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Whatever possessed us? We all have our inner demons to face, it's just that some are more obvious than others.

How shall we improve ourselves? Let us count the ways--or at least the New Year's resolutions we've made in a lifetime.

I'm coming to the end of my creativity in this department. I've lost weight; adopted exercise regimes; committed to recycling; ended debilitating relationships; vowed to read a book a month; killed my TV; stopped shopping as a form of entertainment; and taken up in turns the breviary, the rosary, meditation, and daily Mass. I've de-cluttered my closets, de-fragged my hard drive, and deconstructed my past from every angle. I think I'm done now. I think I've done it all.

Which is not to say my life is now perfect, or that I am. Though I'd like to think my life is in better shape today than, say, 20 years ago, the perfect life is something I am forced to relinquish as a pursuable goal. I'm a sinner, to use the handy religious phrase. I'm a flawed person living in a flawed world with a lot of other people who aren't doing so hot themselves. That doesn't give me license to throw up my hands and "eat, drink, and be merry," neglecting my responsibility to grow in holiness. But it does put perfection out of my reach. This is why I keep making resolutions; I didn't say I keep them.

Nothing in this world is perfect, despite first impressions. Remember the perfect apartment? It had a great location, was delightfully antique, but there were not enough outlets for all contemporary pluggables.

The perfect date? Ah, he turned out to be a tiny bit of a psycho. The perfect haircut? It grew out. The perfect job? The management changed. The perfect climate? That was until global warming. Even the place that used to make the best darn vegetarian burrito on the planet tossed it off the menu.

I accept the reality of the world's brokenness, including the brokenness of a person who fails to appreciate the value of a vegetarian burrito. I also accept that human expectations are going to meet with a fair amount of disappointment in this world. I even accept that I am going to prove disappointing to those in my life who expect better from me than I routinely deliver. We don't have to be bad people to come up with some pretty inadequate behavior now and then. Simply put, we all fail to love as well as we ought.

What possesses a basically decent person to fall so far short of the ideal? I'd like to find a reason; I'd settle for an excuse. Regrettably I don't have one. I know better! But that doesn't necessarily make me live better. I read the Bible, yet still manage to think and act ill toward my fellow human beings.

Sin is like a sickness I can't seem to shake. I harden my heart against the neighbor with the barking dogs. I feel aggression rise toward the woman who blocks the supermarket aisle with her shopping cart. I struggle with the desire for revenge when I read about violence perpetrated on innocent people. I feel the fear of unknown dangers spark the prejudice buried within me. I also suffer from a mild ambition to be in charge of the universe so that everything gets done the right way--my way. And that's on a day when I'm not misbehaving.

CALL IT THE ST. PAUL BLUES, IF YOU LIKE. PAUL LAMENTS IN Romans 7: What I do, I do not understand. For I do not do what I want, but I do what I hate." Ain't it the truth, friends? We do what we hate--no wonder we find ourselves so hard to love. Sin has a hold on our humanity in a way that seems at times like a possession. Is this what the Bible means by "having a demon"?

There are some 13 stories about demon possession involving Jesus, amounting to at least six separate episodes told across three gospels. (John's gospel, interestingly, has no stories about demons, but Jesus is accused of being possessed by one on three separate occasions.)

It's helpful to distinguish demons from devils here. Although we use the terms interchangeably--as does the New Testament in places--there is a clear distinction between the devil, or Satan, and the swarms of demons inhabiting folks in first-century Israel. The devil is the sinister fellow who tempts Jesus in the desert, causes Peter to reject the prediction of Jesus' Passion, and later enters Judas to turn his heart toward betrayal. Theologically speaking, the devil is the absolute spirit of opposition to the cause of God, a diabolical weapon of mass destruction to the human soul. Falling in league with the devil is never a mistake. Only through the conscious selection of the human will over and against the divine will can such a spirit of evil "enter into" us.

Literature has recruited this symbol in tales of meeting the devil at the crossroads at midnight or embracing the Faustian bargain to barter the soul in return for what is mortally desirable. No one hangs around the crossroads at midnight by accident. This isn't a matter of taking the wrong turn at Albuquerque. When we meet up with the devil, there's no "oops" factor; it's always by design.

Demonic possession, by comparison, does not seem to be a deliberate affair, or at least not entirely so. Two of the gospel stories, for example, involve the possession of children: the boy who throws himself in fire and water, and the Syrophoenician woman's little girl. Can we say either of these children "asked" for their condition? Some might quibble about the age of reason and wonder if they were at least 7 years old. But I'd like to give these kids the benefit of the doubt and presume they were suffering from some form of physical or mental infirmity.

Most contemporary scholarship regarding demon possession goes the route of categorizing it in terms of illness: epilepsy or schizophrenia, mania or bipolar disorder, catatonia. When we read the pitiful descriptions of the Gerasene demoniac, once bound in chains and now residing among the tombs, screaming about the legion inside of him, it's hard not to think of mentally ill people we've seen wandering city streets, shrieking out their madness inconsolably.

The man who cannot speak and the one both blind and mute obviously suffer from physical or mental trauma that doctors have been unable to repair. I knew an autistic boy very much like the one in the gospel, who was strangely attracted to fire and water and had to be restrained from hurling himself into danger regularly.

None of these unfortunate individuals are persuasively wicked, though they might be capable of violence and destruction and were doubtless the cause of much unhappiness for those who loved them. All of which make them perfect candidates for an encounter with Jesus.

YET HERE WE MAKE A CURIOUS OBSERVATION. IF THE DEMON possessed are distinct from the devil-inhabited by the power of the will, then the demon sufferers might be separated from the rest of the distressed souls who came to Jesus by their intent as well. Because of all the sick and suffering multitudes that presented their need to Jesus, the demon-possessed never asked for a cure. Their malady prohibited such a request. Their parents came and begged Jesus for help; or in the case of the speechless ones, friends brought them to Jesus and made the plea on their behalf. Those who had no friends, who hung out in cemeteries or synagogues--much like the mentally ill seek out churches today--did approach Jesus of their own volition, but only to accuse him of tormenting them or being the Son of God. The demon-afflicted seem afraid of Jesus--the boy goes into convulsions in his presence--but though they sense his power, they remain silent about their own need for healing.

This is the point upon which we might distinguish our own unremarkable sinfulness or and the demon-sufferers. Most of us know we're broken. And if we're believers, we are both aware of Jesus' healing authority and our own imperative to turn over our lives to it, inch by inch if not in an wholesale episode of conversion. Many of us regularly seek that healing in the sacraments of Reconciliation, Anointing, and the premier sacrament of forgiveness, our Eucharist.

We're like the ones skittering up a tree to see Jesus as he comes into view, or grabbing at his clothes as he passes, or sitting down at table with him, sinners though we are, and sharing a meal. We know things aren't right with us and we need divine help. If you and I were demon-possessed in the biblical sense of the term, we would not seek a cure.

In this sense, then, many of us do know people who fit the definition of demon possession. They are the family members locked in addiction. They are the friends who endure exhausting cycles of self-destructive choices because of early wounds that have never closed. They are the depressed ones who have neither therapist nor doctor. They are the moral drifters without spiritual moorings. They need our prayers because they need us to bring them to Jesus.

ALICE CAMILLE, author of Seven Last Words, a meditation on the cross (ACTA Publications), and co-writer of the homily service Prepare the Word (TrueQuest Communications).
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Title Annotation:testaments
Author:Camille, Alice
Publication:U.S. Catholic
Date:Jan 1, 2006
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