Last summer in the rugged mountains of northern Utah, hiker Cody Creighton paused on the trail to photograph a herd of wild mountain goats foraging on the rocky slope.[i] As he did so, he noticed that one goat seemed to move awkwardly compared to the others. Mr. Creighton reported, “I thought maybe it was injured. It just looked odd.”
Creighton used his zoom lens to hone in on the goat in question, and when he did the hair on his neck stood on end. To his shock, the figure in his camera frame was not a goat at all, but rather a man, dressed in tattered goat’s fleece and wearing a canvas mask with ragged eye holes cut into it and topped with goat horns. It was a macabre scene. With no one around for miles, the man was living in the desolate wilderness and moving among the wild goats as one of them. Suddenly, the goat man turned and spotted the hiker. “He just stopped in his tracks and froze,” Creighton said. Then, after a few tense moments the man scurried over the rocks to catch up with the herd.
Last summer I followed this story obsessively for several days as Utah’s Division of Wildlife Resources and the news media attempted to track the goat man. Eventually, an agitated man contacted the authorities claiming to be the goat man and saying he was just a hunter tracking the herd in anticipation of hunting season. The authorities were satisfied and let the matter go. I wasn’t convinced. Part of my interest, I’ll admit, was sheer fascination with the bizarre. But mainly, because I’m a student of Holy Scripture, I was captivated by the story because it seemed potentially to be the modern day equivalent of the Gerasene Demoniac, found in Luke 8:26-39.
Of all the stories of demonic possession in the Gospels, the Gerasene Demoniac is the most interesting and the most frightening. The Gerasene Demoniac is so tormented by his legion of demons that he is driven from human contact, not by his fellow citizens (who actually try to tend him the best they can with their limited knowledge and resources) but rather as a result of the demons themselves. St. Luke tells us, sometimes “[the man] would break his bonds and be driven by the demon[s] into the wilds.” In St. Mark’s rendering of this same story, the Demoniac devolves into an animal nature–almost like a werewolf–howling as he moves up and down the mountain.
And that’s not all. The Demoniac no longer resides in a house, the symbol of human civilization and domesticity. He lives “in the tombs.” That’s a paradox, you see. Living people don’t reside in tombs; the dead reside in tombs. And so, though the man still breathes, it is almost as if he is dead. His demons have all but snuffed his humanity from him. Their shadow has all but crowded out his light. It’s horrifying to imagine and to read.
Usually, we read the Gospel stories of demonic possession through the lens of Hollywood movies like The Exorcist and Rosemary’s Baby. But that’s a bad idea, because it allows us to dismiss the Gospel accounts as irrelevant to us. You see, most often, demons are not the stuff of pea soup and black magic.
Make no mistake. Demons are real, and they are so common and ubiquitous that we risk ignoring them. Indeed, I would suggest that the greatest danger to our spirits in our contemporary world is the denial of the reality and power of our demons.
Before you stop reading, know that I’m not suggesting demons, though actual, are literal little red men with horns and pitchforks. They are, rather, what Franciscan Richard Rohr calls the shadows within us, those things which we refuse to acknowledge about ourselves, and which we desperately don’t want others to see.[ii] The demons are those things that cause us to avoid looking squarely at our reflections in the morning mirror for very long if at all, in fear that the steely eye of the demon will force us to admit the degree to which we are defined by our shadows.
Our culture so encourages the development of a strong persona—I am the titan of business, I am the mother, I am the artist, I am the dean—because personas offer an impenetrable mask we can display to the world while the demons eat away at us privately, behind the scenes.
Even such a model as C.S. Lewis was not immune. He tells of a moment in which he looked into the mirror of his soul long enough to see the demons. Lewis says, “And there I found what appalled me; a zoo of lusts, a bedlam of ambitions, a nursery of fears, a harem of fondled hatreds. My name was Legion.”[iii]
Usually, we are able to keep the shadows hidden, as they slowly corrode our souls. But on occasion, the demons multiply in force. They break through the persona and into the open. They gain such strength that they fracture the bonds of our most important human relationships. They drive us from the bosom of our homes and into a spiritual, if not physical, wilderness. At worst, they leave us, like the Gerasene, living as if already in the tomb and howling at those we love, at God, and at the world. Whether first or secondhand in our lives, too many of us know what this looks like.
