The most well known exorcisms in the Eastern Church are those prayed at the Making of a Catechumen, which the Church has usually offered over every soon-to-be-illumined person immediately prior to his or her Baptism. The Eastern Church also does have extra-baptismal prayers of exorcism (Great Book of Needs Vol. III 7-32), but it has no rite of exorcism exactly analogous to that found in the Rituale Romanum. In fact, the exorcisms offered just before baptisms are the only exorcisms most priests ever perform. Originally, catechists or exorcists read exorcisms of this kind daily over those who belonged to the order of catechumens as they underwent a long period of preparation for Baptism (Ferguson 329). Cyril of Jerusalem seems aware of this practice in his Procatechesis (c. 348). Demonstrating the connection between catechesis and exorcism, he writes, “Let your feet hasten to the catechisings; receive with earnestness the exorcisms” (9).
These exorcisms do not presuppose demonic possession, as in the case of those prayers once prayed over those who belonged to the order of energumens. The so-called Apostolic Constitutions (c.380) records a prayer of the deacon and another of the bishop for the energumens, who are “afflicted with unclean spirits,” at the time of their dismissal from the Divine Liturgy. For example, the deacon prays, “let us all earnestly pray for them, that God, the lover of mankind, will by Christ rebuke the unclean and wicked spirits, and deliver His supplicants from the dominion of the adversary” (483-484). The early Church recognized the demonic possession of some people and prayed earnestly and frequently for their deliverance. The Church’s continuing practice of exorcism for catechumens who are not possessed, on the other hand, in and of itself reveals another aspect of the Church’s belief about evil and demonic forces – namely that they exert negative influence even over those who are not possessed and especially over those who have not yet received baptism and so do not fully participate in the graced life of the Church.
Following the principle of lex orandi lex credendi – or “legem credendi lex statuat supplicandi,” as Prosper of Aquitaine (5th century) put it (PL 51:209-210) – it is possible to learn the Church’s diabology from her prayers of exorcism. This paper will examine certain themes in the Prayers at the Making of a Catechumen, which is part of the Order before Holy Baptism. These prayers say much about the nature of the demons and more about the nature of the Lord who expels demons. They make clear the Church’s motivation for performing exorcisms and the ultimate eschatological significance of the act.
Descriptions of Demons and the Devil
The first and second exorcisms at the Making of a Catechumen directly address the devil and, in so doing, teach something about him. The second vividly describes him as an “all evil, unclean, abominable, loathsome, and alien spirit.” The third exorcism, which is actually a prayer addressed to the “Lord of Sabaoth, the God of Israel,” also twice describes the demons as “unclean spirits.” These descriptions make two things clear: 1) demons are spirits and 2) they are altogether evil.
1) The Church understood from the beginning that demons are spirits. Tatian (c. 160) wrote, “None of the demons possess flesh. Their structure is spiritual, like that of fire or air” (71). The first exorcism, referencing scripture many times, elaborates significantly on the nature of created spirits – both holy and fallen angels. It refers to the Cherubim three times: once to the Cherubim posted by the Living God to guard the Tree of Life with the flaming sword (cf. Gen 3:24), once to the Cherubim upon whom the Lord God sits beholding the depths (cf. Dan 3:55), and once together with the other choirs of angels: “Angels, Archangels, Thrones, Dominions, Principalities, Authorities, Powers, the many-eyed Cherubim, and the six-winged Seraphim” (cf. 1Pet 3:22; Col 1:16), all of whom tremble before God. A purpose of anamnestically calling to mind the Cherubim and all these other spiritual beings and their relationship to God their creator may be to remind the demons of their own true, good, created nature and, in so doing, abolish their vain attempt to destroy the good in the life of the catechumen and in the Church. The demons, being spirits, are not essentially evil forces. In essence, they are beings and are good. If even their own created nature is good, any attempt of the demons to corrupt good is ultimately vain. Each example of spirits given in the exorcism emphasizes to the devil that he, together with all the created spirits, is subject to his creator and thus should fear him.
The first and second exorcisms both tell the devil to “fear God.” The Lord created demons spirits (“He makes his angels spirits” as it says in the first exorcism, quoting Ps 103:4) and all creatures, spiritual and physical, must fear the Lord. According to the first exorcism, “the heavens and the earth, the sea and all that is in them” all fear the Lord (cf. Ps 145:5). So too then must the demons fear God for they too are his creatures and they too are beneath God –however much they hate the reminder.
