I lived for a couple of years with several insane roommates. Not leaves-dirty-dishes-in-the-sink-and-likes-lousy-music insane. On-medication-and-talking-to-themselves insane. I didn't mind. I liked them. They were, in fact, very nice people.
One of them would occasionally go off his meds because he didn't like how they made him feel. And he would begin to get manic. I'd hear him up all night laughing loudly for hours on end or pacing the floor and preaching to the walls. Sometimes he'd step outside without his shirt or shoes on, and scratch Bible verses into the snow until the neighbors would call the cops.
One day, after a fantastic local hip hop show, I was recuperating in my room. It was around 11 in the morning, my head was pounding, and I was in too much pain to stumble to the bathroom and throw up, so I was cradling my sour stomach and trying not to move or think. It was at this ungodly bright and sunny hour that my roommate (probably recently off his meds) decided to come knocking on my door. I played dead for awhile, but he was more persistent than I was, so I eventually answered the door.
"Come on outside," he told me. "I want to show you something."
I grumbled, got into my weekend lounging-around rags, and followed him out to the porch, where he proceeded to walk up and down on the lawn in front of me, and preach me a sermon. By the time he was done, I had forgotten my hangover, and sat openmouthed. I was, perhaps, not so surprised by what he had to say to me as by the fact that something so blindingly clear and obviously true had never been so much as whispered in my ear.
Here is, more or less, what he said to me:
If you asked someone today whether they believed in spirits, they'd look at you like you were crazy. Back in the ancient world, if you asked someone whether they believed in spirits, they'd look at you like you were crazy, but for exactly the opposite reason. Today everyone knows that spirits don't exist, just like in the ancient world everyone knew that they did.
So what happened? There are four possibilities:
We can rule out #1 without really bothering to give it much thought. If the fundamental nature of reality can change that much in a thousand years, there's really very little point in comparing the present day with the past at all. #2 and #3 can be pretty easily disproved with a rigorous reading of history. Ancient humans were not especially wise or foolish compared to modern humans. People have not really changed much in the last few millennia, in spite of a boatload of technological advances.
- Spirits used to exist, but don't anymore. People used to believe in them because they were real, and now they don't because they aren't anymore. This is obvious nonsense, and no one believes it.
- Spirits have always existed, but the ancients were wiser than us and understood this, and we moderns have lost our way and no longer recognize spiritual realities. This is what many New Agers and religious people of various stripes believe.
- Spirits have never existed, but the ancients were too foolish and superstitious to understand this. We enlightened modern people apprehend reality better than they do as a result of recent scientific advances, and thus we have put such silly superstitions behind us. Many materialists and atheists believe this.
- The phenomena called spirits by the ancients are still around today, and we moderns still interact with them, but we no longer think of them the same way. We call them by other names, and what we think the ancients meant by spirits was not exactly what they actually meant. I have met very few people who believe this.
That leaves #4 - the idea that we still interact with the same phenomena that the ancients called "spirits," but we think of them differently. Having eliminated the alternatives, we can assume that this is true.
So what to make of the idea that a man can be possessed by an evil spirit? Well, we still see that today, don't we? We talk about becoming "obsessed" (actually this term used to have a meaning related to "possession") or "beside ourselves" or "out of our minds" or "temporarily insane," but whatever terminology we want to use, there are sometimes when a man is not himself, or not in control of himself - there is something else controlling him that is not his normal everyday mind.
Take as an example a man with a bad case of road rage. I've cut him off in traffic, and he's followed me to where I've pulled my car over, and he's getting out of his car, out of his mind with anger. The more poetic among us might say he has been possessed by a spirit of rage, and he's on his way over to me, ready to beat me black and blue.
Now, how should I respond to this? The man - the flesh and blood - is my brother. The spirit - the rage that's driving his actions right now - is my enemy. If I respond to his attack with anger and violence, I accomplish two things:
First, I damage the flesh and blood, my brother.
Second, I nourish the spirit, the rage that is driving him to violence. Worse, I give this spirit a second home in my own heart. This is clearly a bad way to respond.
So how should I respond? I should respond in the only way that saves my brother and attacks the spirit: I should respond with love.
That is what St. Paul meant when he wrote that "our struggle is not with flesh and blood but with the principalities, with the powers, with the world rulers of this present darkness, with the evil spirits in the heavens." It's why Jesus tells us to "offer no resistance to one who is evil. When someone strikes you on (your) right cheek, turn the other one to him as well." The Christian commission is a spiritual commission - it's about fighting evil, not about fighting people.
As I said, by the time he was done, I was sitting with my mouth hanging open. Why had no one ever told me this before? He proceeded to tell me that God had instructed him to tell me this.
This, my friends, is an example of prophecy. Prophets are another phenomenon that is thought of differently in modern days. In ancient times prophets were alternately admired and reviled, but either way people heard their messages. Today they're alternately medicated and institutionalized. We chemically neutralize their prophetic capabilities, and when this fails we lock them away where no one will have to listen to them.
Were the ancient prophets really like our modern day crazy people? Absolutely. John the Baptist hung out in the desert, wore camel hair shirts, and ate locusts. Compare a prophet like that with this guy here.
That's partly why I try to listen to everyone. (Um. Within reason.) It's pretty much guaranteed that everyone who doesn't know something I do knows something valuable that I don't. It would be a shame to miss out on learning it just because I'm too self-involved and arrogant to listen.