From where, then, are we to find hope? First, from a brief, almost unnoticed phrase near the beginning of the Gospel reading. There we are told, “As Jesus stepped out on land, a man of the city who had demons met him. That is, when Jesus arrives in the land of the Gerasenes, he does not have to go searching in the graveyard to meet the Demoniac. Despite the howling demons that possess the Gerasene; despite the shadow that drives him to the tombs; it is the man within who still lives, whose light still flickers somewhere in the recesses of his being, who approaches Jesus today. It is the man who seeks God, the human being who acts.
You see, we are created in the very image of God. We have that image stamped upon our souls by our Creator, and it is indelible. No matter how fierce the demons, no matter how dark the shadows, God resides in us deeper still. Somewhere, the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome it. That by itself is hope! There is no such thing as the unredeemable person. There is no wilderness so wild and inhuman, no tomb so deathly cold, that God does not reside there. The Methodists call this prevenient grace, that kernel of God that resides within us and never leaves, that spurs us forward to seek grace. Wherever we find ourselves, there is God. Always. We are never alone.
But the hope of this story doesn’t end there. Granted, the story takes an anxious turn. The possessed man says to Jesus—and in Luke’s version it is the man who speaks here, not the demons—“What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of God? I beg you, do not torment me.”
But it is torment to let go of our demons, to name and dispel our shadows. We’d best give up the notion that it isn’t. There is no remedy, no actual reconciliation in our inner being, if we pretend that exorcism is painless.
Returning to C.S. Lewis, Lewis reveals this in the best of his many brilliant books, The Great Divorce.[iv] The image, presented to us in the forecourt of heaven, is of an angel speaking to a shadowy, oily man with a red lizard sitting on his shoulder. Lewis tells us the lizard, which represents all the man’s demons, constantly “twitches its tail like a whip and whispers things into [the man’s] ear.” Though the lizard is an ugly thing, the man has convinced himself over a lifetime that he loves it, that he cannot live without it…as we often do with our demons.
The angel asks repeatedly if the man will allow him (the angel) to kill the lizard, to dispel the shadow, to cast out the demon.
“Get back!” the man resists, “How can I tell you to kill it? You’d kill me if you did.”
“It is not so,” the angel replies.
But the man protests, “Why, you’re hurting me now.”
The angel speaks truth and says, “I never said it wouldn’t hurt you. I said it wouldn’t kill you.”
The man haltingly gives his permission, and the angel takes the lizard, breaks it, and throws it to the ground. The man crumples and cries out in honest agony, but then he rises. He stands tall, and his height increases nearly to that of the angel. His oily countenance becomes suffused with light. And even the broken lizard is transformed into a stallion, which returns to man as a companion. Even the shadow is redeemed. Lewis ends the encounter by saying the man’s tears were “liquid love and brightness.”
How is hope realized? Only when we acknowledge and name our demons for what they are, and not ignore, justify or rationalize them away. Only when we admit the power they have had over us, and we freely give them to the God whose light casts out darkness. And this, often only with the help of the angels around us.
Today’s Gospel ends with a final further truth: The Gerasene’s life must now include a daily and vocal self-reminder of who he really is in order to keep the demons away. Our work and attention doesn’t end with a momentary redemption. But with God’s help, we can live truly, fully, and where our inner light meets God’s light unseparated by shadow. And then we will look squarely in the mirror and take joy when we see God’s very image reflected back at us.
[ii] Rohr, Richard. Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life, 127-128.
[iii] Lewis, C.S. Surprised by Joy, 226.
[iv] Lewis, C.S. The Great Divorce, 96-101.