In one part of the rite for hallowing water in the Orthodox baptismal service, we read the following: “The priest then blesses the water by dipping the fingers of his right hand into it and tracing the Sign of the Cross three times. He breathes on the water and says: ‘Let all adverse powers be crushed beneath the sign of the image of Your Cross. We pray You, O God, that every aerial and obscure phantom may withdraw itself from us, and that no demon of darkness may conceal itself in this water, and that no evil spirit which instils darkening of intentions and rebelliousness of thought may descend into it with him/ her who is about to be baptized.’”
The prayer on goes on for some length. These words are not the central part of the long prayer for hallowing the water prior to baptism, nor even the most important part. But they are the words I would like to focus upon here, for they represent a completely different view of matter than the one taken for granted by most people in our secular society and possibly even by many Christians.
In our secular understanding, matter is diametrically opposite to spirit and is radically incompatible with it. Matter is tangible, measurable, touchable, and subject to scientific experiment. For many people, matter alone is real, and spirit (whatever that may mean) is unreal or at least less real. For many people, the term “spirit” describes the value one ascribes to things, persons, practices, or events, and this value is subjective and individualistic. Thus one speaks of “the spirit of the Olympics”—i.e. the attitude of friendly competition between nations. When one says, “That’s the spirit!”, one is commending a certain enthusiastic attitude. And if one happens to believe in such spirits as angels or demons, one believes that these unseen beings have little to do with the world of matter, but exist along side of physical things. Matter is self-contained, static, separate from and impervious to the realm of spirit.
That is why the words of the prayer cited above can sound so jarring to modern ears and modern sensibilities. The prayer presupposes that a spirit can somehow indwell, inhabit, and suffuse matter such as water, so that the water needs to be exorcised before it can be used. And it is not just the Byzantine rite representing the Christian East that makes this assumption. The assumption was universal in the early Church. Thus we read in the western Roman Ritual, the prayer for the exorcism of salt and of water before both are combined in the making of Holy Water: “O salt, creation of God, I exorcise you by the living God, by the holy God, by the God who ordered you to be poured into the water by Elisha the prophet. I exorcise you so you may become a means of salvation for believers…O water, creation of God, I exorcise you in the Name of the Father Almighty, and in the Name of Jesus Christ His Son our Lord, and in the power of the Holy Spirit. I exorcise you so that you may put to flight all the power of the enemy…” By these prayers one sees that the Church, East and West, did not consider matter to be neutral, self-contained, or impervious to spiritual influence. Matter could be suffused with spirit. We remember what C.S. Lewis said about matter and time: “There is no neutral ground in the universe: every square inch, every split second, is claimed by God and counterclaimed by Satan”.
The Church stands with all the ancients on this side of the great divide regarding matter’s susceptibility to spirit. Some pagans, for example, felt that dryads somehow inhabited the oak trees, so that the oak trees were not merely wood, but contained a spiritual component as well.
Jewish tradition also intuited a connection between the physical and the spiritual. The Talmud contains a saying that “Every blade of grass has an angel that bends over it and whispers, ‘Grow! Grow!’” In 2 Edras 8:22 we read that at God’s command, angels are changed to wind and fire. This latter is probably based on the Septuagint rendering of Psalm 104:4. In the original Hebrew, the text described how God makes the winds [ruchoth/ pneumata] His messengers [malakim/ aggelous] and flames of fire (i.e. lightning) His servants—in other words, He uses for the forces of nature for His own purposes. This was understood by the Septuagint (and later by the writer of Hebrews 1:7) to say that God makes His angels into winds, and His servants into flames of fire.
The Book of Enoch, a composite work dating from the inter-testamental period (and cited by Jude in his Epistle), speaks of a spirit of thunder and lightning, a spirit of the sea, a spirit of hoar-frost, a spirit of snow, a spirit of mist, a spirit of rain, “for there is a measure for the rain, and the angels take it in charge” (Enoch, 60:22). It seems that for the writer of the Book of Enoch, each of these physical realities had an angelic spirit overseeing its function. It is not necessary to accept all the particulars of this extra-canonical book despite its use by Jude. But like the Talmud, 2 Esdras, and the writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews, the Book of Enoch witnesses to a conviction, held throughout the ancient world, that matter is not self-contained, but possesses an inner dynamic openness to spiritual forces.
