Diabolical obsessions

In Sunday's Gospel, the authority of Christ is revealed when He commands an "unclean spirit" to "come out" of the possessed man. Catholic teaching and traditional Catholic spiritual theology recognize that in some cases of diabolical possession, the faculties of the soul of the subject are dormant, allowing the demon (or demons) control over the body.

Why does God permit diabolical possession? The answer isn't easy, but it likely correlates to the mysterious answer to a similar question, "Why does God permit evil?" Short answer from Saint Paul, "where sin abounded, grace did more abound" (Rom 5:20). Somehow in the midst of evil the greater power of God will in time be revealed.

It's a fair guess the devil revels as the center of attention; by so doing he entices us to break the Commandments. And the very First Commandment rules the devil out: "I am the Lord thy God, thou shalt not have any false gods before me." False gods, in whatever form, are narcissistic: always yearning for the limelight, always drawing attention and attempting to displace the worship of the one true God. Of course, the devil is usually more subtle in his (or her, if you prefer) prompts in this regard. He usually seems content to attempt to replace God as the center of our existence with the obsessions of everyday life.

We all understand the power of obsession. Sometimes an obsession - in small doses - is fairly harmless and humorous. When a favorite sports team loses a big game, it's easy for fans to replay the fatal mistakes in their minds' eye over and over again. It's the stuff of television sports channels and friendly arguments. At other times, an obsession properly linked to virtue is truly salutary. We can be thankful for the "obsessive" medical search for the vaccination against the polio disease. The British "obsessive" hunt for the German battleship Bismarck in World War II is an exciting story of military persistence to save the English fleet.

Frequently enough, however, obsessions are corrosive to the soul, displacing God. Sports enthusiasm can become a kind of religion. Hobbies can become excessive, expensive and disproportionate, damaging families and friendships.

Even, and perhaps especially, suffering can become a terrible preoccupation that pushes God out as the center of our existence when we most need His presence. When we suffer a chronic or debilitating or life threatening illness, there is an obvious need to tend to the medical details of health. To the suffering, it is sometimes useful to recommend (when called upon for advice) to think of the day-to-day medical and health duties as part of a new "job description" ordained by God in His providence. But obsessive worry is always a spiritual danger. With serious illness there is usually great confusion and misunderstanding, and it's easy to imagine the worst at all times and to wonder, "Where is God?"

In the face of terrible suffering, we would be well advised to avoid the errors of the "friends of Job," attempting to assign blame and presuming to explain in detail the mysterious ways of God. Equally annoying and unproductive would be to dismiss intense suffering with pious platitudes. The time-tested devotion to "offer up" one's sufferings in union with Christ on the cross is not at root a platitude - and should be taught by attentive mothers everywhere when children come crying to them. But it can be reduced to a banality when a compassionate silent presence is rather called for, or when it is used as an on-the-run "easy answer" tossed in the direction of the chronically ill.

Nevertheless, intense suffering (perhaps itself caused by demonic hatred) has the power to become a kind of "false god." An irrational obsession with suffering can indeed become a diabolical psychological and spiritual compulsion allowing no room for the presence of God. Such folly can be found in the old joke about the mother who telegraphs her daughter: "Bad news coming tomorrow. Begin worrying today." To the devil's delight, excessive worry undermines prayer and trust in God.

The good Lord, as usual, responds with His customary realism: "Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Let the day's own trouble be sufficient for the day" (Mt 6:34). Elsewhere, Christ addresses our age of anxiety: "And do not seek what you are to eat and what you are to drink, nor be of anxious mind. For all the nations of the world seek these things; and your Father knows that you need them. Instead, seek His kingdom, and these things shall be yours as well" (Lk 12:27-31).

God does not grant His loving grace in advance of our needs. With unshakable confidence in the continuing flow of God's grace, we must allow Christ to exorcise all the diabolical obsessions obstructing our love for Him.

Fr. Pokorsky is pastor of St. Michael Church in Annandale.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2015