A Quiet Day Reflection from Trevor Miller
This obscure scripture passage is part of our Day 15 meditation in Celtic Daily Prayer – linked to Day 14 and Day 16 prayers for Holy Island – with its recognition of the reality of spiritual warfare. William Barclay called it a ‘compact and eerie little parable about a haunted house’. It certainly hasn’t attracted commentators and preachers, who just choose to ignore it.
In early versions of our meditations, Day 15 used the King James Version which added to the difficulty. It reads, 43 When the unclean spirit is gone out of a man, he walketh through dry places, seeking rest, and findeth none.44 Then he saith, I will return into my house from whence I came out; and when he is come, he findeth it empty, swept, and garnished.45 Then goeth he, and taketh with himself seven other spirits more wicked than himself, and they enter in and dwell there: and the last state of that man is worse than the first. Even so shall it be also unto this wicked generation.
Later editions have used more contemporary versions.
And yet (in whatever version) it is a picture of everyone/anyone committed to seeking God in a spiritual world. And its principal message helps us to understand why it is that even those who genuinely seek an authentic stillness (quies) and who are single minded in following Jesus can still find inner peace so hard to come by. So to aid our Quiet Day reflection, let’s look at the passage together and hopefully gain some understanding of the lessons of life it contains.
Matthew 12.43-45 – CONTEXT
Remember that language is simply the faculty for expressing thoughts, feelings, and ideas so as to communicate with one another. In so doing we all have different perceptions and understanding, based on our experience of life; we all use different vocabulary, i.e. psychologists speak of the ego, or the dark or shadow side of our personality. Monastics speak of the false self being fed by the ‘logismos’ (logismoi plural) creating disordered passions/emotions that distract us from the true self. And here Jesus speaks of ‘an evil spirit’ and (without getting into theories of demonology) we can say that all are speaking of an inner force that has a life of its own, that seeks to control our lives. This use of ‘ unclean spirit’, is a timely reminder that in the spiritual realm there is a spiritual warfare going on (in and around us) that includes the work of malign spirits seeking to defile us and therefore defeat us in our walk with God.
The context here in Matthew 12 tells us that one of the most common demons of religion is the tendency of religious people to want to separate themselves from evil instead of seeking to transform it. The Pharisees are a good example of the puffed up human ego demanding that we divide and separate the world into black/white, clean/unclean, pure/impure, right/wrong, which of course translates into the good being their own legalistic interpretations and the bad being anyone who disagrees with them. So, in Matthew 12 we have the disciples picking corn on the Sabbath, Jesus healing on the Sabbath including ‘a demon-possessed man who was blind and mute’. This was enough for the Pharisees not only to accuse Jesus of being in league with the devil but actually plotting to kill him.
Jesus called them hypocrites as the fruit of their lives did not match the roots i.e. bad roots = bad fruit, good roots = good fruit. The language of their lips did not match the living of their lives and because of it Jesus says that a ‘household divided against itself will not stand’ and that this delusion is a form of spiritual schizophrenia. He says we must (at least in aspiration and intention) be wholehearted for God in every aspect of our lives, otherwise we may well discover that we are against him.
Matthew 12.43-45 – CONTENT
These verses remind us that whenever we turn to God, focus our hearts and minds on seeking Him on a journey of faith, we give cause for the ‘spirit of defilement’ to leave us. But this is a time of danger and exposure as the unclean spirit is not destroyed. Evil can be conquered, its power nullified but it’s never totally destroyed in this life. We talk about monsters (memories, moods, secrets) that trigger disordered passions and logismoi.
The logismoi are intrusive recurring images, representations and preoccupations that mobilise fantasy and disjointed memory in an attack on the inner heart. These evil thoughts excite desire and attempt to capture the inner heart so that sin is committed. They are used by the Enemy to take us away from our personhood, identity, and vocation by leading us down ‘bypath meadow’, off the path of seeking God, away from His friendship, purpose and grace. They can be named and tamed but never destroyed. They are always ready and willing to return and regain lost ground, looking for every opportunity to do so. The way to tame the ‘unclean spirit’ is not to stand still but to be always prepared to be moving on in faith understanding so as ‘to grow in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ’.
The early monastics in the desert understood this well, they realised that repentance was not a one-off event. They were ‘born again’ of the Spirit but still lived in the body of flesh as sinful people in a fallen world. The heart was still ‘deceitful above all things and desperately wicked’. Following the way of Christ was a daily struggle and paradoxically, in relation to the inner journey, we must be prepared to make constant war in order to obtain lasting peace. The saying ‘she is her own worst enemy’ is true of us all. However, the struggle itself is a sign of hope, because it means we are not content with mediocrity or with being ruled by our disordered passions.
