, then surely God knows how much temptation or trial we can take—to strengthen, not to break us. Even if we aren’t all susceptible to the same temptations, we all have our weaknesses; we all struggle with desires that are not of God; we all have to fight the good fight—against evil and for righteousness.
Let us, then, take courage from the message of the Gospel, in which Jesus manifests his power over the devils. Through Holy Communion we abide in Him and He in us. So we do have the strength to overcome. It is a life-or-death matter, so let us hate sin and love the Lord, and let’s give it all we’ve got. And when that runs out, let’s trust Jesus within us to give it all He’s got! Thus we will be set free, and like the man delivered from demons, we will rejoice in all that Jesus has done for us.