In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit!
We just heard the Gospel Reading about how Christ’s disciples were unable to heal one who was possessed, and they asked him, why they could not cast out the spirit from the boy? Christ answered them, “This kind can come out by nothing but prayer and fasting.” (Mark 9:29)
We (and I mean we as people) are a unique entity. We live simultaneously in two worlds, in the visible, physical world and in the invisible spiritual world. We know much about the physical world in which our bodies live. But we know very little about the spiritual world where our unseen soul lives, and what we do know is mostly through hearsay. And this is because we do not consciously live our spiritual lives, but even if we try, then we live only semi-consciously in the spiritual world. Reality for us is the visible world of our bodies.
We suffer from evil, which we see in this world, and we suffer from evil which we feel in ourselves. But what is the nature of this evil? Any evil gets its beginning in the spiritual world. This is why anyone who wishes to defeat evil must begin the struggle in the unseen world, in the spiritual world. The Apostle Paul writes, “For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places.” (Ephesians 6:12) That is, in other worlds, evil in this visible world cannot be defeated by any external war. Throughout the whole history of mankind, people have waged this endless battle against each other, the battle against “blood and flesh”. But what has been the result? Has evil decreased? No, not at all. And why? Because evil, as Christ says, comes into this visible world from the invisible world, from the heart of man: “For out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, blasphemies.” (Matthew 15:19) Only there, deep in man’s heart, where we come in contact with the spiritual world, is victory over evil possible. And where does evil come from in our heart? Partially it comes from us ourselves, from our damaged sinful nature. But to an even greater degree they are brought there by spirits of evil.
Today we heard the story of the possessed youth, seized by a mute spirit. The presence of this mute spirit was accompanied by obvious symptoms: everyone around saw how this spirit “throws him down; he foams at the mouth, gnashes his teeth, and becomes rigid” (Mark 9:18) But most often of all, evil spirits, seizing the soul (that is, possessing it), don’t draw so much attention to themselves. Although an experienced spiritual father needs but a single glance at such a person to understand: this one is seized by the spirit of despondency or the spirit of avarice, and that one by the spirit of anger or fornication. And how are these “quiet” possessions distinguished from our possessed youth? Only by the external symptoms, but the essence of their presence is the same. It is possession, or rather captivity. We are held in captivity by evil.
Christ told the Jews who believed in him: “If you abide in My word, you are My disciples indeed. And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” (John 8:31-32) But they considered themselves to be free and they rejected his words. And then Jesus explained to them that “whoever commits sin is a slave of sin”. (John 8:34) And where does sin come from? Again: from the spiritual world. When we confess, we say, “I have sinned in deed, word and thought”. These are three kinds of sin. But the first among them is always thought. First comes the thought, and after that follow words and deeds. If man did not sin in thought, then he would not sin in either word or deed. And what is thought? Thought is the means by which the spirit approaches us.
On the first Sunday of Great Lent, on the Sunday of Orthodoxy we spoke about the victory over the heresy of iconoclasm, about the veneration of icons and the five bodily senses. We spoke about how our five senses, vision, hearing, touch, smell and taste are the doors into our soul in the visible world. But our soul has doors not only into the visible world. This is because, as we have already said, we live simultaneously in two worlds, so there are doors into the invisible world. And, just as the main door into the physical world is vision, the door into the spiritual world is the mind (nous), which the Holy Fathers also call the eye of the soul. The eye, which having been enlightened by the divine light, is able to see and distinguish the spiritual essence and the thoughts brought forth by it.
This is why Christ teaches us that “This kind can come out by nothing but prayer and fasting.” (Mark 9:29). Here are the weapons of the unseen struggle against evil within our own heart, against evil spirits in heavenly places, about which the Apostle Paul speaks.
The first is prayer which cleanses and enlightens our mind, the eye of our soul. Prayer arms our mind in the Name of the Lord, which has special power over demons. As is said in the prayer of King Manassis, the abyss itself was closed and sealed by God’s Name.
The second is fasting. And here it is important to understand that, speaking of fasting as a weapon that can cast out demons, Christ speaks not only of bodily fasting. He speaks of fasting in its fullness. It is a fast of the body when we refrain from eating physical food. It is a fast of the soul when we guard our five senses from worldly impressions. It is a spiritual fast when our mind stops consuming all that is around, but rather begins to distinguish which thoughts carry spirits. Without this complete fast no demons will leave a man. And in this is the whole sense of fasting, so that the “seven demons” can be cast out of our souls just as they were cast out of the former fornicator, the Holy Mary Magdalene. (Mark 16:9).
It is no coincidence that today, the fourth week of Great Lent, the Church prescribes that we also celebrate the memory of our Reverend father John Climacus (John of the Ladder). We will not find a deeper and more experienced expert about the “seven demons” (main passions with all their countless derivatives). Not only, by the way, is he an expert on evil spirits, but also an expert on divine and luminous virtues. Only one book written by him has come down to us. But it is worth many books. It is called “The Ladder”. The Ladder of virtues. This book is the deepest text about spiritual life, a textbook about salvation and the nature of man’s soul. It was written for monks and mostly about monks, but the elders always recommended it as well to people living in the world. Since the nature of our soul is the same for everyone, for monks and for laymen. And the commandments are the same for all. And all the evil spirits in the heavenly places wrestle with both.
In the Saint Panteleimon Monastery on Mount Athos, we read this book every year during Great Lent. And everyone who is searching for salvation and is approaching the spiritual life must sooner or later read it. And sooner would be better than later since later may never come for us in the unknown, which we call the future. The present is all that is real. Now, as the Apostle says, “Behold, now is the accepted time; behold, now is the day of salvation.” (2 Corinthians 6:2)
So let’s hurry. Let’s hurry and wake from our spiritual sleep and wrestle not “against flesh and blood, but… against spirits of wickedness” (Ephesians 6:12) so that in seeing our labors in prayer, fasting and reading, The Lord Himself will come into our heart and cast out from there any unclean spirit, as he cast out the mute spirit from the possessed youth! Amen.