Сan Demons Read Human Thoughts? Ask the Holy Fathers

Originally appeared at: Третий Рим

Demons: should we be afraid of them? Do demons read human thoughts?

– The Monk John Cassian the Roman writes about this. Demons do not know a person’s thoughts, but they certainly know the thoughts that they themselves inspired in that person. Again, they cannot know whether we accepted these thoughts or not, but they guess this from our actions.

Let's say they instilled in a person a lustful thought, and he began to look at a person of the opposite sex: yeah, that means he accepted it. They instilled a thought of anger, the man became flushed, began waving his fists, which means he accepted it again. After all, if we, looking at our interlocutor, can guess whether he agrees with us or not, then even more so can demons guess this.

As for thoughts from God or some natural ones, they can guess about them from our behavior, but they cannot know them exactly.

When I am at prayer alone and in the dark, I am very scared: it seems that someone is standing behind me or that in my peripheral vision I see some kind of movement near me. How to deal with this obsession?

“This comes from cowardice and lack of faith.” When a person is in solitude, praying or reading spiritual literature, demons naturally hate this and try to confuse and distract him from prayer. And he must try to behave completely freely, boldly, and despise any suggestions. When it seems like you are seeing something out of the corner of your eye, don’t attach any importance to it. If you give in to these suggestions of the enemy, then he will press you more and more. And don’t look with peripheral vision: oh, it seems like someone is standing behind my left shoulder! And just turn there and see that in fact there is no one there.

The ascetics despised demons, even when they appeared to them in person, in some form. For example, the Monk Filaret Glinsky told about himself: one day, when he was standing in his cell rule, some kind of cat suddenly appeared and climbed up his mantle onto his shoulder. He did not pay attention to her, continued to pray, and she disappeared.

And to us, as we are weak, no one will appear, we will only waste our strength on empty experiences. It’s scary - cross yourself, and that’s it, nothing more. If you are afraid, avoid all dark corners, then the fear will increase, increase and master you to such an extent that you will sneeze and shudder in horror.

In addition, we must always remember that without God’s permission nothing can happen to us, and the Lord will never allow temptations beyond our strength. You need to be afraid of demons, but in what sense? Be afraid so as not to succumb to their suggestions, not to fulfill their will and not to turn out to be enemies of God with them. And if we try to live according to the Gospel, if we are devoted to the Lord with all our souls, then no one is afraid of us. As the Apostle Paul says, “If God is for us, who can be against us?”

The devil is a being that God created good, kind, and light-bearing (the Greek word “Eosphoros” and the Latin “Lucifer” mean “light-bearer”). As a result of resistance to God, the divine will and divine Providence, the light-bearer fell away from God. Since then, the fall of the light-bearer and some of the angels from God, evil appeared in the world. It was not created by God, but was introduced by the free will of the devil and demons.

People often ask: why did God allow evil? Isn't it at least indirectly God's fault that evil was brought into the world? It is difficult to answer this question. The Church offers us a teaching that we must accept on faith, but which the human mind is not able to comprehend. The only thing that can be said to explain this teaching is that let us look at ourselves and judge by ourselves.
Each of us is a being created in the image and likeness of God. We are aware of this, and we are also aware of what our religious calling is. And yet, we often find ourselves not on the side of God, but on the side of the devil, and we make our choice not in favor of good, but in favor of evil. Something similar happened with the devil himself: created good and luminous, he voluntarily chose evil and became the enemy of God.

Having fallen away from God, the devil and demons became carriers of evil. Does this mean that the connection between them and God has been broken? No. There has been a personal relationship between God and the devil, which continues to this day. We can see this from the opening pages of the Book of Job, where it is said that the devil appeared before God along with the angels, among other “sons of God,” and the Lord said to him: “Have you paid your attention to My servant Job?” (Job 1:8).
If I can put it this way, with this question God provokes the devil to take certain actions towards Job. And Satan says: “Yes, indeed Job is righteous, faithful to You, but this is because You created such conditions for him; change these conditions, and he will fall, like other people fall.” To this the Lord answered him that he was giving him his body Job, but forbids touching his soul. Some understand this story as a parable, others as a real story, but the essence of the matter is that, according to the Bible, the devil, firstly, is dependent on God and is not free in his actions, secondly, he acts only within the limits within which God allows him to do so.

