George Otis, Jr.: The Twilight Labyrinth
By jsolof on May 17, 2005
Why Does Spiritual Darkness Linger Where It Does?
The Library of Congress classifies Otis's book as follows: "1. Demonology. 2. Spiritual warfare. 3. Mythology -- Comparative studies. 4. Occultism -- Religious aspects -- Christianity. 5. Occultism -- Controversial literature." On the off chance that that doesn't sum it up for you, I would describe it as an exploration, from an evangelical Christian perspective, of the presence of persistent, localized evil: an analysis of why certain places are just bad places, that badness taking either more or less spiritual forms, from hauntings to high crime rates. There is, according to Otis, a rational explanation -- and moreover, a solution.
Humbly offered, here's my take, from an Orthodox perspective.
I have to say, I really liked the book, and with a few exceptions, our worldviews are extremely similar. In general, the world he describes -- in which demons, dark forces, and corrupt places and objects are matter-of-fact reality -- is the same world we would recognize as the world in which our spiritual battles take place, with the analogs on the divine side being angels, the grace of God, and holy places (Mt. Athos, churches, altars/sanctuaries) and holy objects (icons, crosses, relics, liturgical items). But Otis seems to shy away from such things. Admittedly, the rituals by which an icon is (properly) prepared seem somewhat parallel to the rituals by which pagan artifacts are prepared; i.e., with prayers, chants, and a liturgical service of dedication, culminating with the sprinkling of sanctified water. (Obviously there is no Christian analog to demonic possession of people, since obedience in Christ actually sets you free, rather than enslaves you.) These parallels would almost certainly give Otis the heebie-jeebies. But if he believes in the real badness of the one 'toolkit', I have trouble understanding his objection to embracing the real goodness of the other. Not every holy thing represents the syncretistic re-branding of a still quite unholy thing. More on this below.
Second, while the bibliography is chock full of reference works (I looked through all of them), there's not a single ancient Christian authority cited, no Orthodox (or perish the thought, Roman Catholic) saint or theologian, no spiritual texts from the first, say, 1,800 years of Christian spiritual warefare. How can this be? Monks and nuns, martyrs, clerics, and lay Christians, have fought these same forces for two thousand years, in many cases quite successfully. The lives of the saints are full of stories and examples of pagan temples falling at the prayers of holy men and women, idols smashing to dust, demons being defeated by the sign of the cross and the prayers of the faithful.
One of the best examples comes from the lives of the Bishop-martyr Cyprian, Virgin Martyr Justina and Martyr Theoctistus of Nicomedia, who perished in the year 304, and are commemorated on October 2:
St. Cyprian was a pagan and a native of Antioch. In early childhood he was given over by his misguided parents for service to the pagan gods. From age seven until thirty, Cyprian studied at the most outstanding centers of paganism: on Mount Olympus, in the cities of Argos and Tauropolis, in the Egyptian city of Memphis, and at Babylon. Once he attained eminent wisdom in pagan philosophy and the sorcerer's craft, he was consecrated into the pagan priesthood on Mount Olympus. Having discovered great power by summoning unclean spirits, he beheld the Prince of Darkness himself, and spoke with him and received from him a host of demons in attendance.
After returning to Antioch, Cyprian was revered by the pagans as an eminent pagan priest, amazing people by his ability to cast spells, to summon pestilence and plagues, and to conjure up the dead. The mighty pagan priest brought many people to ruin, teaching them magic spells and service to demons.
In Antioch there lived a Christian, the virgin Justina. After turning her own father and mother away from pagan error and leading them to the true faith in Christ, she dedicated herself to the Heavenly Bridegroom and spent her time in fasting and prayer, remaining a virgin. When the youth Aglaides proposed marriage to her, the saint refused. Agalides turned to Cyprian and sought his help for a magic spell to charm Justina into marriage. But no matter what Cyprian tried, he could accomplish nothing, since the saint by her prayers and fasting overcame all the wiles of the devil.
By his spells Cyrian set loose demons upon the holy virgin, trying to arouse fleshly passions in her, but she dispelled them by the power of the Sign of the Cross and by fervent prayer to the Lord. Even one of the demonic princes and Cyprian himself, assuming various guises by the power of sorcery, were not able to sway St. Justina, who was guarded by her firm faith in Christ. All the spells dissipated, and the demons fled at the mere look or even name of the saint. Cyprian, in a rage, sent down pestilence and plague upon the family of Justina and upon all the city, but this was thwarted by her prayer. Cyprian's soul, corrupted by its domination over people and by its incantations, was shown in all the depth of its downfall, and also the abyss of nothingness of the evil that he served.
