Police and Philokalia: Training Your Gun on Inner Demons

by Michael Bakker

He does not bear the sword in vain.

– Romans 13:4

Last month I turned in my pistol to the Amsterdam police. It had faithfully accompanied me during numerous shifts as a voluntary policeman in the Dutch capital for more than twelve years. Fortunately, I have never had to use it in action, but I was trained to do so during frequent practices on the firing range. Parting with my gun was not difficult; I had never kept it at home but in my locker at the police station. Thinking of all my hours of service in uniform, though, filled me with melancholy. Especially while writing my dissertation, which involved painstaking study of Slavic and Greek New Testament manuscripts, I welcomed the duty to leave my academic ivory tower and make a tangible contribution to society. And, of course, it was also intriguing to work on the darker side of normal life with criminals and the needy.

Neighborhood policeman with Fr. Anton du Pau and Fr. Sergei Ovsiannikov, St. Nicholas of Myra Orthodox Church, Amsterdam.

The occasion of leaving active duty as a part-time policeman and the fact that I now find myself president of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship prompted many reflections. I began to compare and contrast these two roles; and then, referring to the Philokalia, I attempted to formulate a spiritual interpretation of policing: How does one make his or her city safe and catch the demonic intruders in the heart?

The fact that a gun and the church do not quite match is illustrated by an event which took place after the first Liturgy celebrated in the new church building of our parish, St. Nicholas of Myra Russian Orthodox Church in Amsterdam. The neighborhood policeman dropped by. While our rector, Fr. Sergei Ovsiannikov, warmly welcomed him and started showing him around the church, Silouan Deutekom, the OPF treasurer, felt very uneasy about the presence of a weapon in the church. I can understand his discomfort. Once, after cleaning my pistol at home and on my way to a police shift, I went to church to sing in the Liturgy. My intuition told me that it was not right to have my gun with me, even though it was concealed under my civilian clothes. Apart from what the church canons say, I also felt that a more prominent role in church was not compatible with regularly training to shoot people in the leg or, if defending the life of one’s self or another, to aim at the heart.

Few would deny that the police play an indispensable role in society, provided they perform their duty faithfully and with respect for human rights. Most people will also agree that the police sometimes must use force, if only as a last resort. In fact, police in Holland are trained to de-escalate conflicts. Pepper spray has recently been added to the arsenal of every police officer, in order to “fill the gap” between baton and pistol. Because the special arrest team of the Amsterdam police is so well trained, its members rarely fire a shot even when dealing with dangerous criminals. Even the terminology used witnesses the intention to avoid violence. The special group of police that accompanies demonstrations is called the “peace contingent”; in case of civil unrest, the “peace plan” is put into action.

Despite such peaceful intentions, the bottom line remains that the police have the right to use violence in order to protect innocent life. Here one finds a parallel with St. Basil’s teaching on war. As Fr. John McGuckin explains in the previous issue of In Communion: “The only fighting that Christians ought ever to accept, in order to defend the honor and safety of the weak, will be inherently a limited response, mainly because the honor and tradition of the Christian faith in the hearts and minds of pious and sober warriors will restrict the bloodshed to a necessary minimum.” St. Basil allows a returning warrior to stand in the Church, but requires him to refrain from communion.

Fr. John McGuckin comments: “Even for the best motives in the world, the shedding of blood remains a defilement, such that the true Christian, afterwards, would wish to undergo the cathartic experience of temporary return to the lifestyle of penance.”

Interestingly enough, Dutch law has a similar approach to that of St. Basil: A police officer who uses violence is, in principle, as culpable as any citizen. Only if the violence fails to meet specific criteria (not being excessive, etc.) will the officer be prosecuted.

Apart from the legal side, there is the spiritual dimension. Having to deal with issues of life and death has a severe impact. The Dutch police have very effective self-help groups for police officers who experience extreme situations, such as being shot at or having to shoot at someone. In fact the police in the ungodly city of Amsterdam (such is our reputation) now have a chaplain. Some years ago a retired Catholic priest offered his services for free and performed such a useful role that the chaplaincy is now a structural position.

One can find another parallel with the “policing” involved in raising a family. The “core values” of the Amsterdam police (being loving, strict, just and honest) could be inscribed above our home entrance. “I am tired of acting the policeman,” is an expression my wife and I sometimes use when the brotherly love of our two young sons — made captive in our apartment by a rainy day — turns by fits into bickering and battles and we must intervene forcefully to prevent bloody noses.

One of the first lessons we learned as parents was that love requires us to use our anger skillfully for good purposes. The parent’s management of his or her temper sets a powerful example for a child; I fear few new parents have acquired the requisite inner peace. How many saints listed in our menaia were parents? The child, even as a baby, already displays the power of anger to help it acquire food on time. If properly trained, the child may harness its power to help others as he or she matures in life. Similarly, the sincere but controlled wrath of a police officer towards a civilian who committed a felony is often more effective than a hefty fine.

