Unclean spirits

Eleventh Sunday of the Year. Ex 19:2-6; Ps 99; Rom 5:6-11; Mt 9:36-10:8

Today's Gospel describes Christ ordaining twelve ‘apostles’ from among his disciples. These apostles will later ordain others, the bishops, who will in turn ordain priests and deacons. Today's Gospel therefore describes the origin of the present day structure of the Catholic Church. But today's Gospel also describes the three special gifts that Christ gives his apostles for their ministry: these gifts are authority over unclean spirits, the power to cast out such spirits and, finally, to cure all kinds of diseases and sickness. I propose to talk about these gifts in today's brief homily.

Now the very fact that Jesus gives such gifts of healing tells us, first, that these gifts are needed. In other words, many people in the world suffer from diseases of the body and what one might call diseases of the soul, namely ‘unclean spirits’. The fact of widespread sickness in the world, and Jesus' divine commission, has traditionally made care of the sick one of the highest priorities of the Christian faith. The first great council of the Church, the Council of Nicaea, ordered bishops to build hospitals in every cathedral town of the Roman Empire. To take a more local example, the oldest hospitals in London, St Bartholomew's and St Thomas's, were originally Catholic institutions, fruits of the same apostolic mission. But given that our present bodies last just a few decades, while our souls last forever, Jesus obviously gives first priority to the work of curing souls rather than bodies, to casting out ‘unclean spirits’. What what, however, is meant by an unclean spirit, and how is such a thing cast out?

In trying to understanding the idea of a disease of the soul, it is important to be very careful about the meaning of words. In Scripture, what makes a spirit ‘unclean’ is that it separates us from God. Jesus says, blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. Conversely, what is spiritually ‘impure’ or ‘unclean’ prevents us from seeing God, usually by supplanting God's place in our affections. So, for example, if a person's whole life treats some other material or spiritual object as ‘god’, this might be called an ‘unclean spirit’ precisely because God's place in a person's soul has been taken by some lesser good. This material or spiritual object might, in fact, be something good in itself, but when such an object takes the place of God this makes it unclean. So the first and most important aspect of an ‘unclean spirit’ is that it is a spirit that separates us from God, supplanting God's place in our affections. A second important aspect of an ‘unclean spirit’ comes from alternative expression sometimes used in Scripture, the word ‘demon’. Again, it is important to avoid fanciful interpretations. The word ‘demon’ comes from a Greek word, daiesthai, meaning ‘to divide, distribute’. This meaning highlights the second important effect of an ‘unclean spirit’; the soul becomes internally divided. Our souls were made to know and to love God, and when some other spirit, some other material or spiritual thing, substitutes God's place in our affections, our souls are unhappy and divided. In this fragmented state, they may also become vulnerable to malign, external spiritual forces.

How, then, is such a soul restored to health? Well, G. K. Chesterton observed that sanity is only achieved with sanctity. Our souls are made for relationship, for relationship with God. No soul ever becomes a clean but empty house; if God does not fill the house then something else will take His place. The problem, however, for many Christians today is that God only fills part of the house: their souls are fragmented, divided between the love of God and a disordered love of the world. The challenge, which is easy to state but hard to meet, is to hand over our whole lives to God, making use of the gifts God has given us through the apostles. Here are a few practical suggestions: make prayer a daily activity; make frequent use of the sacraments, especially Confession and the Eucharist; give away those material possessions we do not need and which distract us from God; fill our hearts and our homes with good and holy images; keep good company and avoid evil influences. God means us to be temples of the Holy Spirit, and when he fills our hearts, then we shall also enjoy our own wholeness and peace.

In all these things, Mary our Mother is our great example, she who handed over her whole life for the love of God, “Be it done unto me according to thy word.” Mary our Mother, pray for us.      

Fr. Andrew Pinsent, St. Pancras Church, Lewes, 15th June 2008

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