"Afrighten'd fly hell's spirits back in throngs.
Down they sink in the deep abyss, to endless night,
Despairing, cursing rage attends their rapid fall."
- Haydn's Creation.
Devils and demons have been removed from contemporary life. They have become a topic that is far too uncouth to remain within a sophisticated world and they are banished to the realms of superstition and Hollywood. Maybe that is a good thing. For many of us the idea of small horned creatures or frightening goat-like monsters that threaten and torment is the only image we have of devils. May I propose a revision of that imagery?
Demons still prowl our earth this day. Listen to the language we use to describe criminals, unpopular politicians and other heretics of the world community. We describe them as evil, foul, horrific or cruel. The language we use conjures up the same fear as demons did to those who lived in the middle ages. In the world of mass media there are forces out there presented to us as people to fear and dread. These are the new demons of our society. They are not horned creatures, but they are demons nonetheless.
Hell's throngs exist today in vilified nations, multinational companies and religious groups that are unlike our own. Fear of great companies, industries, governments and even other faiths has left many of us suffering from a paranoiac idea that there are forces out there intent on destroying us. Most of these fears are unfounded. Conspiracy theories, which we sometimes call urban folklore, tell us that fundamentalists and monopolies are trying to take over our world and inflict a new reign of terror on us all, a world of alienation, our living hell. Hell then becomes as much a reality for us today as it was to St Augustine.
Possession exists today as well. Like the other manifestations of evil mentioned above, it has also changed its accidents. Modern possessions are much more subtle than they used to be. "It is not I who have done this, it is the spirit of my past working through me." How often have crimes and wrongdoing been blamed on the history of the actor? The idea that some force within us causes us to do harm is of course an attractive notion. It removes all personal blame and culpability, it places these on a force beyond our control. The devil made me do it! We are possessed by the demons of our own past.
Modern demons have the power of absolution. They are hostile to our doing what is right, they impede our free will and rational action, they make us do wrong to each other, but it's not our fault. It is the demon working through us and that absolves us as we claim: "I am a victim of my own past!" Does being a victim of my own past give me the right to make new victims in the present who in turn will make more victims to harm others in the future? At what point is it appropriate to call the exorcist?
The sad thing for us is that we are often unaware of how crude our modern concepts really are. When we hear the story of the Syro-Phoenician woman who came to Jesus and asked that her daughter be exorcised we may miss its value. The wisdom of our age would explain the daughter's possession with a different language - maybe attention deficiency disorder, maybe schizophrenia, maybe a "cry for help". Whatever form the girl's possession took, she asked to be freed of it and Christ rewarded her hope for freedom by granting her request.
So the demons of yesteryear are with us today. Language has changed and evolved but we remain like people caught on some infernal merry-go-round; the music plays, the carousel turns and we sing along. Somebody may start a new song, we join in, but the carousel keeps turning, and turns again and again and again. Sometimes a brave person may try to alight; the Syro-Phoenician woman was one of these. A new created world springs up, springs up at God's command.