What should be the attitude of a Christian towards the devil?

Today we see two extremes. On the one hand, among modern Christians there are many who do not believe in the reality of the devil at all, who do not believe in his ability to influence their lives. Some people think that the devil is a mythical creature in which world evil is personified. On the other hand, there are many people who attach an exaggerated importance to the devil, who are convinced that the devil influences all aspects of a person’s life, and see his presence everywhere. Such believers are constantly afraid that the forces of the devil will somehow affect them.

On this basis, there are many superstitions, from which even church people are not free. Many “folk remedies” have been invented that would prevent Satan from penetrating a person. For example, some people, when yawning, cross their mouth so that the devil does not enter through it. Others manage to cross their mouth three times in one yawn.
I have heard conversations about how an angel sits on our right shoulder and a demon on our left: making the sign of the cross, we cross ourselves from right to left, throwing the angel from our right shoulder to our left, so that he can fight the demon and defeat him (Accordingly, Catholics who cross themselves from left to right transfer the demon to the angel). This may seem funny and absurd to some, but there are people who believe in it. And, unfortunately, these are not jokes, but real conversations that can be heard in some monasteries, seminaries, and parishes. People who think this way live in the belief that their whole life is permeated by the devil’s presence.
I once heard a hieromonk, a graduate of a theological academy, teach believers: when you get up in the morning, before you put your feet into your slippers, cross your slippers, because there is a demon in each of them. With such an attitude, the whole life turns into torture, because it is all permeated with fear, the constant fear that a person will be “spoilt”, jinxed, that evil spirits will be brought upon him, etc. All this has nothing in common with the Christian attitude towards the devil .

To understand what a truly Christian attitude towards the devil should be, we must turn, firstly, to our worship, to the sacraments, and, secondly, to the teaching of the Holy Fathers. The sacrament of Baptism begins with spells addressed to the devil: the meaning of these spells is to drive out the devil nesting in the heart of a person.
Then the newly baptized person, together with the priest and recipients, turns to the west. The priest asks: “Do you renounce Satan, and all his works, and all his army, and all his pride?” He answers three times: “I renounce.” The priest says: “Blow and spit on him.” This is a symbol that contains a very deep meaning. “Blow and spit on him” means “treat the devil with contempt, do not pay attention to him, he deserves nothing more.”

In patristic, and in particular monastic, literature, the attitude towards the devil and demons is characterized by calm fearlessness - sometimes even with a touch of humor. You can recall the story of Saint John of Novgorod, who saddled a demon and forced him to take him to Jerusalem. I also remember a story from the life of Anthony the Great. Travelers came to him after walking for a long time through the desert, and on the way their donkey died of thirst.
They come to Anthony, and he says to them: “Why didn’t you save the donkey?” They ask in surprise: “Abba, how do you know?” - to which he calmly replies: “The demons told me.” All these stories reflect a truly Christian attitude towards the devil: on the one hand, we recognize that the devil is a real a being, a bearer of evil, but, on the other hand, we understand that the devil acts only within the limits established by God, and will never be able to transgress these limits; moreover, a person can take control of the devil and manage him.

In the prayers of the Church, in liturgical texts and in the works of the Holy Fathers, it is emphasized that the power of the devil is illusory. In the devil’s arsenal there are, of course, various means and methods with which he can influence a person, he has vast experience in all kinds of actions aimed at harming a person, but he can only use it if the person allows him to do so . It is important to remember that the devil cannot do anything to us unless we ourselves open an entrance for him - a door, a window, or at least a crack through which he will enter.

Let me give you an example of an incident that happened ten years ago. An elderly woman, a literature teacher, approached me. In some newspaper she read that with the help of a needle, a sheet of paper and special spells, you can summon the spirits of the dead and talk with them. She decided to summon the spirit of Chekhov. And, imagine, “Chekhov” appeared to her. At first everything was very interesting, she even invited guests and organized “literary evenings” in her apartment.
But then “Chekhov” began to appear without an invitation, damaging furniture, breaking dishes; returning home, the woman discovered that everything was turned upside down, the wallpaper was torn, etc. The whole family was in panic. The husband and children were afraid to return to their apartment . Life turned into hell, they were on the verge of suicide. Fortunately, the woman realized in time that she herself had let an unclean spirit into her apartment and now could not get rid of it. The whole family came to church. The first thing I told them: “You We must stop being afraid." Arriving at their place, I blessed the apartment, then they confessed and received communion. “Chekhov” was blown away by the wind.

