Some time ago, I did a post addressing whether or not saints could be possessed
by the devil. The topic was brought to my attention by some statements in Fr. Gabriel Amorth's book on exorcism in which he related several stories of canonized saints who had apparently been possessed by the devil, though by no fault of their own.
I took issue with Fr. Amorth, suggesting that it seemed very improbably that a soul that was truly sanctified could be open to demonic possession, as well as doubting whether imposing satanic possession upon a believer would ever be God's will. Many of my readers disagreed with me, which is totally fine; this is highly speculative, and there are purported cases of it in Church history. I also made sure to keep my comments very speculative due to my ignorance on matters relating to exorcism.
That being said,
I still take great issue with the concept that a person with a eminent degree of sanctity can be possessed by the devil. I have spent a lot of time since the last post researching this, and knowing that the Fathers of the Church had a very keen understanding of exorcism and a firm belief in the reality of demons (unlike many modern theologians), I decided to see if the Fathers had any comment on this issue of believers being subject to demonic possession.
What I have found is that, with no exceptions that I know of, the Church Fathers do not believe that believers (true believers) can be possessed by the devil, and that freedom from and authority over the devil are one of the marks of a true Christian. They also assert that possession always results from some fault on the part of the possessed; either they are mired in sin, apostates, worshiping pagan gods, or else frequenting places where demons are especially active.
In the first place, if we look at the works of Justin Martyr and Tertullian, we can find many statements testifying to the patristic belief in the authority of the common Christian over the demons and the freedom of the Christian from their power. Though these quotes do not mention exorcism or possession directly, they reflect the common view in the early Church that Christians, walking in the power of the Spirit, always had authority over the evil one:
St. Justin Martyr: "For we do continually beseech God by Jesus Christ to preserve us from the demons which are hostile to the worship of God, and whom we of old time served, in order that, after our conversion by Him to God, we may be blameless. 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, crucified under Pontius Pilate, governor of Judæa, 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, and to the dispensation of His suffering" (Dialogue With Trypho, 30).
Servitude to the demons is a sign of bondage to sin. A hallmark of Christian freedom, of Christ's atoning death, is that the believer is not only freed from demonic possession but has authority over them. This would not make any sense if we could postulate that sometimes holy saints can be in bondage to demons.
Tertullian: "For, though the whole power of demons and kindred spirits is subject to us, yet still, as ill-disposed slaves sometimes conjoin contumacy with fear, and delight to injure those of whom they at the same time stand in awe, so is it here" (Apology, 27).
"Now if Socrates was pronounced the wisest of men by the oracle of the Pythian demon, which, you may be sure, neatly managed the business for his friend, of how much greater dignity and constancy is the assertion of the Christian wisdom, before the very breath of which the whole host of demons is scattered!" (Treatise on the Soul, 1).
"For God, Creator of the universe, has no need of odors or of blood. These things are the food of devils. But we not only reject those wicked spirits: we overcome them; we daily hold them up to contempt; we exorcise them from their victims, as multitudes can testify" (Ad Scapula, 2).
The demons, for Justin and Tertullian, are to be held up to scorn and contempt through their public exorcism. The power of the name of Christ over the demons seems to be a sign of Christ's general triumph; the Christian victory over demonic possession is an attribute of Christ's victory over Satan. Once we see this connection, it seems very unlikely that the Fathers would support the concept of a Christian being possessed by a devil as part of God's will, much less a Christian of eminent sanctity. The personal triumph over demons and a Christian's protection from them are intimately bound up with Christ's victory at the cross. To suggest that holy Christians can be possessed would seem to undermine this, or that's the way the Fathers would see things.
If we go on to some of the later writings, of Cyprian, Origen, Lactantius, the Apostolic Constitutions
, we see that this concept of the Christian's power over the demons if developed into a theology of the general freedom of a Christian (a "true Christian", as Origen says) from demonic possession. But first, let's continue with Tertullian, who has two more interesting quotes:
"Do you fear man, O Christian?— you who ought to be feared by the angels, since you are to judge angels; who ought to be feared by evil spirits, since you have received power also over evil spirits" (De Fuga in Persecutione, 9).
The evil spirits are in the power of the Christian; therefore, Christians have nothing to fear from them. This seems to preclude any notion that the Christian can fall under demonic possession.
"We have the case of the woman— the Lord Himself is witness— who went to the theatre, and came back possessed. In the outcasting, accordingly, when the unclean creature was upbraided with having dared to attack a believer, he firmly replied,
And in truth I did it most righteously, for I found her in my domain (De Spectaculis, 26).
This is an interesting example, because the case is related of a Christian woman who was frequenting the pagan games and was possessed by a demon while at the amphitheater, which the demon refers to as "my domain." The demon's words seem to suggest that, while lawful possession can occur if a person is in a demon's "domain", demonic possession of believers who are not in that demon's domain would be "unlawful." It is hard to make a clear, dogmatic point based on something a demon said (although traditionally demons during exorcism are compelled to tell the truth), but it is interesting to think about.
