Possessed – Arnel Aquino, SJ

Mark 3:20-35, Tenth Sunday in Ordinary Time


How do we tell if someone is possessed by the devil or having a psychotic breakdown? Dr Steven Waterhouse gives us a simple triage so we could begin to discern the difference. Dr Waterhouse is a pastor, a counselor, and a systematic theologian from Michigan. He works mainly with people suffering from schizophrenia—including his very own brother—and their families. His training allows him to crossover between faith and neuropsychology for which he’s been a keynote speaker for the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill in the US. Okay, here is his basic triage.

People who get demonically possessed are averse to religion in their normal state. They don’t want to have anything to do with Christ. People having a breakdown, however, are often devoutly religious. The possessed speak rationally. Their ideas make sense. In a psychotic breakdown, however, people speak nonsense. You understand the words they say, but they jump from one bizarre idea to another. The possessed convey knowledge they otherwise wouldn’t have known during their normal state. That’s why we often hear that the possessed would expose the secret sins of those trying to exorcise them. In a breakdown, however, patients know only the things that they’ve acquired from normal learning. Some demonic possessions effect spooky physical phenomena like levitation, an increase/decrease of room temperature for no apparent reason, telekinesis, things hurtling across the room. No such phenomena happens in a breakdown. Lastly, those who claim to be possessed while it’s happening are most likely not possessed. Dr. Waterhouse says, “Demons wish to be secretive and do not voluntarily claim to be present.”

When I was in graduate studies, I met a diocesan priest from Cameroon who was both a psychologist and an exorcist. He said nine out of 10 people he was called to “exorcise” were really having a psychotic breakdown. They were often women in their late teens or early adulthood. Upon closer scrutiny, many of them had been physically and/or sexually abused by a family member. Then the good priest said, “We Catholics blame it on the devil too much and too easily! We give the devil too much credit!” I agreed. In fact, it’s really our inner demons that often make us harm others; demons we refuse to tame, to get help for, to confront.

Our inner demon could be our triggers. For example, when friends talk positively about someone we secretly deeply envy, our demon revs us up and we plant bits and pieces of fake news to discredit the person. An inner demon could be our negative self-talk. For example, when we perceive that someone isn’t acknowledging our presence, a commentary of rancor starts scrolling in our heads, saying, “Hmm, this pretender hasn’t greeted me. He’s deliberately ignoring me. Well, two can play at the same game, buddy. Antay ka lang.” The voice of the inner demon exponentially increases along with power or position—and not just in the realm of politics, as you know—but very much also in our communities like in the hierarchy, seminary, parish, religious order. The power to promote and demote, to hire and fire, to grant or dispossess or withhold; these powers make  such colorful toys for our inner demons. So when it comes to people who remind us of our worst selves, or subordinates we envy, or people who see and know our demons, or cannot be manipulated or controlled, we resolutely swing the sword of authority to remind them whose side God is on (ours!), who’s in charge (we are!) But we’re really no godlier than they are. We just have power over them. For now. And it’s not the sword of “authority.” It’s really just our triggers acting up, our self-talk, our dark passenger. Matanong ko nga po: what are your triggers? How does your negative self-talk begin and end? Where do we allow our dark passengers to take us?

Back in his day, several people actually thought our Lord was either crazy or possessed. Some bible scholars believe that even his family feared he had lost it. That’s why his mother and brothers were sent for to take him back home, as today’s Gospel shows—and they showed up! But “how can Satan drive out Satan,” Jesus asked. “If Satan is divided against himself, he cannot stand.” You could almost hear Jesus say, “Call me possessed if you hear and see me contradict myself in what I say and do especially about the Father and the Kingdom. But if you simply don’t like what I’m saying because it threatens your religious authority, or exposes your demons, or shows that you’re the ones being divisive, then you’ve got the wrong guy.” What Jesus showed is still true, isn’t it? It’s always “somebody else” who’s possessed. And if we’re the ones who do wrong, it’s always “somebody else” that made us do it, reminiscent of Adam and Eve in our first reading.

You know, sisters and brothers, if we have to think about possession, how about we stop thinking of the devil right at the get go? How about thinking of who really possesses us, who has possessed us first? How about thinking of who truly owns us, who deeply regards us as his? St Paul says today, “Everything indeed is for you, so that the grace bestowed in abundance on more and more people may cause the thanksgiving to overflow for the glory of God.” Grace in abundance, sisters and brothers, is not just “some thing,” but Someone. God is in all of us. His power is far greater than whatever it is we feed our demons. And one of these powers is gratitude—“grace is bestowed in abundance so it may cause the thanksgiving to overflow for the glory of God!” If we thank often and deep enough, our sense of gratitude could actually silence our demons. We’re really within much closer reach of God who possesses us than the devil we’re fond of blaming. And when God regards us, what “triggers” him is his unconditionally positive regard for us. That’s why, when it comes to God and us, I sometimes wonder who possesses whom? Who owns whom? With God loving us despite our demons, who is really master and who is servant? Think about it!

*image by avogado6

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