This is one of the examples confirming that if a person opens the door to the devil through some actions such as magic, witchcraft, treatment by psychics, or through drug addiction, alcoholism and other forms of dependence, through grave sins that he commits consciously, the person becomes susceptible to influence of dark forces. If he firmly stands guard over his mind and heart, his morality, if he goes to church, confesses and receives communion, wears the holy cross, then he is not afraid of any demonic insurance.

The devil is well aware of his weakness and powerlessness. He understands that he has no real power to influence people. That is why he tries to persuade them to cooperate and assist. Having found a weak point in a person, he tries to influence it in one way or another, and often he succeeds. First of all, the devil wants us to fear him, thinking that he has real power. And if a person falls for this bait, he becomes vulnerable and subject to “demonic shooting,” that is, those arrows that the devil and demons shoot into a person’s soul.

Let me give you another example. One day a woman came to me with her daughter, a girl about eight years old. Some demonic creatures constantly appeared to the girl, frightened her, she saw them day and night. The girl confessed and received communion, nothing changed. It all started with the fact that in some monastery they bought a book about the devil. In this book it was said that if the devil attacks a person, he will never leave him alone, and there are no means of getting rid of him, except perhaps “chastising”, but this does not always help.
They, of course, were in shock from everything they experienced. I talked with the girl and asked her: “Are you afraid of them”? - “I’m afraid.” “And you can next time, as soon as they appear to you, tell them: “I’m not afraid of you, I don’t pay attention to you, I have my own life, you have yours, get out.” And live as if they don’t exist at all.” About a week later, the mother and daughter came again and said: “They have disappeared.” This means that the only means that Satan had in this case was fear. He wanted, by intimidating the child, to make him his victim.

We have to regret that books and brochures in which the role of the devil is exaggerated in every possible way are published and sold in church shops. This comes from ignorance, from spiritual insensitivity, from ignorance of the teachings of the Holy Fathers. The Orthodox teaching about the devil is expressed by St. John of Damascus in thirty lines. And our home-grown theologians write book after book about the devil and demons, intimidate the people of God, ruin people's lives.

The entrance to the devil into a person’s soul is opened, as I have already said, by magic, sorcery, and treatment by psychics and sorcerers. I do not claim that all psychics and so-called “traditional healers” act exclusively under the influence of demonic forces. But the overwhelming majority are people in whose hands forces and energies are concentrated, the nature of which they themselves do not know. Often, while healing one thing, they damage another thing. There were cases when a person got rid of headaches with their help, but at the same time became mentally ill. And the worst thing is that these “healers” make a person dependent on themselves, and any form of dependence is the very door through which one can penetrate the devil.
Drug, alcohol, sexual, mental and other forms of addiction pose a huge spiritual danger. Christians must take every possible care not to be dependent on anything in this life, in order to be as free as possible spiritually and physically. A person who controls his mind, his heart, his actions can always resist Satan. Anyone who finds himself a slave to any passion or vice becomes unable to repel the onslaught of the devil.

You may ask: how much is the devil able to influence our thoughts? How much does he even know what is going on in our thoughts and in our hearts? How competent is he in matters of spiritual life? I have formed the conviction - partly under the influence of what I read from the Holy Fathers, partly on the basis of personal observations - that the devil does not have direct knowledge of our internal processes. At the same time, being very experienced - he has dealt with billions of people throughout history and “worked” with each individual individually - he uses these skills and recognizes by external signs what is happening inside a person. And he looks for the most vulnerable places.
For example, when a person is despondent, it is very easy for the devil to influence him. But the only thing the devil is capable of is to give a person some sinful thought, for example, the thought of suicide. And he does this not because the inner world of a person, his heart, is open to him, but only focusing on external signs.
Having instilled some thoughts in a person, the devil is not able to control what will happen to them next. And if a person knows how to distinguish which thought came from God, which from his own human nature, and which from the devil, and reject sinful thoughts at their very appearance, the devil will not be able to do anything. The devil becomes stronger as a sinful or passionate thought penetrates the human mind.

