The Gospel reading today was the healing of the Gerasene demoniac. It’s an episode full of striking details, this one, for example: “Night and day…he was always crying out and bruising himself with stones.” When he cries out, is it the possessed person crying out in pain and horror, or is it the possessor[s] making themselves heard? Or is it some third option — does the mismatch between the body and its animating principle somehow cause the body itself to cry out as an autonomous response? Does he bruise himself with stones because the possessor wishes to cause pain, or because the possessed is trying to free himself by damaging his possessor, or again, for some third, unknown reason? Who knows the mechanics of possession?
One reason the episode is so weird is that it seems to give some insight into the subjectivity of the evil spirits themselves. “They pleaded with him, ‘Send us into the swine. Let us enter them.'” I have always connected this with the impure spirit mentioned in Matthew 12:43: “When an impure spirit comes out of a person, it goes through arid places seeking rest and does not find it”. What and where are these “arid places”? Is it a description of the torments of hell, or something else? Are they “arid” because, for an evil spirit, the possession of a physical host slakes some horrible thirst, even if the host is merely animal?
And then, if the demons are so set on possessing SOMEbody, ANYbody, why is it that the first thing they do is to make those pigs [presumably] unpossessable by driving them off the cliff? Are they stupid? Maybe the pigs did it by themselves, because the pain of possession was intolerable? Or maybe the demons are in such a frenzy of irrational malice that there just isn’t a good reason for what they do? Even we humans know something about that: I know that on my darkest days I have tasted such a hellish interior chaos that I was no longer capable of making rational decisions. Is that what it feels like to be damned?
I don’t have answers to any of these questions, and the Gospel doesn’t answer them for us, either. If the author had any explanation for the things he saw, he doesn’t offer it. What the passage does do — and I think this is the reason I find it so striking — is to suddenly open up, as by a flash of lightning, a vista that is utterly foreign, utterly vast, and utterly beyond our comprehension. It shows us that the cosmos is larger than we prefer to imagine, and that the corner of it that we understand is very small indeed.
It’s the spiritual equivalent of lying on the grass and looking upwards into a very dark sky; or floating in the ocean and looking to where the water below you fades from green to inscrutable black; and suddenly feeling just how out of your depth you are.