In the light of this we can learn some lessons and the first is beware conviction without change. The true meaning of repentance is always seen in real change; to be able to say, ‘I am not the person I was’. The heart of the gospel means inner change is always possible. Recall in the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, where the promise of more Turkish Delight was enough for Edmund to betray his family and friends to the White Witch. But after meeting Aslan Edmund changed and they found a different person.
In our passage the ‘unclean spirit’ says, ‘I will return to the house I left’. The demons that attack the heart know the significance of understanding the nature of counter-attack. In football a team can dominate and be so much better than the opponent but in their attacking and dominance they leave gaps and are more than ever open to counter attack. Indeed it is because of their dominance that this is so. They can end up a goal down or even lose a game because they weren’t defending well, even though they were the better team.
So we need to be vigilant in order to make sure that if ‘the unclean spirit’ seeks to return, it doesn’t find the place the same as before, or worse, swept, clean, and in order but empty. At best this can mean little growth, a standing still, at worst it can mean you are ‘unoccupied, swept and clean’ and therefore ripe for capture. This is because much religious conviction is morality but without the mysticism, i.e. people want the rewards of religion so as to feel that they are on higher moral ground than before, but don’t always become people personally and authentically ‘in love with God’. More of an interest in – 7 steps to this… 3 ways to that…
This is why an initial encounter with religion often helps people give up ‘drugs, sex, and rock and roll’, indeed I’ve known personally many people who gave up humiliating defilements (being possessed by an addictive pattern) but did not progress to seeking God for Himself and inevitably when the initial fervour wears off they fall by the wayside.
The second lesson is beware lest Faith becomes mere Formula resulting in a behaviourism that is centred in the self and not in God. This shows itself in many different ways as the human ego cannot bear the burden of its own impurity and emptiness, so it ‘Goes off and collects seven other spirits more evil than itself’ and gathers demons like smugness, denial, certainty, false religion, self righteousness, pride, and delusion to cover its exposure.
The psychological word for this is ‘defence mechanism’. The AA word is ‘denial’ as the false self, exposed to its own emptiness, seeks endless disguises to avoid ever being discovered or threatened again. It does not want to be ‘occupied’ by anyone but itself. We end up in pretence, wearing masks and having a spiritual veneer. This is why intentional vulnerability is part of our Rule of Life so that things are seen ‘exactly as they are’.
It can also be more subtle because although a ‘no growth/no change’ position through entrenchment, i.e. a standing still through a fundamentalism that says, ‘This is the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth’ and we have it’, wouldn’t be something associated with people in our Community, it can also be through attachments – bypath meadow, a focus on the attachment rather than on life. As we’ve said, this can be subtle as it centres on good things in themselves, e.g. reading and study; hobbies like photography; the need to plan in detail, working it all out in order; we will all have our own danger areas. Something that motivates you and brings you pleasure and you begin to live for that rather than the mundane ordinariness of life’s reality, so that more and more time, energy and commitment is spent on a narrow focus that inevitably results in neglect of the many other important areas needed for spiritual growth.
So beware conviction without change and faith becoming a formula as this opens the door to major spiritual problems. ‘They go in and live there and the person ends up being worse than he was before’ which is why Jesus reminds us of this sobering truth – that the presence of defilement or deceit or pride in our lives, may not be as dangerous as our not filling the vacuum that is created by them leaving, with the goodness and grace of God.
This is one of those key insights that was a constant emphasis in Jesus whole ministry, that a negative religion dominated by ‘Thou shalt not’ is never enough. It may be able to empty us of wrong but unless we also replace it with the right then we are clean but empty. Life becomes cold, legalistic, and Pharisaical. Unclean, unhealthy habits must be replaced by the cultivation of wholesome habits. How?
Matthew 12.43-45 – CONCLUSIONS
Two fold and very simple.
The first is awareness – ‘Unawareness is the root of all evil’ said the Desert Fathers who were afraid of a purely fanciful spirituality that was quite unrelated to human reality. Notice the key word ‘empty/unoccupied’. ‘On arrival, it finds it unoccupied, swept, and clean. This surely points to the person’s unawareness, not living inside themselves. They are split. No one is dwelling there; you are not at home in your own heart.
This is the outworking of our vocation – not only to know where we belong but also to actually live there, in our hearts – with Jesus. As Henri Nouwen wrote in Reaching Out – more often than not we have an address but we can’t be found there, we are pulled in so many directions, and live as if we are homeless, never resting, uncomfortable, resentful, feeling abused.
Kallistos Ware, ‘Unless there is a still centre in the middle of the storm, unless a person in the midst of all their activities preserves a secret room in their heart, where they can be alone before God, then they will lose all sense of spiritual direction, and be torn to pieces.’