The Holy Fathers have a teaching about the gradual and step-by-step penetration of sinful thoughts into the human soul. You can get acquainted with this teaching by reading the Philokalia or the Ladder of St. John of Sinai. The essence of this teaching is that a sinful or passionate thought initially appears only somewhere on the horizon of the human mind. And if a person, as the Fathers of the Church say, “stands guard over his mind,” he can reject this thought, “blow and spit” on it, and it will disappear. If a person becomes interested in a thought, begins to examine it, talk with it, it conquers more and more new territories in the person’s mind - until it covers his entire nature - soul, heart, body - and induces him to commit sin. .

The path to the devil and demons to the soul and heart of a person is opened by various kinds of superstitions. I would like to emphasize: faith is the exact opposite of superstition. The Church has always waged a tough fight against superstitions, precisely because superstition is a surrogate, a substitute for true faith. A true believer realizes that there is God, but there are also dark forces; he builds his life intelligently and consciously, is not afraid of anything, placing all his hope in God.
A superstitious person - out of weakness, or stupidity, or under the influence of some people or circumstances - replaces faith with a set of beliefs, signs, fears, which make up some kind of mosaic, which he takes for religious faith. We Christians must abhor superstitions in every possible way. We must treat every superstition with the same contempt with which we treat the devil: “Blow and spit on him.”

The devil’s entrance into a person’s soul also opens through sins. Of course we all sin. But sin is different. There are human weaknesses that we struggle with - what we call minor sins and try to overcome. But there are sins that, even if committed once, open the door through which the devil penetrates the human mind. Any conscious violation of the moral norms of Christianity can lead to this. If a person systematically violates, for example, the norms of married life, he loses spiritual vigilance, loses sobriety, chastity, that is, holistic wisdom that protects him from the attacks of the devil.

Moreover, any duality is dangerous. When a person, like Judas, begins, in addition to the basic value that forms the religious core of life, to cleave to other values, and his conscience, his mind and heart become divided, the person becomes very vulnerable to the actions of the devil.

I have already mentioned the so-called “discipline”. I would like to dwell in a little more detail on this phenomenon, which has deep historical roots. In the Ancient Church, as is known, there were exorcists - people whom the Church instructed to cast out demons from those possessed. The Church never perceived demonic possession as mental illness. We know from the Gospel many cases when a demon, several demons, or even a whole legion settled in a person, and the Lord, by His power, drove them out.
Then the work of expelling demons was continued by the apostles, and later by the very exorcists to whom the Church entrusted this mission. In subsequent centuries, the ministry of exorcists as a special ministry within the Church practically disappeared, but still there were (and still are) people who are engaged in driving out demons from the possessed, either on behalf of the Church or on their own initiative.

You need to know that, on the one hand, the possessed are a reality that the Church encounters in everyday life. Indeed, there are people in whom a demon lives, which has penetrated into them, as a rule, through their fault - because in one way or another they have opened access for it inside themselves. And there are people who, through prayer and special spells, similar to those that the priest reads before performing the sacrament of Baptism, cast out demons. But there are many abuses on the basis of “chastising”. I, ​​for example, saw two young hieromonks who, on their own initiative, were engaged in casting out demons from the possessed. Sometimes they provided this service to each other - one scolded the other for two hours. There was no visible benefit from this did not have.

There are cases when priests arbitrarily take on the role of exorcists, begin to attract demoniacs and create entire communities around themselves. I have no doubt that there are clergy who possess divine healing powers and are truly capable of casting out demons from people. But such clergy must have the official sanction of the Church. If a person undertakes such a mission on his own initiative, this is fraught with great dangers.

Once, in a private conversation, one fairly well-known exorcist, an Orthodox clergyman, around whom crowds of people gather, admitted: “I don’t know how this happens.” He told one of the visitors: “If you are not sure that you are truly possessed “It’s better not to come there, otherwise the demon can come out of another person and enter you.” As we see, even this well-known and respected exorcist did not fully understand the processes that occur on the basis of “reading,” and did not fully understand the “mechanics” of expelling demons from one person and their entry into another.