2) The demons hate the reminder because they have chosen to war against good, which is being, even their own being. In a sense, they hate even themselves. They hate what they truly are and cannot stand reminders of it, which is why exorcisms of the possessed often demand to know the demon’s name (cf. Mark 5:9; Luke 8:30), which recalls the spiritual creature’s true being. Whatever is good they vainly strive to destroy and this vain striving is the very nature of evil. Demonic evil is manifest when demons use their considerable God-given power, intelligence, and influence tyrannically to afflict God’s good creatures with temptations, suffering, and death, which are privations of good physical, mental, and spiritual health and life.
The first exorcism states that, before the incarnation of the Lord, the devil exercised “tyranny” over mankind and it numbers the devil among “the hostile powers” over whom the Lord has triumphed. Origen also calls the demons “hostile powers” and elaborates on what this means:
When we have indulged… beyond what is proper, and have not resisted the first movements to intemperance, then the hostile power, seizing the occasion of this first transgression, incites and presses us hard in every way, seeking to extend our sins over a wider field, and furnishing us human beings with occasions and beginnings of sins, which these hostile powers spread far and wide, and, if possible, beyond all limits (De Principiis 330).
The devil cannot force humans to sin, but takes advantage of human cooperation with his evil designs. The devil is indeed a hostile power, but his power is ultimately vain and already overcome by Jesus Christ, who has trampled down sin and death. The second exorcism commands the devil, “Depart, know the vainness of your might, which had not power even over the swine!” (cf. Mark 5:11-13; Matt 8:30-32). In the presence of Jesus Christ, even a legion of demons is impotent. The devil’s greatest power was the power of death, which, according to the first exorcism, was indeed a power of the devil. It states that, before the Lord’s death on the cross, upon which he destroyed death by death, it was the devil “that held the might of death.” Now, having gone through death and having conquered it by rising from the dead, the Lord has overcome the devil even in what was his greatest power.
Exorcistic Response to Demonic Influence, Oppression, Obsession, & Possession
Though it is true that the Lord has already overcome the devil and his demons and that ultimately all their attempts at working evil in the world are vain and futile, it also remains the truth, that for inexplicable reasons, the world continues to suffer evils and death. “The whole creation has been groaning in travail together until now” (Rom 8:22). This is mysterious. There is no adequate answer to the question: if God intends ultimately to destroy evil and permanently cast Satan into hell, why does he, in the meantime, permit him to continue his evil works? The fact remains that he does and that humans often cooperate with the devil by willful sin. Demons continue to influence, oppress, obsess, and sometimes possess human beings in this world.
The exorcisms in the Making of a Catechumen do not presuppose possession. The Church from early on made a distinction between the possessed – whom it called energumens – and others who were subject to demonic influence, including the catechumens. Origen (c. 225) makes a distinction between two kinds of demonic activity. He writes,
Now, of wicked spirits there is a twofold mode of operation: i.e., when they either take complete and entire possession of the mind…, as, for instance, is the case with those commonly called possessed (energumenos)…, or when by their wicked suggestions [these spirits] deprave a sentient and intelligent soul with thoughts of various kinds, persuading it to evil (De Principiis 336).
The exorcisms also reveal the belief of the Church that both possession and other kinds of demonic influence are possible. The second exorcism says to the devil, “Come out of the man and never again enter into him,” which makes clear that the devil otherwise might remain and do harm to the person. By telling the devil to “come out and depart from this creature, and never return, nor hide in him, neither meet nor act upon him,” the first exorcism makes clear the belief that the devil, were it not for the grace bestowed by the forthcoming baptism, could “hide in” and “act upon” or badly influence a human. Given that the exorcism refers to a human as a “creature,” perhaps this could imply also that the devil could possibly even “hide in” or “act upon” another creature. Origen suggests that “wicked demons… secretly enter the bodies of the more predatory, savage, and wicked of animals and stir them up to do whatever they choose” (Against Celsus 538). The evil activity of demons adversely affects not only humans but also the entire natural order.
