Thomas Aquinas on Lent II
My daughter is grievously vexed with a devil. (St. Matt. xv. 22)
MORALLY by this demoniac is understood a sinful soul and here are noted two evils which a man acquires through deadly sin. The first is, that he is possessed by a devil; the second is, that he is grievously vexed.
Every literal historical fact of Scripture can be understood on a higher plane, as allegorical or spiritual in meaning. The Gospel for the Second Sunday in Lent is no exception. A Syrophoenician woman approaches Jesus. This woman is a stranger and foreigner to Israel’s promises. She is considered unclean and beyond the pale of the salvation that God promises to Israel. She knows nothing about the nature of relating to the one true living God of the Jews. Her daughter is ‘grievously vexed by a devil’. Foreigners are those whom we think cannot be sanctified and saved by God’s Grace. Unclean people are notorious sinners –drug addicts, alcoholics, prostitutes, poor people who are poor by no one’s fault by their own, all of whom are beyond the pale of God’s Grace. Ignorant pagans are likewise beyond the pale. They all might just as well be possessed. But, if we are Christians, so too might we. Mortal sin has possessed all of us. Or it might be more accurate to say, in it the devil has possessed us. In it the devil torments us also, that is if we recognize that we are possessed.
I. On the first head it is to be noted, that a sinful soul possesses seven devils.
The noonday devil is the plague that strikes at noonday. Man is able to resist it by steadfast reliance upon God’s Grace. Man can resist the noonday devil when he ‘dwelleth under the defense of the Most High…and abideth under the shadow of the Almighty.’ (Ps. xci.) The plague that strikes at noonday is the sin of sloth, acedia, lethargy, or spiritual fatigue. A restless sentiment of ingratitude and discontent leads the soul to need to know more, know too much, and know what it is not necessary to know. The excessive desire for knowledge leads to that kind of despair that renders a man incapable of faithfully serving God.
Excessive greed or covetousness can lead a man to the possession of too much, which in turn means that he is possessed by an excess of the wrong things. Avarice leads a man to hoard mammon. In turn, mammon possesses the avaricious man. The greedy or covetous man is unable to hear the language of God and thus is dumb and cannot proclaim the goodness of the Lord.
Asmodeus desires Sarah, Raguel’s daughter, and slays seven of her husbands. Tobias causes him to flee to Egypt where Raphael binds him and renders him impotent. The excessive desire to rule others and to usurp God’s power to judge them is a diabolical possession in which a man longs to be as God and to dominate others through human power, influence, and appeal.
Excessive desire for carnal pleasures possesses a man and renders him blind and dumb. He cannot see the difference between the creature and the Creator. He worships the creature. The creature becomes his god and thus he is blinded and can no longer see God. He is unable to see and know the truth. His soul is darkened by the dominating powers of lust. Sincere love is lost. He is dumb and thus cannot speak the language of true love with sincerity.
Excessive irritation at another’s man’s success or accomplishment, borne of envy, possesses a man and moves him to violent anger and retribution. The cruelty of doing harm to others is a fierce devil. It has moved beyond the realm of evil thoughts into evil deeds against one’s neighbor. Those possessed with anger and fury might be truly beyond their capacity to know their sins. Others have moved into the possession by a long and established accommodation to envious vice and ensuing rage.
Excessive detraction and distraction amount to sewing discord, disrupting, and dividing. The detractor is possessed by the need to divide people from God. The distractor detracts the Saints of God away from receiving God’s blessings with gratitude. The detractor exaggerates evils in the world and in the lives of others. The divider imputes false sins and inaccurate vices to others.
Desperation is an expression of despair. To be possessed by despair means usually that a man does not hope in the effectual operation of God’s healing goodness. Desperation leads men to embrace all kinds of temporal solutions to their spiritual problems. Desperation leads men to abandon Jesus Christ because they have not found sufficient evidence of Grace operating in their lives.
Today, dear friends, let us examine our hearts through the study of these vices. Let us ask ourselves if we are in any way sinning in the ways that St. Thomas Aquinas describes. Possession might be glaringly obvious in our lives. Or possession might be subtle and nearly imperceptible. Desperation, detraction, violence, carnal pleasures, manipulation, avarice, and sloth afflict us all. Let us examine our souls and confess our complicity in these sins. Amen.
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