This homily is based on Mark 1:21-28.
There are many dramatic exorcism stories in the Gospel, complete with the usual signs of demonic possession: foaming in the mouth, gnashing of teeth, abnormal body contortions, or just possession by an entire legion of demons.
This isn’t one of them. If this were a fantasy or sci-fi movie, it would be pathetically bereft of CGI effects.
All we have in the scene is a possessed man with a particularly loud voice who decides it’s a good time to conduct an ambush interview with the Lord. How the Lord responds is instructive. He neither performs any extraordinary ritual nor mouths any special formula. He doesn’t even bother with the interview questions. Instead he opts to keep the exorcism short and simple. To the evil spirit he says one thing: “Shut up and leave!”
No drama, no nuggets of wisdom: Just “Shut up and leave!”
I think this is significant. As we know, the miracles of Jesus aren’t just done to help or heal others; they are always also intended as “signs of the Kingdom of God”, so the actual way he performs his miracles, the words he says, the gestures he makes, all make up an important teaching moment.
So in the case of this particular exorcism, our Lord’s curt response to the evil spirit must be deliberate, and must have been intended to teach us something important. Actually, the Lord reminds me of one of the more quiet but unforgettable scenes from the first–and most frightening–“Exorcist” movie, produced in 1973, directed by William Friedkin and starring Linda Blair, Max von Sydow, and Jason Miller. Father Karras, the young priest played by Miller, is warned by the elder and more experienced exorcist, Fr. Merrin, played by von Sydow, right before the ritual: “Whatever you do, do not talk to it! Do not listen to it! Do not believe a word it says!”
Which is exactly what Fr. Karras does in the movie, of course: He falls for the devil’s tricks. At one point the possessed girl appears to him as his ailing mother, whom he apparently has been unable to take care of. This and other lapses lead to all sorts of things in the movie that I won’t get into. But it struck me that our Lord’s response to the evil spirit in today’s Gospel story conforms precisely to Fr. Merrin’s counsel to his assistant: Do not engage the devil. It is, more than anything else, a deceiver, and letting it draw you into a conversation or interaction with it is sure formula for disaster.
Think about what the evil spirit says to our Lord, and imagine what possible responses He could have made. Upon seeing Jesus, the possessed man cries out in a loud voice: “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are—the Holy One of God!”
There is simply no good way of answering those questions. Denial would entail lying, while admission would entail disclosing His identity and mission at the wrong time and the wrong way, not to mention that the devil may easily play into his ego.
In his Rules for Discernment, St. Ignatius of Loyola, who’s had his share of wrestling with demons, compares the evil spirit with a spoiled child, who wails and cries out loud to catch your attention. And the more you pay attention to it, the louder it cries, and the stronger its hold grows on you.
I can think of two ways in which this is true:
First, many of our temptations are rooted in our needs and appetites because we are most vulnerable to them. In my experience, the more you attend to your needs, the more you yield to them–no matter how little you think–only ends up making the temptations stronger and harder to resist.
Also, one of Ignatius’ main insights is that evil spirits can directly influence only our thoughts, not our feelings. Only God himself can touch our hearts directly. The important point here is that the evil spirits basically tempt us to sin only through our thoughts. And isn’t it true that the more we entertain our thoughts, the stronger and more relentless they get? When we overthink things, we get exhausted and stressed, or worse, we occasionally even end up rationalizing our yielding to temptations.
So next time you experience temptations–especially if they are based on your needs or appetites and since they are communicated through your thoughts, follow St. Ignatius’ counsel. Do what our Lord did.
To the devil–and with complete confidence in the Lord–just say, “Shut up and leave me!”
Image: courtesy of “Jesus of Nazareth”