"If you take fright at even the mere shadow of the Cross and the Name of Christ makes you tremble," said Cyprian to Satan, "then what will you do when Christ Himself stands before you?" The devil then flung himself upon the pagan priest who was in the process of repudiating him, and began to beat and strangle him. St. Cyrian then first tested for himself the power of the Sign of the Cross and the Name of Christ, guarding himself from the fury of the enemy. Afterwards, with deep repentance he went to the local Bishop Anthimus and threw all of his books into the flames. The very next day, having gone into the church, he did not want to emerge from it, though he had not yet accepted Holy Baptism.
By his efforts to follow a righteous manner of life, St. Cyprian discerned the great power of fervent faith in Christ, and redeemed his more than thirty years of service to Satan. Seven days after Baptism he was ordained reader, on the twelfth day, sub-deacon, on the thirtieth, deacon. After a year, he was ordained priest. In a short time St. Cyprian was elevated to the rank of bishop.
The Hieromartyr Cyprian converted so many pagans to Christ that in his diocese there was no one left to offer sacrifice to idols, and the pagan temples fell into disuse. St. Justina withdrew to a monastery and there was chosen Abbess. During the persecution against Christians under the emperor Diocletian, Bishop Cyprian and Abbess Justina were arrested and brought to Nicomedia, where after fierce tortures they were beheaded with the sword. The soldier Theoctistus, looking upon the guiltless sufferings of the saints, declared himself a Christian and was executed with them.
Knowing of the miraculous conversion to Christ of a former servant of the Prince of Darkness, and how he shattered his grip by faith, Christians often resort to the prayerful intercession of the Hieromartyr Cyprian in their struggle with unclean spirits.
What I don't understand is why their story, and the tremendous, 2,000 year old literature on the spiritual battle which is readily available today, is completely absent from Otis's book? I fear for him the fate of the seven sons of Sceva...
A third difference is that Otis doesn't seem to have any concept of the Church, the ekklesia. Individual believers, or groups of believers gathered for a particular task or on a long-term mission, sure -- but the Church as the Body of Christ, doesn't appear to be on his radar. Much less a priestly ministry, sacraments, etc. These things, I think, would actually complement and complete his mission, not contradict it.
I think part of the issue stems from an oversuspicion of churchly things (like festivals, icons, incense, etc.) as being syncretistic. Certainly religions like Santeria represent a total corruption of elements of Roman Catholicism, and the result is anything but Christian. At the same time, it is truly possible to baptise a culture -- which is quite different from applying a thin veneer over pagan realities. Not everyone who reverences the Virgin Mary is, in delusion, praying to the goddess; not everyone who reverences an icon is worshipping a demon's idol. Sure, you have elements of old pagan entities edging their way into the life of St. George, for example --- but there really was a St. George, and he was a great martyr and hero of the Church. Same for St. Nicholas. Strip away the pagan elements, and you still have the Bishop of Myra in Lycia, who was the image of Christian charity, and also a warrior of the true faith: legend has it that he hauled off and slugged Arius at the First Ecumenical Council in Nicea when the latter would not not stop his blasphemy against Jesus. And you have thousands of saints who are simply themselves, with no pagan elements burnishing (unnecessarily) their legends. The life of St. Antony the Great of Egypt could easily be a chapter in Otis's book, given his famous struggles with demons in the graveyard and the tomb:
In this [early] period of his life St. Anthony endured terrible temptations from the devil. The Enemy of the race of man troubled the young ascetic with thoughts of his former life, doubts about his chosen path, concern for his sister, and he tempted Anthony with lewd thoughts and carnal feelings. But the saint extinguished that fire by meditating on Christ and by thinking of eternal punishment, thereby overcoming the devil.
Realizing that the devil would undoubtedly attack him in another manner, St. Anthony prayed and intensified his efforts. Anthony prayed that the Lord would show him the path of salvation. And he was granted a vision. The ascetic beheld a man, who by turns alternately finished a prayer, and then began to work. This was an angel, which the Lord had sent to instruct His chosen one.
St. Anthony tried to accustom himself to a stricter way of life. He partook of food only after sunset, he spent all night praying until dawn. Soon he slept only every third day. But the devil would not cease his tricks, and trying to scare the monk, he appeared under the guise of monstrous phantoms. The saint however protected himself with the Life-Creating Cross. Finally the Enemy appeared to him in the guise of a frightful looking black child, and hypocritically declaring himself beaten, he thought he could tempt the saint into vanity and pride. The saint, however, vanquished the Enemy with prayer.