We learn from the Church Fathers that anger per se is not wrong. St. Maximus the Confessor stresses that in principle human nature, including its incensive power, is good. Of course, it depends on where it is directed. If towards a fellow human being, it is a sin; but if towards evil deeds, it is good. Christ’s cleansing of the temple described in John 2:15 is not exactly an example of passive noninvolvement — an attitude of which Christians are sometimes accused: “When He had made a whip of cords, He drove them all out of the temple, with the sheep and the oxen, and poured out the changers’ money and overturned the tables.”

Regarding the fallen angels, patristic teachings are not loving and peaceful at all. Unseen Warfare, the title of a well-known ascetical work by Lorenzo Scupoli, edited by Nicodemus of the Holy Mountain and revised by Theophan the Recluse, is clear enough: no mercy for demons. And, of course, there is St. Paul saying: “Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places. Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand…. And take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God” (Eph 6:11-17).

Before I started reading the Philokalia, the Orthodox spiritual classic, I always found it a bit awkward to sing during Great Lent the words “Blessed is he who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks.” In the Philokalia one sees that the Church Fathers consistently interpret this psalm verse spiritually: the infants are the bad thoughts (logismoi) which have to be smashed against the rock (Christ) the moment they seek to enter the heart. With regard to the treatment of intruders, however, there is a big difference with the police. While the police (at least the Dutch police) seek to treat even the greatest criminal humanely, the ascetical writers urge you not to drink coffee and chat with the demons but to avoid all contact. Beginners should not enter into dialogue with demons or evil thoughts. Talking back (in Greek antirrhetikon, a work by Evagrius of Pontus) is something only for experienced ascetics. And I assume only God speaks directly with the greatest criminal of all. The readings from Job during Holy Week provide remarkable episodes of Satan’s visiting and conversing with God.

In the battle in which the ascetics are engaged, guidance from a veteran warrior is invaluable. If such help is not available, a manual such as the Philokalia is a good alternative. Like a detective’s handbook, it is filled with lessons based on real cases and insight into the methods and tricks of Satan’s collaborators. St. Thalassius, for instance, indicates that the demon of anger is in league with other demons: “Control desire and you will dominate anger, for desire gives rise to anger.” Countermeasures are also listed. The advice of St. Maximus on anger and resentment the following: “Be indifferent to fame, dishonor and material things. With regard to rancor, pray for him who has offended you.”

One notices that the writers included in the Philokalia were not blinded by their hatred of the demons, but instead developed a keen eye to see what the enemy was up to. This wakeful state (nepsis is the technical term) requires a “dispassionate” approach towards the demons. Similarly, a police detective should not make the fight against crime too personal; otherwise his or her power of judgment becomes compromised.

St. John of Damascus calls discrimination, the spiritual gift leading to the ability to distinguish between thoughts from God and suggestions from the devil, the “queen and crown of all the virtues.” Eastern martial arts such as aikido go even further: Love of your enemy enables you to see better how he will attack you (and, when he does, you calmly deflect the attack while trying to inflict as little harm as possible). Although the Philokalia does not encourage you to extend love of your enemies to demons, St. Maximus suggests that they are not entirely wicked: “Not even the demons are evil by nature, but they have become evil through the misuse of their natural powers.” Similarly, a police officer, being in close contact with all sorts of evil-doers, may find it easier to discern the good in a criminal. Perhaps this is the reason why I always feel compassion for the wretched soul of Judas, who was so close to the Lord and fell so deeply, whenever he is “demonized” in Orthodox hymnography.

The use and misuse of anger has similarities with the positive or negative use of desire (eros). Very helpful, in this respect, is the explanation of the three powers of the soul offered by the editors of the English translation of the Philokalia made by G.E.H. Palmer, Philip Sherrard and Bishop Kallistos Ware:

The appetitive or desiring power (to epithymitikon) is one of the three aspects or powers of the soul according to the tripartite division formulated by Plato and on the whole accepted by the Greek Christian Fathers. The other two are, first, the intelligent aspect of power (to logistikon); and, second, the incensive aspect or power (to thymikon), which often manifests itself as wrath or anger, but which can be more generally defined as the force provoking vehement feelings. The three aspects or powers can be used positively, that is, in accordance with nature and as created by God, or negatively, that is, in a way contrary to nature and leading to sin. For instance, the incensive power can be used positively to repel demonic attacks or to intensify desire for God; but it can also, when not controlled, lead to self-indulgent, disruptive thought and action. The appetitive and incensive aspects, in particular the former, are sometimes termed the soul’s passible aspect (to pathitikon), that is to say, the aspect which is more vulnerable to pathos or passion, and which, when not transformed by positive spiritual influences, is susceptive to the influence of negative and self-destructive forces.

I would say the Philokalia is a manual for policing the inner city of your heart: How to be vigilant at all times, how to recognize intruders in time, and how to repel them. The struggle against the demons is about putting to good use the incensive power of your soul, which was perverted in the Fall and is now often directed at your fellow man. At birth you are given this gun; there is nothing wrong with it as long as you aim at the right target. Blast away at your inner vices and demons!

Michael Bakker is president of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship, a member of the Russian Orthodox parish of St. Nicholas of Myra in Amsterdam, and father of two sons. He has worked as a researcher at the University of Amsterdam and as a consultant in an international firm. He has recently taken up a position as senior advisor in the Dutch national police force.