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Addictions, Demons and Redemption

Fr. Luke A. Veronis

Demon possession. We heard about it in today’s Gospel story when Jesus cast out demons controlling two men. In the other Gospels, we read about legions of demons possessing a single man. Too often, when we contemporary people hear about demon-possession, we simply roll our eyes. There’s no such thing as demons. Sometimes, past generations understood certain illness as demon possession. We simply want to dismiss this talk about demons. Well, I could preach a sermon specifically about demons, and the devil, and the reality of evil in the world. Surely there is plenty of horrific evil every day in the news to believe in such reality. Yet, I want to talk about something else today. I want to look at certain “demons” that control our behavior and that destroy countless lives. My topic today is on the “demons” of addiction.

In past generations, as well as today, when many hear about people struggling with addictions, they often think of morally bankrupt individuals. Alcoholics, drug addicts, gamblers out of control, and sex addicts, one of the fastest growing addictions being fed by the billion dollar internet pornography industry. The problem of addictions and its impact on society and in the lives of countless individuals is reaching epidemic proportions in our country.

The Office of the Surgeon General of the United States came out with a seminal report in 2016 entitled “Facing Addiction in America: The Surgeon General’s Report on Alcohol, Drugs, and Health.” The then Surgeon General, Dr Vivek H. Murthy, hoped that this report would bring much needed attention to what he considered one of the greatest public crises of our time. Pay attention to these statistics. In 2015, 21 million Americans, or 8% of our country’s population, struggle with addiction to substance abuse; 48 million (18% of our population) used an illicit drug or misused a prescription medication, 67 million binge drink monthly, and 28 million self-reported driving under the influence (DUI). There are more deaths and disabilities each year in the U.S. from substance abuse than from any other cause. These statistics don’t include the damage and destruction to lives affected not only by addiction to substances, but to addictive behaviors like gambling or internet pornography. The consequences of all these addictions severely affect the individual suffering from this disease, but also greatly impact the families, friends, and our society as a whole. The economic impact alone of substance addictions exceeds $442 billion each year in health costs, lost productivity, and criminal justice costs.

For much of human history, such addictive behavior was seen mainly as a moral weakness. Those struggling with addiction faced harsh judgment and severe discrimination from society. The Church also, too often, viewed people struggling with addiction as terrible, weak sinners. Such negative and judgmental attitudes towards those struggling with addiction didn’t help addicts find a path toward recovery. Of course, people wrestling with addiction have choices to make, and when they make poor choices they face serious consequences. Yet, we’ve learned that it’s not only one’s bad choices which lead to addiction, but a combination of developmental, environmental, social, and genetic factors that play a role.

Over the past decades the medical world has helped us understand addictions as an illness or disease that must be treated, rather than a moral failure  that must be judged. Just as one wouldn’t condemn a person with diabetes, or cancer, or some other physical illness, the medical field has studied and researched substance use disorder, concluding that addictions affect and even change the brain chemistry and body make-up of an individual, and thus, need to be understood and treated in a holistic way. This implies holistic treatment that includes participation from the medical field, social service organizations, educational systems, community based organizations, government health agencies, religious institutions, law enforcement, and other public, private, and voluntary entities.

From the Church’s perspective, we need to offer God’s love and compassion, mercy and grace, healing and restoration, a never-ending hope for a new life, with not only our words but also our presence, patiently walking with those struggling with addictions and hopefully guiding them on a path of healing and restoration.

Of course, there is a temptation to get frustrated with people struggling with addition, because they have become master manipulators, who often are dishonest with themselves as well as with their loved ones. They struggle with a terrible sense of guilt, shame, and self-hatred. They are not proud of the pain and hurt they have caused in too many broken relationships. They have disappointed others countless times, and they continually disappoint themselves. Such low self-esteem does little to help them on their path of recovery. They are tempted with despair, feeling there is no way out and little real hope for change. And even if others sincerely love them and want to help, they often feel they are not worthy of such love and help. Poor boundaries, co-dependency, and chaos often rule their lives.

We must always remember, though, that the Church is a hospital. And hospitals never turn away the sick, but welcome them into our healing community. The Great Physician, Jesus Christ Himself, offers His loving and healing presence through His community of faith, and through His Mysteries/Sacraments. The Church doesn’t judge and reject anyone due to whatever illness they may have, but welcomes all to find healing from whatever destructive addictions and illnesses – physical, spiritual, mental -  with which they struggle.

As Christians we are called to journey and intimately walk with those who are sick and suffering. There may not be any quick medicine for healing, but the healing will come through a long process of simply walking with others, feeling their pain, empathizing with them in their moments of despair, and loving them no matter how often they fall and seem to fail. As followers of Jesus Christ, we are called to offer a loving, understanding, comforting, non-judgmental, non-threatening presence to each and every individual who is suffering, as well as to their family that is co-suffering with them. Specifically, with people struggling with addictions, we need to treat the addict as a special child of God who is facing a life-threatening illness. Take care to never allow the addiction and its consequences to distort the beautiful image of God in the person themselves.