Origen dealt with the issue of demonic possession extensively in his apology to the pagan Celsus. His quotes are long, but worth looking into at length:
Origen: "And Christians have nothing to fear, even if demons should not be well-disposed to them; for they are protected by the Supreme God, who is well pleased with their piety, and who sets His divine angels to watch over those who are worthy of such guardianship, so that they can suffer nothing from demons. He who by his piety possesses the favor of the Most High, who has accepted the guidance of Jesus, the
Angel of the great counsel, being well contented with the favor of God through Christ Jesus, may say with confidence that he has nothing to suffer from the whole host of demons" (Contra Celsus, Book VIII:27).
The believer has "nothing to suffer" from the demons, and this may be said "with confidence." A sign of one's belonging to Christ is angelic protection from demonic possession, and this is established through the mandate of God. This does not mean that devils may not attack believers (as we see in the case of St. John Vianney, for example), but it does seem to preclude any concept of a demon gaining entrance into a Christian and possessing them, since this protection seems to be extended more to those who "are worthy of such guardianship." He goes on:
"We do not, then, deny that there are many demons upon earth, but we maintain that they exist and exercise power among the wicked, as a punishment of their wickedness. But they have no power over those who
have put on the whole armor of God, who have received strength to
withstand the wiles of the devil, and who are ever engaged in contests with them, knowing that
we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places (ibid., 34).
Here is where Origen would take issue with Fr. Amorth. Fr. Amorth suggests that demons can exercise power over Christians if this is the will of God; Origen, like the other Fathers, states that true Christians are immune from this sort of thing and that those who are in the power of the demons are those who are "among the wicked" and receive demonic possession "as a punishment of their wickedness." The demons have "no power" among those who have put on God's armor. Continuing on, Origen says:
"But the angels, who are the true rulers and generals and ministers of God, do not, as Celsus supposes,
injure those who offend them; and if certain demons, whom Celsus had in mind, do inflict evils, they show that they are wicked, and that they have received no office of the kind from God. And they even do injury to those who are under them, and who have acknowledged them as their masters; and accordingly, as it would seem that those who break through the regulations which prevail in any country in regard to matters of food, suffer for it if they are under the demons of that place, while those who are not under them, and have not submitted to their power, are free from all harm, and bid defiance to such spirits; although if, in ignorance of certain things, they have come under the power of other demons, they may suffer punishment from them. But the Christian— the true Christian, I mean— who has submitted to God alone and His Word, will suffer nothing from demons, for He is mightier than demons. And the Christian will suffer nothing, for
the angel of the Lord will encamp about them that fear Him, and will deliver them, and his
always beholds the face of his Father in heaven, offers up his prayers through the one High Priest to the God of all, and also joins his own prayers with those of the man who is committed to his keeping. Let not, then, Celsus try to scare us with threats of mischief from demons, for we despise them. And the demons, when despised, can do no harm to those who are under the protection of Him who can alone help all who deserve His aid; and He does no less than set His own angels over His devout servants, so that none of the hostile angels, nor even he who is called
the prince of this world, can effect anything against those who have given themselves to God" (ibid., 36).
Very clearly, Origen sets forth the principle that the protection of the Christian from the demons is bound up with Christ's own lordship over the elect, and that consequently, not even Satan himself "can effect anything against those who have given themselves to God."
Next, Origen compares the oracles of the Pythian priestess at Delphi with the ministry of exorcism performed by the Christians:
"If, then, the Pythian priestess is beside herself when she prophesies, what spirit must that be which fills her mind and clouds her judgment with darkness, unless it be of the same order with those demons which many Christians cast out of persons possessed with them? And this, we may observe, they do without the use of any curious arts of magic, or incantations, but merely by prayer and simple adjurations which the plainest person can use. Because for the most part it is unlettered persons who perform this work; thus making manifest the grace which is in the word of Christ, and the despicable weakness of demons, which, in order to be overcome and driven out of the bodies and souls of men, do not require the power and wisdom of those who are mighty in argument, and most learned in matters of faith" (Contra Celsus, Book VII:4).
I thought this quotation was interesting because it attested to the reality of lay-exorcisms in the patristic era (which I don't think would be a wise thing to return to now), but more so, because it demonstrates that power over and freedom from the demons was not seen as restricted to the clergy or the eminently saintly, but to even the rank and file of the Church.
