May 28, 2009

Discerning the Diabolical

More often than you might think, people ask me whether or not I think their temptations and struggles are of diabolical origin.

Most of the time I don't think so, but I tend to take the practical approach: bracketing off the question of the devil's possible role, I ask whether or not guessing him to be involved will help someone take action. In other words, I ask myself whether the idea of the diabolical will tone someone up for fruitful spiritual combat or further absolve him from taking responsibility for himself.

That being said, there are a couple of cases of spiritual erring and sin where I am inclined, at times, to consider diabolical influence:

1. When someone is "inspired" to be intensely religious, but in such a way that is not about God, but about himself. I think it's a mistake for a devout person to think that the devil will try to tempt her to sin in ways that are obviously crude and worldly. It is the devil's joy to have us be as religious as could be, so long as we do it his way. So the diabolical attacks on devout people take the form of temptations to spiritual vanity, self-righteousness, abuse of church power and control of others, etc. To form a very religious person who only reflects on the sins of others and the punishment they have earned for themselves, a proud religious, or a priest who delights in vanities, power, or ambition, are examples of the devil's proud accomplishments.

2. In certain temptations that make a tricky inversion of self-indulgence and humility. Say someone is working hard at the spiritual combat against a habitual sin, like an addiction of some sort. A suggestion comes into his mind saying, "Just sin and get it over with, then you can at least pray in repentance." Of course this is a trick because the good of repentant prayer--which is a familiar place for our victim--is set up (falsely) as a way to get him to give up the fight. His greater familiarity--and hence comfort--with the state of praying as a repentant sinner is used to get him to give up the newer and much more awkward and uncomfortable position of being in the spiritual combat.


UPDATE: Credit where credit is due. Since this morning I have begun to suspect that I got at least the idea of 2. from Fr. Benedict Groeschel's The Courage to be Chaste. I can't check or give a citation because I gave away my copy some years ago. Nevertheless, it's a good book and I recommend it.

11 comments:

Adoro said...

This is a great post, Father, thank you!

Matt G. said...

What advice would you give someone who you thought might have diabolical influence? I guess the better question is, how would you, as a priest, "arm" such a person for spiritual combat?

Brother Charles said...

The first tactic is mockery. Humorlessness and self-importance are two of the great weaknesses of all sin and evil. Exploit them.

ben in denver said...

I used to work with the psychiatrically ill adolescents. Prior to this work, I never took the diabolical very seriously. Over the course of working with these young people I developed a strong devotion to St. Michael.

I have come to believe through my experience that what the diabolical really wants is to degrade the human person, both body and soul. My sense is that the diabolical is more involved in sins when the dignity of the person is being attacked or destroyed. I have seen this most often in cases where people degrade themselves, but the time it most disturbed me was a case that involved the degradation of others as well.

Paul A. Zalonski said...

Yes, this is good post. Thanks. I have to admit that theological training at WJST never addressed the matter of the diabolical and yet the seriousness of the diabolical in life is so very crucial today. Anecdotally I've heard the exorcists in various US dioceses and in Rome are busy. Moreover, there's been "in service" days in dealing with the spiritual life viz. the diabolical and other sins.

Hence I think you are on to something here, especially by raising our awareness of the role of Satan in leading people to sin especially those claiming to be pious. The type of sin the penitent asserts always needs context. I tend to think the devil is not going to work his magic in profound ways. That is, I am inclined to think most people are mediocre sinners they are mediocre pray-ers.

Your second point, Friar Charles, is accurate. Experience indicates this point.

I believe Ben is correct: the reduction of the "I", that is, the dignity of the WHOLE person, is heart of sin. Fr Luigi Giussani spent a lifetime to speaking about this problem man and woman today. You can read his take on the reduction of the "I" in The Religious Sense and other works of his.

Finally, I find myself praying the prayer to St Michael following Mass and others times during the day. The prayer to St Michael was one of the prayers after Mass prior to the V2 "renewal" of the Mass and sadly dropped. The Leonine prayers make an impact. In my summer parish assignment the faithful pray St Michael's prayer aloud after the priest enters the sacristy. Prayer to the Guardian Angel is important, too.

Brother Charles said...

I agree Paul, that the desuetude of the Leonine prayers is a loss.

I once heard that at least the inclusion of the prayer to St. Michael in them derives from an experience that Leo XIII had of the devil, but I don't know this to be true.

jake said...

Your comment about mockery reminds me of a story I think I read about St Theresa(?). She is asleep and is woken up by the Devil and simply says "Oh, it is you again!" and then she turns over and goes back to sleep! Nothin' doing just the Devil again!

Jeanne said...

Great post Brother Charles. I went through 12 years of Catholic school and something like 20+ years of homilies and never once heard about things like this until I went to a friend's Protestant church! Now I am hearing more Catholic clergy talking about this. We need more sound teachings from the church on this. They exist, but aren't spread (at least not where I am or lived in the past).

Paul A. Zalonski said...

Friar Charles: I heard the same story about Leo XIII. It must be true. Get the parish to pray the prayer aloud following Mass. Would the pastor allow it?

Jeanne: You will hear more and more of this type of spiritual talk in homilies and catechism/faith formation.

Spiritual combat is not well-favored in many seminaries but all would admit the rise of attachment to evil. Let's call it what it is: Satan's influence. In the sacristy one of the 4th graders referred to the rosary as able to help in spiritual combat. Wasn't I surprised!

Anonymous said...

Scary point in your post where you write, and then also in your comements, "I think it's a mistake for a devout person to think that the devil will try to tempt her to sin in ways that are obviously crude and worldly. It is the devil's joy to have us be as religious as could be, so long as we do it his way. So the diabolical attacks on devout people take the form of temptations to spiritual vanity, self-righteousness." It sounds like you are saying that the pious souls who are actually advancing (since we are either advancing or going backwards, according to all the saints who have written about the spiritual life) who sees that crudeness and worldlines are things which they prefer to avoid out of love for God are lying to themselves and slaves to the demonic?
In other words, something that is crude and wordly is not something that should be avoided if possible, and to think so is "self-righteous" and "over-religious". Then you write that one must combat such pious souls (such as were the saints):
"The first tactic is mockery. Humorlessness and self-importance are two of the great weaknesses of all sin and evil. Exploit them."

Wow.

Brother Charles said...

Not at all, anonymous! Pious souls who are advancing by truly despising the passing pleasures of this world and who set their sight on what is above are blessed indeed!

The devil's tactic with such souls is to make them self-satisfied in their own excellence, and to look down on everyone else. The gift of sanctity--and this is the secret of the saints--is that holiness places us below everyone else, in the place of our humble and suffering Lord.

Thanks for the comment!