Jesus always saw and called out the hidden beauty from each person he encountered, helping them rediscover the image and likeness of God within and the unlimited potential they possess. Approaching an addict from this perspective creates an atmosphere which hopefully helps the person feel valued and loved, regardless of their behavior or perceived failure. We have to help the addicted person believe that he/she is a child of God, created in His image.

This Christian story of hope, healing and new life can be told in different ways to someone struggling with addiction. No matter how broken someone is, regardless of their checkered history, no matter how sick and damaged their life, in Christ “all things can become new” (2 Corinthians 5:17). Whether it was someone with physical ailments, like a woman sick for 12 years with hemorrhaging blood (Mark 5:25-34), a man born blind from birth (John 9), a paralyzed person (Mark 4), or a leper (Luke 17), Christ offered physical healing. Yet he never limited his healing to physical health alone. He also met a broken, despised woman married five times and treated her with love and respect (John 4). He saw her beauty within, helped her see her own beauty, called out that beauty and led her into a new life of authentic beauty. In fact, the Church remembers this hopeless Samaritan woman as the beloved Saint Fotini. The same could be said about her, as it was about the prodigal son – “he was lost and is found, was dead and is alive” (Luke 15:32). And there are plenty of other stories about despised, broken, sick individuals like Matthew and Zacchaeus the tax-collectors, with whom Jesus saw such great potential and goodness that he invited one to become an intimate disciple, and the other he visited his house and declared that salvation had come to him. Sharing stories of how Jesus respectfully treated and healed physically ill people, morally bankrupt persons, or broken and hopeless individuals offers a concrete message of optimism that change can happen. Illness comes in all forms of mind, body and soul. A person struggling with addiction understands this well, and may think there is no hope for themselves. Yet, history is full of individuals whose lives have been changed and transformed, including many addicts. There is always hope.

Let me conclude with a story I read by Meg Hunter-Kilmer about a Chinese Orthodox saint, Mark Ji Tianxiang.

Ji was an opium addict who couldn’t stay sober. He struggled with his opium addiction for 30 years! In the early part of his life, Ji was a respectable Christian, raised in an Orthodox Christian family in 19th-century China. In fact, he was a leader in the Chinese Orthodox Christian community, a well-off doctor who served the poor for free. One day, however, he became ill with a violent stomach ailment and treated himself with opium. It was a perfectly reasonable thing to do in that day and age, yet Ji became addicted to the drug, an addiction that was considered shameful and gravely scandalous.

As his circumstances deteriorated, Ji continued to fight his addiction. He went frequently to confession, refusing to embrace this affliction that had taken control of him. Unfortunately, the priest to whom he confessed (along with nearly everybody in the 19th century) didn’t understand addiction as a disease. Since Ji kept confessing the same sin, the priest thought that was evidence that he had no firm desire to change or truly repent from his sin.

Without resolve to repent and sin no more, the priest thought his confession was invalid. So after a few years, Ji’s confessor told him to stop coming back to confession if he was not resolved to stop using opium. For some, this might have been an invitation to leave the Church in anger or shame, yet for all his brokenness, Ji knew himself to be loved by the Father and by the Church. He knew that the Lord wanted his heart, even if he couldn’t manage to give over his addicted life. Ji couldn’t stay sober, but he could keep showing up.

And show up he did, for 30 years. For 30 years, he was unable to receive the sacraments. And for 30 years he prayed that he would die a martyr. It seemed to Ji that the only way he could be saved was through a martyr’s crown.

In 1900, when the Boxer Rebels began to turn against foreigners and Christians throughout China, Ji got his chance. He was rounded up with dozens of other Christians, including his son, six grandchilden, and two daughters-in-law. Many of those imprisoned with him were likely disgusted by his presence there among them, this man who couldn’t go a day without a hit. Surely he would be the first to deny the Lord.

Yet while Ji was never able to beat his addiction, he was, in the end, flooded with the grace of final perseverance. No threat could shake him, no torture make him waver. He was determined to follow the Lord who had never abandoned him.

As Ji and his family were dragged to prison to await their execution, his grandson looked fearfully at him. “Grandpa, where are we going?” he asked. “We’re going home,” came the answer.

Ji begged his captors to kill him last so that none of his family would have to die alone. He stood beside all nine of them as they were beheaded. In the end, he went to his death singing the Litany of the Blessed Virgin Mary. And though he had been away from the sacraments for decades, he is a canonized saint.

St. Mark Ji Tianxiang is a beautiful witness to the grace of God constantly at work in the most hidden ways, to God’s ability to make great saints of the most unlikely among us, and to the grace poured out on those who remain faithful when it seems even the Church herself is driving them away.

In our Church calendar, we honor the memory of St. Mark Ji Tianxiang on July 9th. Let’s ask his intercession for all those struggling with addictions, and for all those who are unable to receive the sacraments, that they may have the courage to be faithful to the Church and that they may always grow in their love for, and trust in the Lord. St. Mark Ji Tianxiang, pray for us!