I’m going to break from my typical formula in this post. It has been three years today since my dad died. The only possession of his I knew he wanted me to have when he died was his many writings — mostly poetry, but also some diaries and other, often unfinished, prose, like what follows after the break below.

My father struggled with mental illness, that imprecise and blanketed term. I suspect much of it was undiagnosed PTSD from a life of trauma, but that doesn’t mean it was all circumstantial, and my father would be the first to insist that none of it did away with his own free will and responsibility. Nevertheless, nightmares plagued his sleep and regrets haunted his days. I know of only one thing in his life that ever cut through all of that and brought him any peace: Jesus Christ.

The following prose, lightly edited by me, seems to have been the start of a paraphrase or elaboration on the Gospel according to St. Mark 5:1-20. Or perhaps he thought this was enough as it is. I’m not sure. For those unfamiliar with the story, it will follow my dad’s words after another break, and then I’ll reflect in my own way….

The Demoniac


By James Pahman


The demoniac stood rigidly erect against the stone cell wall, his ankles bleeding where the fetters abraded against his skin and bone, tearing the flesh and slightly paring the bone. His arms lifted above his head held taut by two metal chains which were wrapped around his chest and […] winding around his arms and wrists, nailed into the grey wall by spiked metal clamps. Lesions prickled his senses and scars marked his body. In his eyes were the flashes of fire and passionate violence, they curled and rolled as he hung his burning head toward the compulsive churning of his legs; other times they would stare, glassy and unaffected by the raging mocking clamor of the crowds as the soldiers dragged him across the rocks and dust of the Gerasene desert bound by chains and pulled by horses.

His mind boiled and echoed the taunts and derisions he heard constantly slashing in acute agonizing voices which screamed in fiendish shrills with wicked velocity, tearing the images of his thoughts like thin paper and flashing the illusions of killers and murderous beasts haunting all his awareness and plaguing his mind with ruthless death. The demons played their harsh dissonance within the confines of his brain, battering his nervous system with the intentions of relentless warfare, choking his heart with the distortions and destructions of the horrid, blotching and arraying his vision with a miasma of foul ugliness and disgust.

Tearing the chains and crushing the fetters, he ran in an impetuous fever to the tombs; the desert caves of bones. And there he raved and shrieked in his exposed nakedness, attacking all those who came near. Throughout the rocky mountains’ lofts he would wander crying out bitterness and cutting himself with the sharp stones. He epitomized and was plagued with sin and torturous lusts, from within the black depths of his soul to the ostentatious scars and bleeding ruin of his miserable body.

Who can describe the weighty loneliness of his barren entity, whose heart was parched by the blazing coals of hatred and malevolence? Possessed by demons and abandoned by men of mercy, for he could not be restrained or tamed. He would lay enveloped by the cold, hard walls of caves, the places where the dead were left to rot and decay within their separate cells. Did a song ever leave his lips? Had he comrades to share his humanity?

Would a woman ever comply to be his helpmeet? Did he laugh from happiness and content? And was his strength employed for the vigorous productive work that a man is satisfied with? Or did he ever create an expression of the reflected image in beauty and delight? None of these at all, for we hear the echoed screams of a ravaged spirit tearing into the dark blanket of the night, out of a cave where hollowness is joined with a man, possessed by demons, fuming in the pit of his soul.


It was a cool, calm summer morning. The sun lavished its golden light across the Galilean sea. The surface of the waters sparkled like jewels. Occasionally pelicans would hover above slicing into the sea for a mouthful of fish. Fishermen had a propitious livelihood because of the waters, abundantly inhabited by fish. Early at dawn they would row their small boats out to the larger vessel and initiate their work for the day.

The demoniac stared out towards the sea and heard the gentle splashing of oars cutting the clear waters. He squinted his eyes and lifted his hand to block the brightness of the sun. There at the shore he saw the men jumping out of the boats and pulling them to the edge of the sea. And he saw a man of strong stature lift out of the boat. It was then that he was impelled by vicious roaring from the demons to go to this man and spread his violence before him. And so he ran with great impetus and speed, incited to conquer the stranger on the seashore.

So as not to leave readers unfamiliar with this story’s inspiration in suspense, here is St. Mark 5:1-20:

Then they came to the other side of the sea, to the country of the Gadarenes. And when He had come out of the boat, immediately there met Him out of the tombs a man with an unclean spirit, who had his dwelling among the tombs; and no one could bind him, not even with chains, because he had often been bound with shackles and chains. And the chains had been pulled apart by him, and the shackles broken in pieces; neither could anyone tame him. And always, night and day, he was in the mountains and in the tombs, crying out and cutting himself with stones.