For even greater solitude, St. Anthony moved farther away from the village, into a graveyard. He asked a friend to bring him a little bread on designated days, then shut himself in a tomb. Then the devils pounced upon the saint intending to kill him, and inflicted terrible wounds upon him. By the providence of the Lord, Anthony's friend arrived the next day to bring him his food. Seeing him lying on the ground as if dead, he took him back to the village. They thought the saint was dead and prepared for his burial. At midnight, St. Anthony regained consciousness and told his friend to carry him back to the tombs.
St. Anthony's staunchness was greater than the wiles of the Enemy. Taking the form of ferocious beasts, the devils tried to force the saint to leave that place, but he defeated them by trusting in the Lord. Looking up, the saint saw the roof opening, as it were, and a ray of light coming down toward him. The demons disappeared and he cried out, "Where have You been, O Merciful Jesus? Why didn't You appear from the very beginning to end my pain?"
The Lord replied, "I was here, Anthony, but wanted to see your struggle. Now, since you have not yielded, I shall always help you and make your name known throughout all the world." After this vision St. Anthony was healed of his wounds and felt stronger than before. He was then thirty-five years of age.
In other words, I think that Otis has, with no bad intent, thrown out the baby with the bath water, and his efforts are surely hindered because of it.
One interesting nit:: In a footnote at the bottom of page 371, he writes
Reckless claims and dubious practices are not unique to the present generation. In the third century, for example, the Catholic Church [i.e., the one Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church -- the split between east and west was still many centuries in the future] routinely conducted pre-Easter masses, or "scrutinies," in which catechumens seeking admission to the Church were exorcised. The scrutinies included a rite known as "exsufflation," in which the priest blew into the candidate's face to express contempt for the demons and drive them away.
In fact, we still have a baptismal liturgy on the eve of Pascha (you could accurately call it a pre-Easter mass). In our parish, we start at 10 AM Holy Saturday morning, but really it's prescribed to begin later in the afternoon -- even with the morning start, it begins with vespers and morphs into the Liturgy after a long series of reading from the Old Testament that take place while catechumens were/are being baptized. I was received into the Church at this liturgy in 1981. And the first part of the service of baptism, the enrollment of the catechumen, begins with a series of exorcisms in which the priest breathes cross-wise into the candidate's face.
The Renunciation and the Acceptance -- the child will be held by Godparent or Godparents (Nuno and Nuna in Greek) as he stands in the narthex of the church facing east (towards the altar). The priest, standing in front of them, blows three times into the child's face in the form of the cross to drive away any evil spirits and adverse power and blesses him each time saying "In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen". He then places his hands on the child's head, which symbolized the taking of possession of the candidate in the name of the Holy Trinity and recites a prayer addressed to the Triune God: "In your name, O God of truth... I lay my hand on your servant who has been found worthy to seek salvation in your Holy Name and protection under the shelter of your wings. Banish from him the old error, fill him with faith and hope in you... so that he might know that you are the only true God... Grant him the ability to live in accordance with your commandments."
The Exorcisms -- The prayer is followed by three exorcisms and yet another prayer, the prayer of acceptance, at the end of which the priest, in summary of all that was said before, asks God to drive out and banish from the child any and every evil and impure spirit which may be hiding and lurking in his heart and make him a reason-endowed sheep in the holy flock of Christ, an honorable member of the Church, child and heir of the kingdom. The child and Godparent will then be asked to face west and renounce Satan and all his works, and all his worship and all his angels, and all his pride in a question and answer form three times and then asked to breath (instead of the old tradition of spitting) down on Satan. Facing west signifies the west, a place of natural darkness, where the Devil, who is darkness himself, makes his abode.
I'm not sure why he'd call this reckless! In fact, if you read it, you'd think Otis had written out the prescription. Explicit renunciations of old pacts, explicit rejection of the devil --- hard to get more in your (his) face than this! And yet it's entirely different from sitting on some mountaintop overlooking a corrupt city and yelling to the enemy that you're gonna kick his butt, which is what he seems to be criticizing. (And rightly so. :)
Anyway, when you net it all out, I believe Otis is not nearly as far from the Orthodox Christian faith as it might appear at first blush. We just have a very different vocabulary to describe what appears to be, in large part, a common worldview, common objectives, common tactics -- and above all, a common enemy.