Often people with certain problems - mental or simply in life - come to the priest and ask if they can go to such and such an elder for a lecture. A woman once turned to me: “My fifteen-year-old son doesn’t listen to me, I want to take him to school.” The fact that your son is disobedient, I answered, does not mean that he has a demon. Disobedience to some extent is even natural for teenagers - through this they grow up and assert themselves.Reprimanding is not a panacea for life's difficulties.

It also happens that a person shows signs of mental illness, and loved ones see this as the influence of demons. Of course, a mentally ill person is more vulnerable to the action of demons than a spiritually and mentally healthy person, but this does not mean that he needs to be told off. A psychiatrist, not a priest, is needed to treat the mentally ill. But it is very important that the priest be able to distinguish between phenomena of a spiritual and mental order, so that he does not mistake mental illness for demonic possession. If he tries to heal mental defects by scolding, the result may be the opposite, exactly the opposite of what was expected. A person with an unbalanced psyche, finding himself in a situation where people are screaming, screaming, etc., can cause irreparable harm to his spiritual, mental and mental health.

In conclusion, I would like to say that the action, power and strength of the devil are temporary. For some time, the devil conquered from God a certain spiritual territory, a certain space in which he acts as if he were the master there. At the very least, he tries to create the illusion that there is an area in the spiritual world where he rules. Believers consider hell to be such a place, where people find themselves mired in sins, who have not repented, who have not taken the path of spiritual improvement, and who have not found God.
On Holy Saturday we will hear wonderful and very deep words that “hell reigns, but does not reign forever over the human race,” and that Christ, by His redemptive feat, His death on the cross and descent into hell, has already won victory over the devil - that very victory that will become final after His Second Coming. And hell, and death, and evil continue to exist, as they existed before Christ, but they have already signed a death sentence, the devil knows that his days are numbered (I'm not talking about his days as a living being, but about the power that he temporarily has).

“Hell reigns, but does not reign over the human race forever.” This means that humanity will not always be in the position in which it is now. And even those who find themselves in the kingdom of the devil, in hell, are not deprived of God’s love, because and God is present in hell. The Monk Isaac the Syrian called blasphemous the opinion that sinners in hell are deprived of the love of God. The love of God is present everywhere, but it acts in two ways: for those who are in the Kingdom of Heaven, it acts as a source of bliss, joy, inspiration, for those who are in the kingdom of Satan, it is a scourge, a source of torment.

We must also remember what is said in the Revelation of St. John the Theologian: the final victory of Christ over the Antichrist, good over evil, God over the devil, will be won. In the Liturgy of Basil the Great, we hear that Christ descended into hell by the Cross in order to destroy the kingdom of the devil and bring all people to God, that is, with His presence and thanks to His death on the cross, He permeated with Himself everything that we subjectively perceive as the kingdom of the devil. And in the stichera dedicated to the Cross of Christ, we hear: “Lord, Thy Cross has given us a weapon against the devil”; it also says that the Cross is “the glory of angels and the plague of demons,” this is a weapon before which demons tremble, “trembles.” and the devil trembles.

This means that we are not defenseless before the devil. On the contrary, God does everything to protect us as much as possible from the influence of Satan; He gives us His Cross, Church, sacraments, Gospel, Christian moral teaching, and the opportunity for constant spiritual improvement. He gives us periods such as Lent when we can pay special attention to spiritual life. And in this spiritual struggle of ours, in the struggle for ourselves, for our spiritual survival, God Himself is next to us, and He will be with us all the days until the end of the age.

* * *
The question naturally arises: why does God allow evil and the devil to act? Why does He allow evil? St. Augustine admitted that he was unable to answer this question: “I cannot penetrate into the depth of this decision and confess that it exceeds my strength,” he wrote. Having answered the question about the origin of evil, theology does not give a clear answer to the question of why God, not being the creator of evil, still allows it to act.
Speaking about this, the theological mind once again freezes before the mystery, unable to penetrate the depths of Divine destinies. As God says in the book of the prophet Isaiah,  “My thoughts are not your thoughts, and My ways are not your ways... But as the heavens are from the earth, so is My way from your ways, and your thoughts from My thoughts” (Is. 55 : 8-9, according to the LXX translation).

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