When he saw Jesus from afar, he ran and worshiped Him. And he cried out with a loud voice and said, “What have I to do with You, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I implore You by God that You do not torment me.”

For He said to him, “Come out of the man, unclean spirit!” Then He asked him, “What is your name?”

And he answered, saying, “My name is Legion; for we are many.” Also he begged Him earnestly that He would not send them out of the country.

Now a large herd of swine was feeding there near the mountains. So all the demons begged Him, saying, “Send us to the swine, that we may enter them.” And at once Jesus gave them permission. Then the unclean spirits went out and entered the swine (there were about two thousand); and the herd ran violently down the steep place into the sea, and drowned in the sea.

So those who fed the swine fled, and they told it in the city and in the country. And they went out to see what it was that had happened. Then they came to Jesus, and saw the one who had been demon-possessed and had the legion, sitting and clothed and in his right mind. And they were afraid. And those who saw it told them how it happened to him who had been demon-possessed, and about the swine. Then they began to plead with Him to depart from their region.

And when He got into the boat, he who had been demon-possessed begged Him that he might be with Him. However, Jesus did not permit him, but said to him, “Go home to your friends, and tell them what great things the Lord has done for you, and how He has had compassion on you.” And he departed and began to proclaim in Decapolis all that Jesus had done for him; and all marveled.

The ancient world spiritualized illness, but our tendency today is to secularize it. While I think our era’s error avoids some serious harms — the scientific method has born good fruit — there are times when our imagined superiority blinds us to anything that doesn’t easily fit into our modern worldviews.

I always feel for our priests the Sunday each year they must read and preach on this story. Our estrangement from ancient worldviews means that talking about something like demon possession will leave one’s hearers wondering whether one has oneself gone mad. When we find it impossible to understand another person’s worldview, we render empathy impossible as well.

For whatever reason, my father found empathy easy in this case. Or, at least, reading his reflection helps me empathize with the demoniac in the story. In our era, mental disturbance is illness, and as illness is unwelcome, especially chronic and untreatable illnesses, we resort to stigmatizing the mentally ill. They remind us too vividly that there remain many deep and serious things about this life for which we have no good explanation, not to mention solution. For their part, the mentally ill sometimes aren’t the most easily approachable people. Not everyone possesses the gift of connecting and caring for the outcast.

But Jesus did, as one should expect of the Son of God. Indeed, before God and apart from him, we all drift about under the sway of violent passions, self-delusion perhaps the most prevalant of all. We should — yes, like my dad did — see ourselves in this story. Indeed, reading it today, I noticed something truly remarkable:

All throughout the Gospel, but especially in St. Mark’s account, Jesus tells people that he heals or helps to keep it a secret. They say, “Thank you!” And he says, “Don’t mention it,” except he really means it. In fact, he usually strictly warns them, “Don’t tell anyone.” “Don’t tell,” he says to the blind man whose eyes he opened. “Don’t tell,” he says to the deaf mute whose hearing and speech he restored. “Don’t tell,” he says to the leper whose sore-ridden and infested skin he cleanses. Immediately following this story, Jesus raises a little girl from the dead, and what does he say to her family? “Don’t tell.” But to one man, this man, the man society had abandoned to the torment of his irrationality, Jesus says, “Go and tell.” What better testament for one’s message than the voice of a man once mute? Yet Jesus doesn’t choose the blind or deaf or mute or diseased to be his witness — he chooses this man, a “madman” — crazy, dangerous, violent, mentally ill, disturbed, tormented.

Of course, the transformation in him must have been remarkable. It terrified the people of the area, who begged Jesus “to depart from their region.” I suppose it also ruined the local swine-herding economy, which either must have been run by Gentiles or non-observant Jews, since pork isn’t kosher. In any case, add that to the reasons this man would seem to be a terrible choice. Who would believe him? How could they get the memory of his madness out of their heads? And who would be paying for the pigs? (Not Jesus, so far as we know.)

Yet Jesus says to him, “Go and tell.” I’ve been asking the wrong questions on purpose to illustrate my point. What we should really be asking is, “Who better?” Who could be more humble than a man full of shame at his own behavior? Who could be more compassionate toward others than one who knows the pain of compassion’s absence? Who better to represent Christ to a world possessed than a man freed by Christ from bondage to the devil?

On this third anniversary of my father’s death, I’m thankful for this seemingly unfinished bit of prose for helping me enter into this strange, ancient story in order to see all the better the beauty of that “stranger on the seashore,” whose peace overpowered the pain and violence of his heart.

May his memory be eternal.