September 22, 2010

Ramblings on the devil

I was in a conversation yesterday in which someone asserted that he did not believe in the devil. Even though the Church clearly teaches the existence of Satan and the other fallen angels, (see Catechism of the Catholic Church, 391 and following) I think it's not unusual for us Catholics to see such doctrine as imaginary.

I have mixed feelings about this. Certainly we ought to believe in the devil and the fallen angels, not only because it is an article of the faith, but because it is the devil's will that we don't. On the other hand, our concepts of faith and belief are so fragile in our time that perhaps sometimes we're better off not believing in the devil, or at least not having any excuse to advert to his existence. Let me try to explain what I mean.

I think that most people believe in God in some fashion. People easily say that they believe or assent to the idea of a 'supreme being' or an 'intelligent designer' or some other human description of deity. What we fail to do is to believe God, that is to say assent to and believe what this God has said about himself through divine revelation. If God is indeed God, then his communication is primary by definition and demands our total and complete attention and response. Our failure at this, as individual Christians, as Church, and as humanity in general is what reveals our lack of genuine belief.

In fact, then, our society's manner of believing in God is often the way in which we ought to believe in the devil. We 'believe in God' but we do not always 'believe God.' Likewise, we should believe in the devil, but not believe him. For everything the devil says is a lie. Even when it contains something like the truth, is is framed in such a way to mislead us and introduce further misery into the world. Therefore I think the devil rejoices somewhat in the civil faith that posits supreme beings and intelligent designers, for such a faith allows us to think of ourselves as theists while simultaneously absolving us of the duty of religion. It gets us to the old assertion, 'I'm spiritual, but not religious.' That is to say that I am comforted and supported somewhat by something transcendent, spiritual, or supernatural, but am not challenged in any difficult way by what it demands. I am comforted but not converted.

On the other hand, my experience in the care of souls has convinced me that it can sometimes be quite unhelpful to give attention or thought to the devil. Classically, our temptations and difficulties arise from three sources: the world, the flesh, and the devil. My experience leads me to believe that diabolical temptations are the rarest. Indeed, I think it is one of the devil's standard victories to have us blame our worldly and fleshly temptations on him in such a way as to avoid our own responsibility to them. E.g. 'the devil made me do it.' No. I did it. Yes, my thoughts are confused and my will is wounded, but most of my temptations are from the occasions of sin that arise through my own fault, distraction, and spiritual torpor. So many times it turns out that blaming the devil for our temptations and sins is actually a distraction in itself and thus an oblique victory for the devil. This is not to say that there aren't actual diabolical temptations, but I think that they are rare. We are very good at displacing the source of our troubles when it comes to our spiritual life. 'Father, my husband has a drinking problem so I need you to put holy water on the house.' 'The brothers in this community keep me from having the prayer life I want.' 'How can someone be chaste in this culture.' There is no end to such examples.

So let's believe in the devil, but not believe him. Let us be quick to acknowledge his danger and influence, but recognize as a temptation the ease of allowing it to relieve us of our responsibility for ourselves.


ben in denver said...

While I certainly wouldn't discount the temptations that come from the world or the flesh--they certainly come up in confession often enough--I think that diabolical temptations are far more serious a problem.

I would include as a temptation of diabolical temptations to spiritual aphathy, dispair, hoplessness, doubt, unbelief, faithlessness, atheism, anger with God, anxiety, and sins against the Holy Ghost.

I think our world is terribly infected with these sins.

For A time I didn't really believe in the power of the Devil either, but then I worked in mental health for a while and came to know too many people whose temptations could in no way be described as worldly or fleshy, and I also came to see how such temptations operated on me to a lesser degree.
Generally, I think that people need to take the devil more seriously.

We have recently been afflicted by a series of hardships that really seems to closely connected to have been coincidental. Our response to the Devil's temptation to anxiety, doubt fear and hoplessness has been to call the priest and have him come bless and exorcise our home (which will hopefully happen next week), thus participating in Our Lord's victory over Satan.

Greg said...

Great topic for discussion.

Perhaps the informal research you have done, your observations, point to a deficit elsewhere — in spiritual formation.

I would be reticent to speak about the Devil or demons to most people, as I know the discussion would only cause major confusion. They have no preparation for such a discussion.

In order to engage in such talk, I believe one must prepare someone in the positive spiritual aspects of the faith — one must truly know how to live as a spiritual disciple of Christ before one even contemplates "going to battle."

In parishes I know, such training, such additional catechesis, is not even discussed, let alone engaged.

In the Bible we find Christ healing, over and over again, by commanding demons to depart. When we speak to many (most) priests today (who were trained in seminaries in the sixties) we find they (mis)translate those demons into the language of psychology and consider they are metaphorical demons that simply refer to dark aspects of our personality. This leads to failure to heal and failure to convert.

Perhaps the path to restoring our awareness is increased retreat work with religious who have spent more than the usual time in "the caves of LaVerna." We need a program for those who truly want to engage The Soul's Journey into God.

Thank you for raising a vital topic that so many avoid.

Lee Gilbert said...

For me the dynamics of forgiveness illustrate the scope of our problem with demons.

So many people, everyone I think at one time or another, wrestles with the problem of forgiveness. They need to forgive. They want to forgive. But they cannot effectively forgive, because they no sooner forgive the person and the wonderful forgiveness feelings are bathing their souls with tenderness when the thought of the original offense comes to mind. It chills their hearts and soon they are back to square one, hostile, bitter and angry.

Bear with me, since this is on topic...

Several decades ago I ran across a teaching that delivered me from this cycle. It goes like this: First, forgiveness is a choice, not a feeling, so make a simple choice to forgive. Done. Simple as pie.

SECONDLY, and most importantly, pray for the person. Not a rosary, not a novena, just a simple almost perfunctory prayer, an Our Father, Hail Mary and Glory Be will do the trick.

Repeat as often necessary and soon you will be free of unforgiveness.

BUT WHY? I have often used this method and it has helped me wonderfully, but why?

The only conclusion I could come up with is that satan will not tempt us if he finds that his temptations lead us to pray. In other words, all those reminiscences and thoughts that lead us back to the offending moment and that are intended to spark animosity in our hearts are from the evil one.

So also all the other thoughts intended to lead us astray, thoughts that do not arise from within our own minds, but our whispered in our ears so to speak.

In this way, for me at least, the scope and nature of his activity has been experimentally verified.

V. Save Your servants
R. Who hope in You, my God
V. Be to us Lord a tower of strength.
R. In the face of the enemy.
V. Let the enemy have no power over us.
R. And the son of iniquity be unable to harm us.

Elizabeth Mahlou said...

I have found that the deeper the conversion (as one progresses along the path of continual ever-deeper conversion), the more likely one is to experience evil (Satan, demonic confusion/temptation) in ways that are indisputably real.

Sara said...

Br. Charles, I think the unbelief in the devil and the civil faith that you talk about are deeply connected. If there aren't really any "bad guys" then we can de-claw the good guys.

Jeanne said...

Excellent post. I'm always surprised when people tell me they believe in God and angels, but not in the devil or fallen angels. We live in a world of light and dark, good and evil...and yet people just want to believe in the light and good.