This is why they made much of ‘Going to your cell’ as this was and is intended to bring you face to face with yourself, your real needs, your strengths and weaknesses, self-knowledge and realism. And of course this will lead us to acknowledge and accept that spiritual warfare is a constant for all of us, that malign spirits are always seeking avenues in and out of our heart, mind, and will, seeking to influence what we feel, think and do. We must always be on our guard as 1Peter 5.8 puts it, ‘Be self controlled and alert. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour’. Resist him, standing firm in the faith.’
The second is activity – ‘Pay attention to yourself’, so as to cultivate habits of virtue. As Proverbs 4:23 reminds us, ‘Above all else, guard your heart, for it is the wellspring of life.’ And Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount concluded that wise people who build their lives on solid rock rather than sand are those who not only hear his words but also ‘put them into practise.’
Idleness is a devil’s dream. Passive, empty and bored means you are ripe for capture. So the only way to defeat this is activity that draws you to God – developing a praxis, rhythm, pattern, focus and refocus on God and the means of grace. The heart needs tending and weeding in order to cultivate that which is good and root out that which is bad and it is a daily activity centred in staying ordinary and an awareness of your own story, who you are, filling your heart with the riches of your own life and experiences.
I remember a story about a drunk, trying to give up the booze, who just couldn’t pass a pub. The smell, the noise of camaraderie was too much for him and he gave in and went in for a drink. Then one day, approaching the pub, he saw a sign in the window of a café advertising ‘All the milk you can drink, only £1’ – he went into the café and afterwards passed the pub with no ill effect – he was so full of milk he didn’t have room for anything else.
The monastic movement teaches us to ‘build up habits of virtue’ by memorising Scripture, cultivating inner resources and spiritual disciplines so that when unforeseen circumstances come, we are not caught out or overwhelmed. It’s a bit like learning to drive – what is very difficult for us at first, like changing gear or reversing – with practise almost becomes second nature to us.
We can lay a good foundation by building up our Christian memory and the principal means is through meditation, the basic meaning of which is ‘rehearsal’. All we learn and apply through meditation on nature and human nature, theology and life, is a rehearsal for those unforeseen circumstances we meet on the road of life.
Our Community ethos with its emphasis on contemplative awareness, daily liturgy, going to your cell, reading and reflecting on Scripture and books that nourish the heart as well as stretch the mind, all help build up Christian memory. These ‘habits of virtue’ become a resource bank from which we can draw daily as well as in the emergencies of life.
We can all do this in some measure because it isn’t quantity that matters but quality, although we do need to know more than the basics. A driver who only knows how to turn left will not get very far. Most of us know there is a world of difference between knowing how to pass a driving test and the day-by-day growth in confidence that is only learned through the actual experience and constant practise in driving in all conditions. This is why Scripture exhorts us to ‘Be very careful, then, how you live – not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity’. (Ephesians 5: 15-16)
We have only one world and it is God’s and He loves the world so much, he sent His Son to redeem it. We must live in this world (to paraphrase Eugene Peterson) as those who bring out the God flavours and the God colours. We do this by being Available and Vulnerable in bringing together the Church and the world.
Much of the Church’s attitude to the world is to correct it, rescue people from its evil influence, and defend itself from it. And Yes, we need to be aware of the principalities and powers that can suck us into the –isms of a godless life, consumerism, secularism, pluralism, materialism, hedonism, individualism etc. but our main task is to be an expression of Jesus Christ to others in every sphere open to us.
The Spirit of Jesus is the exact opposite of the spirit of uncleanness. He lives in such a way that he is not beholding to or dependent on power, prestige, or possessions. This was the victory of His temptation in the wilderness. The amazing way of Jesus is to enter into solidarity with sin and pain to unlock it from within. His Spirit does not try to separate from the sinful world, but instead he accepts it, weeps over it, and forgives it. Instead of hating it, he absorbs it and defeats it by grace, overcomes it with love. This is the meaning of the Cross – to be lived out in daily life.
A good example of this needed awareness and activity is summed up in Henri Nouwen ‘s subtitle to his book Reaching Out. He called it ‘the three movements of the spiritual life’, and describes it as a constant ‘reaching out’ in the midst of paradox and chaos to three areas of connectedness. He writes about:
1] Connecting in relation to self – From loneliness to solitude. That is, having a courageous honesty to our inmost selves, in facing inner restlessness, our passions and weaknesses.
2] Connecting in relation to others – From hostility to hospitality. That is, having a relentless care towards others, despite our mixed feelings and hostility.
3] Connecting in relation to God – From illusion to prayer. That is, having a discipline of increasing prayer to God, facing our doubts, disappointments and darkness. Living in the reality of what is, aware of spiritual warfare but unafraid to be who we are.
It is the call ‘to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, strength’.
‘to love our neighbour as ourselves’
‘to love one another as Christ has loved us’.
Let’s ponder these things in our hearts.