The drama of this Gospel story hinges on Jesus’ encounter with Satan, demons, and unclean spirits. In our own time and place, these “evil spiritual realities” are largely relegated to Hollywood and to children’s fantasy literature such as the Narnia Chronicles, Lord of the Rings, and Harry Potter. We are products of the Enlightenment, so-called, a culture not schooled in the discernment of good and evil. And yet, you can hardly turn a page of the Bible without encountering the battleground of spiritual forces. Saint Paul writes, “For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but… against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.”[i]
The early experience of monasticism in the Egyptian desert gives repeated accounts of the monks being in constant battle between good and evil, and it is we who are being fought over. The fourth-century monk, Evagrius Ponticus, gave the warning: “Stay watchful of gluttony and desire,” he warned, “and the demons of irritation and fear as well. The noonday demon of laziness and sleep will come after lunch each day, and the demon of pride will sneak up only when you have vanquished the other demons.”[ii]
In Jesus’ day, demons were thought present most everywhere, especially in the desert, in places without cleansing water, in woods and gardens, to those with sickness, around tombs, accosting lone travelers, to the newly-married, to a woman in childbirth, to someone who sneezes.[i] Demons were especially unruly at sunrise and sunset, and in the heat of midday. Demons were troublesome when one was eating, so the mealtime prayer was not just for thanksgiving but also for protection.
Saint Paul presumed a battle being waged in this world between good and evil, and it is we who are being fought over. He writes, “For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against… the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.”[ii] Meanwhile, Saint Paul adds the assurance that “we are more than conquerors” to every spiritual distress.[iii]
Whatever kind of spiritual armor or spiritual vaccination you need for your own protection, pray for that. It is a good way to begin the day. Pray it for yourself, and for those who have a place in your heart. And at the end of the day, pray for a kind of inner cleansing of any distress which could otherwise infect the soul. This is a way of co-operating with God’s provision, and protection, and power to face the challenges of life – the physical, mental, spiritual challenges – with confidence and freedom.[iv]
[i] In addition to Matthew 8:28-34, similar accounts of Jesus’ power over demons may be found in Mark 5:1-20 and Luke 8:26-39.
[ii] Ephesians 6:12.
[iii] Saint Paul writes, “Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written, ‘For your sake we are being killed all day long; we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.’ No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:35-39)
[iv] The English word “confidence” comes from the Latin, confidere: “to have full trust or reliance,” that is, confidence in God’s presence, and power, and protection.
Our psalm appointed for today, Psalm 103, speaks of “our youth being renewed like an eagle’s.” The scriptures make reference to the eagle more than 30 times as an image of strength, deliverance, and protection. An eagle became the emblematic symbol for the Gospel according to John because of the eagles’ soaring into the skies pointing us to the heavens, from where “in the beginning” God abides and creates. And soar they do, with a wingspan upwards to 8 feet and extremely keen eyesight, eagles fly into the heavens from which they look upon earth, observing, then hunting with great speed and power. They also typically nest – they abide – high up in rocky ledges or in trees. In the scriptures, eagles appear as one face of the four mighty cherubim who attend the throne of God.[i]
Many centuries after the psalmist, the Prophet Isaiah would proclaim: “Those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.”[ii] The image of the eagle’s renewal of strength (and therefore our renewal of strength) is twofold: for one, eagles live to a relatively old age for birds, upwards to 30 years: the renewal of our strength in older age. And then, that eagles molt their feathers, so that they are freshly clothed, as it were, with a new garment of plumage, a seeming youthfulness and exuberance regardless of their age.
My parents would certainly never have used the word enclosure, nor thought that the practice they were inculcating in their children was a monastic practice, but growing up I lived in a house that lived, to a certain extent, by a limited rule of enclosure.
One of the ways we practiced this was that our bedrooms were off limit to our friends. Bedrooms were not regarded as play areas, and while we could play there quietly on our own, we could not invite our friends into them. We entertained our friends in the living room or the basement, but not in our bedrooms. I was always a little uncomfortable when visiting a friend’s house to be invited into their bedrooms. I had the feeling that I shouldn’t be there.