Insanity and Demonic Possession in Patristic Thought
by Mother Melania (Salem)
At times, people come to our monastery with concerns about close friends and relatives who have been diagnosed with schizophrenia, bipolar disease, or some other such disorder. Often they ask, “Is this really mental illness or is it demonic possession?” So, from the practical need to give a helpful response to such heart-breaking questions, we began studying the Tradition of the Church as it is found in the liturgical books, the writings of the Holy Fathers, and the Lives of the Saints.
Nearly everything we found astonished us:
- The Church does distinguish between mental illness and demonic possession.
- The Fathers generally view both the mentally ill and the possessed with compassion and, at times, even with admiration.
- In the view of the Church, if we aren’t saints, we’re insane.
- It’s better to be possessed by a demon than to be enslaved by our passions.
- The reason that it’s better to be possessed by a demon than to be enslaved by our passions is that enslavement to passions is in fact a worse type of demonic possession.
The Fathers distinguished between mental illness and demonic possession
Well before the time of Christ, Greek physicians treated people for mental illness. As heirs to this medical tradition, Byzantine physicians did the same. The Church Fathers routinely refer to medical treatment of the insane with no hint of disapproval. In one case (that of “lunacy”), however, they insist that the cause is not physical, but demonic. This seems to be the exception that proves the rule. (Basically, lunacy seems to refer to epilepsy-like symptoms that are associated with certain phases of the moon. The Fathers routinely insist that the demons are causing these symptoms and are timing them purposefully with the phases of the moon to cast the blame on it.) In this one case only, the Fathers take great pains to deny medical causes. In all other cases, they generally accept the physicians’ diagnoses.
This confi rms that the Fathers generally believed in mental illness that was distinct from demonic possession. We have yet to find any ancient texts that specifically mention how they distinguished the two. But from contemporary elders’ specific statements and from reading between the lines in the lives of saints, it seems that there are two fairly reliable tests – Does the person react violently to holy things (especially if these holy things are hidden from view), and does he have knowledge of events that he could not reasonably be expected to have?
The prevailing attitude towards both the mentally ill and the possessed was compassion – at times, even admiration
The Fathers in general pitied the mentally ill and possessed – and even at times admired them. St. Augustine speaks of the compassion of those who minister to “those whom they greatly love as if they were their children, or some very dear friends in sickness, or little children, or insane persons, at whose hands they often endure many things; and if their welfare demand it, they even show themselves ready to endure more …” (St. Augustine, 1980, p. 25). St. John Chrysostom says, “Physicians, when they are kicked, and shamefully handled by the insane, then most of all pity them, and take measures for their perfect cure, knowing that the insult comes of the extremity of their disease …. If we see persons possessed by devils, we weep for them; we do not seek to be ourselves also possessed” (St. John Chrysostom, 1978, p. 127).
Chrysostom admires at least some of the possessed because “the demon makes men humble. … Great is the admiration it calls for, and many the praises, when struggling against such a spirit, they bear all thankfully …” (St. John Chrysostom, 1979a, p. 254).
The Orthodox prayers of exorcism are remarkably gentle towards the possessed person. The prayers are directed to God, or they sternly command the demons; there are no harsh words for the demoniac. In one place, they even refer to the possessed as the Theotokos’s “faithful servant” (St. Tikhon’s Monastery 1999, p. 17).
This is not to say that all the mentally ill were admirable. In various cases, the godless and the persecutors of the righteous became mentally ill as a result of their evil deeds. However, at least a few of them benefited from their mental illness. Nebuchadnezzar lost his mind because of his pride, but was restored to his senses and gave thanks to God. King Tiridates of Armenia became mentally ill as a result of persecuting martyrs, but later repented and became a saint (commemorated on November 29). In many other stories, though, the persecutors who became mentally ill never showed any repentance. In looking at these stories, though, we have to remember that they are from the “Lives” of saints; the writers were extolling the saints, not talking about mental illness.
In short, the Fathers did not generally look on the mentally ill and possessed as the worst of sinners, but rather with compassion. At least some of these people seem to have developed great humility and thankfulness to God through their afflictions, and they are to be admired.
If you’re not a saint, you’re insane
In looking for references to insanity, we quickly found that most instances of terms related to insanity (e.g., mad, frenzied, irrational, beside oneself) were not applied to the mentally ill. At fi rst, we assumed that the Fathers were using these terms the same way we would off-handedly say, “That’s crazy,” or, “You’re nuts.” It became clear, however, that they were serious. For one thing, they accuse absolutely everyone who isn’t a saint (including Satan, Adam when he ate of the Tree, pagans, heretics, persecutors, and careless Christians) of being insane. Also, these accusations come up in very serious situations. All the Ecumenical Councils denounce heretics as insane. And many martyrs, after being accused of being insane, bring the charge on their persecutors. Neither the Fathers of the Councils nor the martyrs were taking “cheap shots.” They meant what they said.
This makes sense if we think of an insane person as somebody who cannot perceive or respond correctly to reality. For many in our culture, this only refers to everyday reality. So the person who thinks that he is a gorilla is insane, but the 9/11 terrorists – who thought that they could go to heaven by killing thousands of innocent people and committing suicide in the process – are considered sane because they were just acting on beliefs held by their entire subculture. To the Fathers, both are insane. But the terrorists are insane in a very different and far worse way. They are wrong about the most fundamental reality – about the God Who loves Man so much that He sent His Son to die for us.
So, everybody who still sins (i.e., everybody except the saints) is insane because we are acting against God, Who is the fundamental reality. And the more we take sin in stride, the more insane we are. After all, the person who is just a little crazy more or less knows it. But the person who is seriously insane thinks that everybody else is!
