Demon of Disunity
(This essay was written originally for First Things.)
Some demons are particularly noxious. The only antidote that gets rid of them is prayer.
Jesus makes this point as he helps his disciples grasp why they were unable to heal a boy suffering from seizures. When the boy’s father takes the child from the incompetent disciples to Jesus, the unclean spirit convulses the boy so that he falls to the ground, rolling about, foaming at the mouth (Mark 9:20). Jesus rebukes the demon and tells it to come out. It does, but not after crying out, convulsing the body terribly, and leaving the boy for dead on the ground. At that point, however, Jesus raises the “corpse” to new life: “But Jesus took him by the hand and lifted him up, and he arose.” In private, Jesus explains to the disciples the reason for their ineptitude: “This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer.”
Pope John Paul II made the same point with regard to division and disunity in the church. His 1995 encyclical Ut unum sint turns to prayer as the engine behind ecumenical dialogue. The Latin title itself is a prayer, taken from Jesus’s own high-priestly prayer of John 17, where Jesus pleads with his Father “that they may all be one.” According to John Paul, when Christians pray for unity, they share in Christ’s prayer for unity:
When Christians pray together, the goal of unity seems closer. The long history of Christians marked by many divisions seems to converge once more because it tends towards that Source of its unity which is Jesus Christ. He “is the same yesterday, today and forever!” (Heb. 13:8). In the fellowship of prayer, Christ is truly present; he prays “in us,” “with us” and “for us”.
We are in sync with Ut unum sint when we treat disunity as an evil spirit, one that cannot be driven out by anything but prayer.
Each of the synoptic Gospels recounts the story of Jesus’s healing of the boy with the unclean spirit. Mark’s account is by far the longest. Unlike the other accounts, it links up the beginning and end of the story. Only Mark sets out by mentioning the dispute between the disciples and the scribes, which occasions the boy’s father pleading with Jesus for help: A great crowd had come together, and scribes were “arguing” with the disciples (Mark 9:14). When Jesus asks about the nature of the disagreement, the boy’s father steps forward and explains that the disciples had been unable to heal the boy. It is not too farfetched to assume the scribes, gleefully noting the disciples’ inability to heal the boy, had caused the kerfuffle. At the end of the narrative, Mark mentions the need for prayer to cast out the unclean spirit. Mark thus bookends his account with mentions of disunity and prayer.
The contrast between this narrative and the one that precedes it—the transfiguration account—could not be starker. All the synoptic Gospels situate the story of the demonized boy at the foot of the Mount of Transfiguration. We’re meant to pick up on the contrast between the dazzling, spiritual mountaintop and the hellhole in which religious leaders bicker and demons freely roam about.
Bible scholars remind us frequently that the transfiguration served as an encouragement, which Jesus offered to his disciples in the face of suffering. This foretaste of resurrection glory would presumably be an encouragement to Peter, James, and John as they followed Jesus on a pilgrimage of suffering and death. Many exegetes (including Thomas Aquinas and John Calvin) treat the transfiguration narrative this way—encouragement on the via dolorosa.
This interpretation is right (or so I think). But the story that follows makes clear that more is at stake. The disputatious disciples haven’t been on the mountaintop. Unlike Peter, James, and John, they have not been transfigured by the light. John McGuckin points out that the church fathers (East and West) were united in key aspects of their interpretation of the transfiguration. They all saw it as a theophany, a self-manifestation of God. The glorious light that shone from Jesus’s face and clothes was divine, so the three disciples actually saw God.
The fathers also understood the transfiguration as a saving event. They figured it is not Jesus who was transfigured (his divine glory was always present, whether the disciples recognized it or not), but the disciples. They were transfigured or deified—saved by the light of God’s glory. Finally, the fathers recognized that the transfiguration gave the disciples an advance glimpse of resurrection glory: It is the brilliance of the New Jerusalem that shone on the mountaintop.
The transfiguration does encourage us in our suffering and pain. But it draws us not only into Jesus’s suffering and death, but also into his divinity and into his resurrection. Jesus wants us to see him: his divine glory, his salvation, his resurrection life. It’s not at the foot of the mountain but at its top that we obtain this sight. Both the disciples’ polemics (with the scribes) and their paralysis (when faced with demonic power) have to do with their spiritual locale, the bottom of the mountain.
So how do we make the climb? Jesus’s suggestion is simple: “This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer.” Prayer unites us with Jesus, deifies us, and enables us to see him with transfigured, spiritual eyes. Prayer gives us entry into the eschaton, where we see the eternal glory of the Son of God.
The demon of disunity cannot be driven out by anything but prayer because theology begins on top of the mountain and returns to the top of the mountain. Theology terminates not in words (no matter how indispensable) but in a person. Orthodox, Catholics, and Protestants, when united in prayer in the presence of Jesus, can do what the disciples could not. When the three traditions come together in the divine transfiguration light, they are transfigured—and the demon of disunity cowers in his hellhole.