The Church responds to this evil demonic activity with exorcism. Origen points out that the means of exorcism is simple: “Christians cast out [demons]… [with] only prayer and simple adjurations that the plainest person can use” (Against Celsus 612). Lactantius agrees: “Demons, when adjured by the name of the true God, immediately flee” (130). This is precisely what the exorcisms before baptism do. For example, in the second exorcism, the priest says to the evil spirit, “go forth from him that is newly sealed in the Name of our Lord God and Savior Christ,” and he continues, “I adjure you by the power of Jesus Christ.” The name connotes the being and it is being that demons attempt to deny. The simple name of Jesus Christ therefore overcomes the demons. Concerning this, Justin Martyr writes,
We who believe in Him pray to be kept by Him from… wicked and deceitful spirits…. For we do continually beseech God by Jesus Christ to preserve us from the demons which are hostile to the worship of God…. For we call Him Helper and Redeemer, the power of whose name even the demons do fear; and at this day, when they are exorcised in the name of Jesus Christ… they are overcome. And thus it is manifest to all, that His Father has given Him so great power, by virtue of which demons are subdued to His name (209).
The Church, in imitation of Christ her Lord, performs these exorcisms because she always seeks to do good for her children. Jesus sent out his twelve apostles and told them to “heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, cast out demons” (Matt 10:8). He told them to do these things in conjunction with preaching, “The kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt 10:7). These things, then, including the casting out of demons, are a foretaste of the coming kingdom. Exorcism helps bring the natural world into closer conformity with its true nature, which creation will ultimately recover on the last day.
The Eschatology of Exorcism
Coming down rather strongly against the idea – known as ἀποκατάστασις – espoused by Origen and Gregory of Nyssa that God would ultimately bring all beings, including even the devil, into his kingdom, the first and second exorcisms at the Making of a Catechumen clearly and explicitly declare that the devil and his demons will burn in hell for all eternity. Gregory of Nyssa wrote of the devil in one place, "the originator of evil himself will be healed” (Catechetical Oration 101), and in another place he attributes to his sister Macrina the opinion that, “even from those evil spirits shall rise in harmony the confession of Christ’s Lordship” (On the Soul 444). The exorcisms, however, leave no room for the devil in the coming kingdom of heaven. The first exorcism commands the devil: “Get you hence to your own Tartarus, until the appointed day of Judgment” and the second declares, “God… himself has ordained for you O devil, the retribution of eternal torment.” The latter exorcism concludes with plentiful eschatological imagery:
Depart… I adjure (Ὁρκίζω) you… by His terrible Coming Again for He shall come and not tarry, to judge all the earth, and shall punish you and your cooperating host in the Gehenna of fire, consigning you to the outer darkness where the worm dies not and the fire is not quenched (cf. Mark 9:48).
These several images associate the coming day of the Lord with the damnation of the devils. Exorcisms, then, serve the purpose of making this world more like the one to come. In the age to come, these exorcisms seem to assert, God will finally condemn the devil to eternal suffering in Tartarus or Gehenna, which are two scriptural names of hell.
The first exorcism seeks to bring about this coming separation of the devil from the world by condemning him now to Tartarus. In this way, this exorcism is almost like an inversion of the traditional Aramaic eschatological prayer: “Maranatha” (1 Cor 16:22; Didache 10:6). While praying, “Come, Lord,” the Church also here says, “Go, devil.” Along with the second coming of the Lord is the final expulsion of the devil. In the second exorcism, the priest casts out the devil by the eschatological coming of the Lord. “His terrible coming again” is a means by which the priest adjures the devil to depart.
Examining the nature of demons as described by the exorcisms at the Making of a Catechumen reveals much about the nature of evil. Evil is pointless and vain and it has already been overcome by the supremely good and all-powerful Lord Jesus Christ. Evil is to strive against what is – or to strive to be what one is not. Goodness is to be what the Creator creates one to be. Each creature, even and especially a demon, is created good – without any evil at all. Freedom, which contains an inherent potential for evil, is itself good. Demons are not evil in their essence. Nothing is. Evil has no being. Nonetheless, some free beings do evil things. Demons are creatures – necessarily good in essence – who freely strive vainly against goodness. Beings that strive against being are evil. All evil - both moral evil and all suffering and death – results from this vain and sinful striving. Demons absolutely strive vainly to accomplish evil and so are destined to eternal torment. It is agonizing to struggle to destroy the indestructible and they have chosen that agony for eternity. They war against their very own being. To exist in such a way is to be already in hell. For all their intelligence, they are fools. For all their power, they are impotent. They have applied their extraordinary spiritual gifts to pointless and impossible ends. They have already lost.
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