It is better to be possessed by a demon than by our passions
Once we start to take sin seriously, we can understand why Church Tradition views those who are willfully enslaved to their passions as more seriously insane than the mentally ill. But, shockingly, even demonic possession is less serious. St. John Chrysostom discusses this in the strongest terms.
A demon certainly will not deprive us of heaven, but doth in some cases even work with the sober-minded. But sin will assuredly cast us out. For this is a demon we willingly receive, a selfchosen madness. Wherefore also it hath none to pity it [i.e., willful sin] or to pardon it (St. John Chrysostom, 1979c, pp. 539, 540, emphasis added).
[Regarding Judas:] For what would the madman do like this? He poured not forth foam out of his mouth but he poured forth the murder of his Lord. He distorted not his hands, but stretched them out for the price of precious blood. Wherefore his madness was greater, because he was mad being in health (St. John Chrysostom, 1978a, p. 488, emphasis added).
So, willful sin is much worse than mental illness or demonic possession, because it is a free choice. The possessed (and, we can assume, the mentally ill) are in a good place to develop humility and thankfulness. Obviously, the willfully sinful are not.
Enslavement to passions is actually a worse type of demonic possession
Demons are in a true sense internal to those enslaved by passions. In St. John Cassian’s “Second Conference of Abba Moses,” Abba Serapion relates how, while “still a lad and stopping with Abbot Theonas,” he would hide a biscuit in his clothes and eat it later in secret. When he finally succeeded in confessing his sin, Abba Theonas said, “Without any words of mine, your confession frees you from this slavery.” While Abba Theonas was still speaking a burning lamp came from Abba Serapion’s habit and “filled the cell with a sulfurous smell.” Abba Theonas then said, “Lo! the Lord has visibly confirmed to you the truth of my words, so that you can see with your eyes how he who was the author of His Passion [i.e. the Devil] has been driven out from your heart by your life-giving confession” (St. John Cassian, 1978, pp. 312, 313).
After we have fought long and hard against this demon, this ally of the flesh, after we have driven it out of our heart, torturing it with the stone of fasting and the sword of humility, this scourge goes into hiding in our bodies, like some kind of worm, and it tries to pollute us, stimulating us to irrational and untimely movements (St. John Climacus, 1982, p. 183).
These are not just figures of speech.
Before holy baptism, grace encourages the soul towards good from outside, while Satan lurks in its depths, trying to block all the intellect’s ways of approach to the divine. But from the moment that we are reborn through baptism, the demon is outside, grace is within …. Nevertheless, even after baptism Satan still acts on the soul, often, indeed, to a greater degree than before. This is not because he is present in the soul together with grace; on the contrary, it is because he uses the body’s humours to befog the intellect with the delight of mindless pleasures (St. Diadochos, 1979, No. 76, p. 279).
The more subtle demons attack the soul, while the others hold the flesh captive through their lascivious enticements... When grace does not dwell in a man, they lurk like serpents in the depths of the heart, never allowing the soul to aspire towards God. But when grace is hidden in the intellect, they then move like dark clouds through the different parts of the heart, taking the form of sinful passions or of all kinds of day-dreams, thus distracting the intellect from the remembrance of God and cutting it off from grace (Ibid., No. 81, p. 282).
So long as the Holy Spirit is in us, Satan cannot enter the depths of the soul and remain there …. Again, so as to teach us once more that it is through the body that Satan attacks the soul which participates in the Holy Spirit, he says: “Stand, therefore, having girded your loins with truth … (Eph. 6:14–17). When, because of the presence of grace, Satan can lurk no longer in the intellect of those pursuing a spiritual way, he lurks in the body and exploits its humours, so that through its proclivities he may seduce the soul... The intellect cannot be the common dwelling- place of both God and the devil. How can St. Paul say that “with my intellect I serve the law of God, but with the flesh the law of sin” (Rom. 7:25), unless the intellect is completely free to engage in battle with the demons, gladly submitting itself to grace, whereas the body is attracted by the smell of mindless pleasures? He can only say this because the wicked spirits of deception are free to lurk in the bodies of those pursuing a spiritual way (Ibid., No. 82, pp. 282-284).
St. Diadochos seems to be contradicting himself – seeming to say that demons cannot dwell in baptized believers’ souls at all, but also talking of their moving through different parts of the hearts of believers. Most probably, St. Diadochos means the deepest part of the baptized believers’ souls. Clearly, however, the demons can “lurk in the body” and attack the soul through the body and can dwell in believers’ hearts at some level. These texts are found in The Philokalia, which shows that they are generally accepted Orthodox teaching.
So, enslavement to passions is a true form of demonic possession, which affects both unbelievers and believers. However, demons cannot inhabit the deepest part of the soul of believers. This enslavement to passions is a worse form of possession than the first form of demonic possession because it is freely chosen.
Hope for Us Sinners
This is great news for the possessed and mentally ill, but it can be a recipe for despair for the rest of us. What hope do we have if we’re better off being enslaved to demons than to our passions?
But there is hope for us if we continue to repent and struggle against our sin. St. John Chrysostom says this beautifully:
He that wrestles is still held fast, but it is enough for him that he has not fallen. When we depart hence, then, and not till then, will the glorious victory be achieved. For instance, take the case of some evil lust. The extraordinary thing would be, not even to entertain it, but to stifl e it. If, however, this be not possible, then though we may have to wrestle with it, and retain it to the last, yet if we depart still wrestling, we are conquerors (St. John Chrysostom, 1979b, p. 162).
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