St. Cyprian of Carthage goes on step further and explicitly denies the possibility of the demons inhabiting the body of one who has been baptized:
Cyprian: "The obstinate wickedness of the devil prevails even up to the saving water, but that in baptism it loses all the poison of his wickedness...when, however, they come to the water of salvation and to the sanctification of baptism, we ought to know and to trust that there the devil is beaten down, and the man, dedicated to God, is set free by the divine mercy. For as scorpions and serpents, which prevail on the dry ground, when cast into water, cannot prevail nor retain their venom; so also the wicked spirits, which are called scorpions and serpents, and yet are trodden under foot by us, by the power given by the Lord, cannot remain any longer in the body of a man in whom, baptized and sanctified, the Holy Spirit is beginning to dwell" (Epistle 75:15).
The demons "cannot remain any longer in the body of a man in whom...the Holy Spirit is beginning to dwell." This summarizes my thought on this aptly. Like the other Fathers, Cyprian sees freedom from sin as expressed by freedom from the devil; he knows nothing of any concept of people being sanctified in their soul but possessed in their bodies. The Spirit and the demons cannot share the same frame, and this applies to every Christian who lives in a state of grace ("true Christians", as Origen says).
Let us move on to Lactantius, who wrote around the period of Diocletian's persecution:
Lactantius: "For they think that those demons profit them when they cease to injure, whereas they have no power except to injure. Some one may perchance say that they are therefore to be worshiped, that they may not injure, since they have the power to injure. They do indeed injure, but those only by whom they are feared, whom the powerful and lofty hand of God does not protect, who are uninitiated in the mystery of truth. But they fear the righteous, that is, the worshipers of God, adjured by whose name they depart from the bodies of the possessed: for, being lashed by their words as though by scourges, they not only confess themselves to be demons, but even utter their own names— those which are adored in the temples— which they generally do in the presence of their own worshipers; not, it is plain, to the disgrace of religion, but to the disgrace of their own honor, because they cannot speak falsely to God, by whom they are adjured, nor to the righteous, by whose voice they are tortured. Therefore ofttimes having uttered the greatest howlings, they cry out that they are beaten, and are on fire, and that they are just on the point of coming forth: so much power has the knowledge of God, and righteousness! Whom, therefore, can they injure, except those whom they have in their own power? In short, Hermes [pagan pseudonymic author Hermes Tresmegistus] affirms that those who have known God are not only safe from the attacks of demons, but that they are not even bound by fate" (Divine Institutes, Book II:16).
Lactantius repeats the teaching of Cyprian that Christians are "safe from the attacks of demons" and that those who suffer from the demons are those "who by whom they are feared"; i.e., those who, either through their disbelief or sinful lifestyles, are in the power of the devil, who are "in his dominion."
Finally, we have the Apostolic Constitutions, which, while not mentioning the issue of whether believers can be possessed or not, states that the power of exorcism was exercised (pun intended) by the common rank and file:
Apostolic Constitutions: "An exorcist is not ordained. For it is a trial of voluntary goodness, and of the grace of God through Christ by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. For he who has received the gift of healing is declared by revelation from God, the grace which is in him being manifest to all. But if there be occasion for him, he must be ordained a bishop, or a presbyter, or a deacon" (Apostolic Constitutions, 26).
The purpose of stating that an exorcist is not ordained in the early Church is in that is signifies that "the plainest person" has power over the devils, which is a form of "making manifest the grace which is in the word of Christ." Freedom from devils, including freedom from
demonic possession, was seen as the common inheritance of all Christians.
In the end, it seems to me that the Church Fathers are completely against the idea that any true Christian can be possessed, let alone a saint. That this is their consensus, I think, is undeniable.
Here is the problem. The Fathers all agree that Christians are "free" from the "power" of the devil, but they do not really define what it means to be "free" from the devil's power. Clearly, the devil has a limited amount of accessibility to us that is granted by God, as evidenced not only by the Book of Job, but by Church History (the devil's attacks on St. John Bosco, St. John Vianney, etc). The question is how far this access of the devil to us extends. Fr. Amorth seems to say that it can extend indefinitely, even to the point of exorcism, while I, and it seems the Fathers, contend that this power seems to stop short of full-blown exorcism.
Of course, none of this solves the problem of whether or not God might permit such a thing, which is what some have asserted. The Fathers all agree that Christians have nothing to fear from the evil one, and that Christians have power over devils, but what if God, for some unknown purpose, seeks to temporarily suspend or withhold His protection, as He did in the case of Job? I suppose there is no way to know; I generally do not to take a stand on something like this based on private revelations, even those made by saints. All I can say is that it seems like the Christian freedom from Satan is so closely bound up with Christ's work of redemption, as evidenced by the writings of the Fathers, that possession of a Christian by the devil seems to be outside of the realm of what God would will.
Obviously God is not opposed to Christians being humbled, or undergoing humiliating circumstances on this earth, but bodily subjection seems to be a sort of humiliation or subjection that is of a different order, something abhorrent to God and outside of the will of Him who "appeared for this purpose, to destroy the works of the devil.” (1 John 3:8).
This is just my opinion and I admit I may be wrong.