August 5, 2011

Demonic Possession or Mental Illness?

By Archimandrite Vasilios Bakoyiannis

The Common Symptoms

It is certainly possible for a person who is mentally ill or suffers from nerves to display the same symptoms as someone who is possessed. For example: The possessed person might not want to say “Lord have mercy” or to go to church, to confess or to take communion. (An unbeliever might also refuse to do these things, but that doesn’t mean that the unbeliever is possessed).

It is possible, according to psychiatrists, that someone who is mentally ill, faced with the Honorable Cross or the relics of saints, or in attendance at the Divine Liturgy, might shout “I’m burning, I’m burning,” without that meaning that they are possessed. We know of such cases. Any sins which they might have committed, the psychiatrists go on to say, in conjunction with their stricken conscience, would suffice to make the sufferer feel as if he or she were burning when brought face to face with the sacred objects of our Faith.

Imagine, a case like that, in which a sufferer needs the immediate attention of a specialist practitioner and we are trying to do what we can with exorcism!

When the prayers of exorcism are read over a person who’s mentally ill, that person feels a certain temporary relief, because “something” has been done to alleviate their illness. Unfortunately, this can be taken as a sign of or symptom that the sufferer is possessed.

The Difference

Possession is one thing and mental illness another. They may have the same surface symptoms, but these symptoms cause very different underlying behavior.

When possessed persons are faced with the Honorable Cross or the relics of a saint, they are seized with a “fit” and become unrecognizable. Their heads turn right round, their tongues stick out and they begin to howl. It is the reaction of Satan. Mentally ill people, however, react very differently. They are neither distorted nor altered. They always retain their human countenance.

In addition, during their “fits” people who are possessed:

* Break chains, escape from restraint etc.

* Reveal “secrets”.

This, of course, is utterly impossible for people who are mentally ill.

Bewitchment or Psychological Problem?

Witchcraft may also produce the same symptoms as certain psychological problems.

A spouse who is bewitched may not be able to enjoy conjugal relations with his or her partner. This can also happen to someone who has a psychological problem in this area.

Someone who is under a spell may lose their appetite and suffer from constant weight loss. This may also be true for someone who has a psychological problem.

How are we to tell the difference?

If the sufferer continues to be a member of the Church, with a conscious sacramental life, then his or her problem is not due to bewitchment. Magic doesn’t affect pure and conscientious Christians. The problem is psychological and requires the assistance of a specialist practitioner.

If the person is outside the Church and living in sin, then the sickness may be due to witchcraft, although, again, we must not rule out a psychological problem. But a proper diagnosis will require cooperation between a priest and a God-fearing doctor.

The Ruler of This World

“The ruler of this world” (Jn 12:31).

We live in a sinful world. Every day a thousand and one evils are committed (theft, robberies, murder), not only in one place but all over the earth. They happen so frequently that these terrible things have become common place.

And it’s not only today that they are happening. It has always been like this, from the beginning of humanity right down to now. In other words, in the many thousands of years since the Fall there hasn’t been a single period when love, justice, peace and altruism reigned in this world. It would seem, then, that the prince of this world is the devil. He’s the ruler of the world!

Well, he may seem to be, but he isn’t.

The Cause of Evil

Let us remind ourselves that the devil simply puts the idea of evil into each of our minds. From then on, it is each of us individually who undertake to carry the idea out. To be more specific: the devil puts it into your mind that you should steal. But you are the one who plans where, when, how and what you are going to steal. You may plan one thing today, another tomorrow and something else entirely the day after. Furthermore, you may have laid your plans to perfection and have started out to commit the robbery, yet on the way, you may have thought of something else and put the whole operation off. You have gone home, making new plans. Now, what if you set out again and this time you actually do steal? Was it the devil that made you steal, or yourself? Was it he who laid your plans, who opened your hands so that you would take something that did not belong to you? Or was it you?

You were in charge of the game. You stole, not the devil.

The same is true for any action you perform, as well as for any bad things you do. You do it. The same thing is true for your friend, for any acquaintance and for people you’ve never even heard of. In other words, it’s not the devil that does evil, but you in your weakness. If the devil did it, you would be innocent and then, of course, you wouldn’t be punished. No matter what crimes you had committed, you would go to Paradise. And only the devil would go to hell.

The “All-powerful” Devil

We’ve seen how the devil torments the possessed. But there is something we have not paid much attention to, namely that he does not torment his victims night and day, but only at intervals. In most instances he leaves them alone and does not bother them. Why? Why such mercy, such sympathy?

He does not do it out of mercy, nor out of sympathy, but out of weakness. In other words, he does not torment his victim whenever he feels like it, but only when the Lord permits him to. Without the Lord’s permission, the devil cannot bother anyone. Before he tormented Job the Righteous, he had to ask permission from the Lord.

He can’t even bother dumb animals without getting permission from the Lord! Remember how the demons asked His permission to enter the Gadarene swine. And once they had done so the swine did not merely wander off, but rushed headlong over the cliff into the sea. There’s mania for you!

The devil does not have any score to settle with swine, though he does with people, especially Christians, because they believe in Christ, Who is his enemy. Now, if the devil exterminated the swine so abruptly, just imagine how much he would like to exterminate people. He would love to enter each one of us, to make us rush headlong over cliffs and into seas and to go to our perdition, so that not a single person would remain on earth, particularly a Christian, to worship his enemy. And yet ALWAYS, throughout all the ages, people have survived, including Christians. So the Lord of All keeps the devil confined. In that case, who is really the Ruler of this world?

God is Good

Since God holds in check the “all-powerfulness” of the devil, it means that He Himself is all-powerful, and thus more powerful than the devil. Therefore: He is able at any moment to do wonderful things. He can make the whole earth tremble for hours with one glance and the whole world will bow down before Him as Lord and God. He can immobilize the thief who is on his way to steal. The same can happen with the murderer and so on, so that evil would disappear from the earth once and for all. He could make the world a paradise on earth.

But God does not do this. He can, but does not want to – while the devil wants to but can’t! He does not want to because He is a good God. He wants us to do good freely, not under pressure from Him. He leaves everything up to us.

From the book Confronting the Devil, Magic & the Occult, Orthodox Book Centre, Athens 2003.