The Diseases of Modernity
Not a month passes, it seems, without our hearing of some new illness, named after some professor, doctor or place, of which we had never heard before. ‘The illness has been diagnosed by doctors as…’ proclaim the media. Pandemics, epidemics, disorders, diseases, illnesses, sicknesses, syndromes, allergies, viruses…the world appears to be full of them. What could be the reasons for this plethora of illnesses of which we now hear?
The first reason may quite simply be that thanks to advances in medical technology, such as enabling prematurely-born babies to survive, we are now able to diagnose illnesses which previously were undiagnosed and undiagnosable. Perhaps the majority of these illnesses have always existed, but simply they remained unnamed. And with the increase in the expectation of life in many countries of the world, resulting from medical progress, we now of course have more years in which to contract such illnesses, which can then be diagnosed.
However, there is certainly a second factor, which helps to explain the variety of these illnesses and how common they have become. This is to do with the modern way of life. There is no doubt, for example, that certain types of cancer have become much more common because of smoking and widespread alcoholism (as in Great Britain), then there is drug-taking causing mental illness, radiation from nuclear tests and leaks from nuclear power stations, allergies from the use of artificial chemical compounds in food and drink, and the many diseases, such as asbestosis, contracted as a result of environmental pollution. Then we are also obliged to mention AIDS, the immunity deficiency virus which also leads to many rare illnesses, once almost forgotten by medical science. There are also various other diseases, which are the result of the unnatural methods used in intensive farming, diseases then contracted by humans, such as the bird flu virus and ‘mad cow disease’.
Finally, there is a third category of illnesses which have become widespread in our own times. These are illnesses which appear to be new, but which in fact are very old. Simply, they have new names. These illnesses concern us because they are fundamentally spiritual in nature and in origin.
For instance, on more than one occasion, the Gospel recognises the illness of demonic possession. Thus in the Gospel of the Gadarene swine, we meet a man who is possessed by a legion of demons (and a legion at the time of Caesar meant 6,000). No doubt today the victims of demonic possession are labelled as having all sorts of syndromes and illnesses, according to the demon or demons who inhabit them. Nevertheless, in the Gospel, the sick are simply said to be ‘possessed’. But how do people come to be possessed by demons and why does the incidence of possession seem to be increasing today?
The Church Fathers clearly describe the threefold process by which possession occurs.
The first stage is that of invitation, in which the demon tempts us to sin and we fall. It is natural for us, who live in the world, to be tempted. Christ Himself in His human nature suffered temptation from Satan himself; however, unlike us, he did not fall into sin. The fact that the demon invites us to sin, or suggests that we sin, and that we then fall, is ‘natural’ in the unnatural world of fallen mankind. Nevertheless, what we should do is refuse in any way to entertain the thoughts and suggestions of the demon and thus avoid falling into sin, dismissing these suggestions immediately. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the Evil One.
The second stage comes when we have so often fallen into sin, by accepting demonic invitation, that sin has become habitual in us. This stage is known as ‘obsession’, when the demon sits within us, but is not yet in full control. The persistent bad thoughts and our acceptance of them means that we do in fact become ‘obsessed’. This is the state of those who are in some way ‘addicted’ to a particular sin.
The third and final stage is that of ‘possession’, when the demon possesses us, in other words he is in total control of us. Although obsession, as an addiction, can be overcome, though only with great difficulty, the stage of possession can only be overcome through the grace of God, ‘by prayer and fasting’, as the Gospel teaches us.
Although states of obsession and possession have always existed, they seem to have become more widespread over the last fifty years or so. Why?
The fact is that, relatively speaking, over the last fifty years Western people at least, have widely rejected Christian values and morals, the commandments of Christ, the Christian life of repentance and confession, communion, prayer and fasting. How the demons laughed when Roman Catholicism reduced or abolished fasting in the 1960s, or when Anglicanism, despite the Prayerbook injunctions, rejected fasting and abstinence. Yet, as a result of the fall away from Christian values, it was precisely at this time that the demons came to populate the Western world in ever greater numbers. What are the most common illnesses that we now see as a result of obsession and possession?
Firstly, there are the weak who are ‘addicted’, usually to chemical stimulants, alcohol, tobacco, cannabis or other drugs, and nowadays also sex, sometimes heterosexual, sometimes homosexual. Some of these addictions seem to be almost incurable. In fact, only with a strong will, support and, above all, the grace of God, can they be overcome. As one recent ex-alcoholic told me: ‘Victory came through persistence, the Jesus Prayer and holy water’.
Then, there seem to be more and more victims of obsessive anorexia and bulimia, as compared to the past. There are many causes for these eating disorders, but unlike those who have, through weakness, become addicted and so bear some measure of responsibility for their state, these people are uniquely the victims. For instance, they may be the innocent victims of evil fashions, or of unloving parents or spouses, or else the innocent prey of pedophiles and other perverts. They are persuaded that they are overweight, when in fact they are chronically thin, or that they are hungry when in fact they are chronically gorging themselves. The current epidemic of self-mutilation, especially common among adolescent girls, is often a sign of the same problems. There are many ways to at least start the partial healing of this obsessiveness, but the most effective is the grace of God, which denies evil voices access to the minds of the victim. In my pastoral experience, frequent confession and communion are vital in combating these disorders.
Another category of victims who also deserve our great compassion are the victims of what is now called ‘obsessive-compulsive disorder’. Again it is the grace of God that will help these people to free themselves from the obsessive suggestions of demons. The combats are all spiritual.
As regards possession, the situation is even harder. Here, no techniques will help. The combat here is purely spiritual. Three examples of possession, all from the last month, can be quoted.
The first is the recent verdict in a case in the south of England, where a young mother, a devout Christian, was attacked by a madman, while she was walking with her baby in a country lane and nearly killed. The madman made off; a week later his corpse was found in Scotland. He had committed suicide after telling a friend that he feared that ‘the other person inside him’ had attempted murder. Racked by guilt, he had found no alternative but suicide. Apparently he was used to taking large quantities of alcohol and drugs. In this way he had destroyed his own mind. Since nature abhors a vacuum, the demon of murder had come to dwell inside his emptiness, thus ‘possessing’ him.
In another recently judged case which occurred last year, a teenage boy in Liverpool, also a devout Christian, was murdered in a savage ice-axe attack by a well-known local criminal, who for some reason had not been locked up in prison in order to protect the public. Although this murder was reported as racist (the victim was ‘black’), in fact the savagery and pointlessness of the attack makes it clear that it was in fact demonic.
Finally, within recent weeks the assassin of the singer John Lennon has admitted that a ‘voice’ told him to carry out that murder. Although some might say that this is an excuse and he is only trying to get out of prison early by making this excuse, this seems unlikely. Firstly, he says that he deserves to stay in prison for the rest of his life, and secondly, if it were an excuse, then why did he not make it twenty-five years ago after he had committed the crime? Much more likely, as an obsessive ‘fan’ (i.e. fanatic) of the singer, the voice of the demon of murder had told him to carry out the assassination and he, in his loss of freedom of will, had obeyed.
All three cases are classic cases of obsession or possession. Moreover, we are ever more frequently hearing of such cases where murderers claim that they have heard ‘voices’, telling them to carry out their crimes. This is not anecdotal evidence, these are just three cases in one Western country from the last month, which happen to have been reported. So many more could be mentioned, so many more go unreported.
How then are we to protect ourselves? It is simple. If we follow the commandments and pray with humility, then no demon can win our soul from us. Fear not, and, I am with you alway, says the Divine voice of the Gospel. And these words will remain true, even until the end of the world – providing only that we are with Him.