The sacramental tradition of the Church accepts this and presupposes it. The Church regards all matter as potentially spirit-bearing, and as capable of being suffused either by an evil spirit or by the Spirit of God. We see this latter in the (admittedly rare) phenomenon of myrrh-streaming and miraculous icons. But all icons are in some measure Spirit-bearing, and transmitters of divine grace, as are the Cross, and holy relics. That is why the faithful venerate icons, the Cross, and relics, expecting a blessing from God through physical contact with Spirit-bearing matter. In the same way, through prayer water becomes a transmitter of grace as Holy Water, and is used for protection against evil and for the blessing of other objects.
The most common and obvious example of the Church’s conviction that matter can become Spirit-bearing is in its sacramental Mysteries. Water (as we have seen from the baptismal prayer cited above) becomes the instrument of the Holy Spirit to bestow the new birth and the remission of sins upon those who come to baptism. Oil becomes the instrument whereby the Spirit is bestowed upon the newly-baptized in Holy Chrismation. Bread and Wine becomes the instruments of the Spirit as they are transformed for us into the Body and Blood of Christ. Our own bodies can be indwelt by the Spirit of God (1 Corinthians 6:19). Is it so difficult then to imagine that all matter can be similarly indwelt and suffused?
The Church also acknowledges the ubiquity of demonic influence, and that the physical world is suffused with and contaminated by the work of demonic spirits—hence the prayers of exorcism of water in the Byzantine rite of baptism and the Roman Ritual prayers of the exorcism of salt and water. To quote Lewis again, every square inch of the universe is counterclaimed by Satan, and so the Church wrests the world of matter from his grip to offer the creation back to God. Like the concept of matter being open to spiritual influence, this concept of demonic contamination of the world is deeply alien to modern secular thought. Nonetheless, it was presupposed by the Fathers, and so became a staple in the Church’s liturgical tradition.
The roots of this concept are found in the New Testament. Mention of the tyrannous rule of Satan and demonic forces is found throughout the epistles. The whole world lies in the grip of the Evil One (1 John 5:19). Satan is the god of this world (2 Corinthians 4:4). The atmosphere is full of the demonic, like a kind of spiritual air pollution, so that Paul can speak of “the world rulers of this present darkness, the spiritual armies of wickedness in the heavenly places”, and of Satan being “the prince of the power of the air” (Ephesians 6:12, 2:2). So ingrained was this understanding of the air around us being contaminated by the demonic that St. Athanasius wrote that Christ died lifted up on the Cross “to purify the air to make a way for us up to heaven…for being thus lifted up He cleansed the air from all the evil influences of the enemy” (On the Incarnation, chapter 25).
What does all this mean for us today? I suggest two things.
First of all it means that between the Church and the world, “a great gulf has been fixed”, making Christians different from their secular friends and deeply alien to modern secular thought. This conceptual difference regarding the demonic and susceptibility of matter to spiritual influence is only one example of how profoundly the post-Enlightenment West has departed from its roots. We Christians will never fit in any more, and we should cease trying. We now define ourselves over against the society in which we live. How much this difference impacts upon our quality of life (or, in blunter terms, how much we will be persecuted) remains to be seen.
Secondly, it means that Christians must remain spiritually vigilant. While it is true that secular society will become increasingly uncomfortable for us, the secular people in it are not our enemy. Our true enemies remain the principalities and powers of which St. Paul warned us in Ephesians 6:12f. Our struggle with our uncomprehending and hostile neighbours is as nothing compared to our struggle with the demons.
This does not mean that we Christians should become paranoid (although I can’t help thinking of the dictum of Dr. Johnny Fever of WKRP: “When everyone’s out to get you, paranoia is just good sense”). We do not look suspiciously and nervously behind every rock to find demons there. In one sense, demons are like germs: we know they are everywhere and can hurt us, but we don’t fixate on them. If one does fixate on germs, it is recognized as pathological. We just remember to wash our hands. It is the same with the demons: we needn’t fixate on them. We just remember to say our prayers, and walk in righteousness and repentance. Our attention is not on the Enemy. It is on the Lord.