Years ago, I heard a Black Pentecostal pastor in Spokane talking about a time he and some other local non-denominational pastors had been asked by a family they knew to come and pray for their granny who, her family said, “had an evil spirit.” One of the pastors was of a more modern frame of mind, which fancies itself “open-minded” by closing itself off to the very possibility of the supernatural ever actually occurring. He somehow found himself invited to this meeting of pastors who were going to the house of this family to pray for granny. The liberal pastor reluctantly agreed and joined the circle as they gathered round granny and began to ask God to intervene on her behalf.
The doubting pastor happened to have taken up a position right behind granny, perhaps due to his reluctance to look at her face during what he considered to be a hugely superstitious bit of medieval hocus pocus. Granny, who was quite long in the tooth and rather frail, submitted to the prayer, but as it went on she began to act oddly and, quite suddenly, reached behind her (over her shoulders), seized the doubting pastor, and lifted him clean off the ground.
“That kind of thing changes your theology,” observed the Pentecostal pastor drily.
There are basically two approaches to the Church’s teaching concerning the fact of the demonic.One is the approach of the so-called rationalist, who simply rejects it all because it doesn’t fit into his philosophical system. This is called, in our culture, “the open-minded pursuit of truth wherever the facts may lead,” and it is the great stick with which to beat ignorant obscurantist theists who fear science and inquiry. You know, like Catholics.
The other approach is that of the Catholic who says, “There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy” and who, accordingly, admits the possibility that there may be something in such stories. He does not instantly credit them as true, of course, but is open to investigation and, if the facts point to the reality of such tales, to accepting them as factual. This is called “ignorance of science.” This is how we know Christians are fools whose best days are behind them and atheistic materialists are the wave of the future and Where History Is Going.
The former approach is all rage in our era of Unreason. To the question, “Does the supernatural exist?” our highly intelligent age typically replies through the organs of media with the sort of investigative curiosity that typifies this exchange between Richard Dawkins and Hugh Hewitt:
RD: You seriously do?
RD: You actually think that Jesus got water, and made all those molecules turn into wine?
RD: My God.
Chesterton sums this approach up quite nicely in his Orthodoxy:
But there’s not much point in asking, “If the devil exists, why does he allow bad things to happen?” So you have to more or less shout the whole subject down, as Dawkins shouts Hewitt down, and simply never ask yourself if there is any solid testimony to the existence of supernatural evil. The motto of the ingrained skeptic is “Don’t look,” because looking could engender awkward questions.
This sort of intellectual contraception is one of the curious marks of our age, which avoids ultimates whether of good or evil. So, for instance, oceans of ink are spent raising Darwin’s standard as the definitive disproof of the existence of God, using the approved Scooby Doo method of debunking: “That wasn’t a supernatural agency at work. That was just Old Mister Higgins in a bedsheet!” By this method, atheistic naturalists have imagined that something has been “explained” when we are told that the laws of nature are so written that hydrogen is a thing that, given sufficient time, just naturally turns into Angelia Jolie. Nobody seems to find it remarkable that there is any hydrogen at all, much less that it has to behave as it does, and that all the other physical laws are ordered to demand what they demand of time, space, matter, and energy.
Nor does anybody find it remarkable that all this is intelligible to us. It all reminds me of a child who thinks they have “explained” a computer by understanding that when you press “A” the letter “A” appears on the screen. It lacks deep curiosity to not wonder why there is Being itself, especially Being that is so manifestly contingent as ours is. So you find secularists seriously imagining they’ve resolved the mystery of existence by quipping, “Who made me? My mother and father made me!” This is radical incuriosity. Give me an ignorant medieval like St. Thomas any day. And this radical incuriosity is nowhere more evident than in the “rationalist” who simply can’t be bothered to look at things like the supernatural, whether Fatima or at certain aspects of supernatural evil, and ask, “What do these things mean?” Typically, the best you can expect from our Paladins of Reason and Science will be the old “some claims of the supernatural are fraudulent, therefore all are” trick.
In contrast is the friend I knew years ago who was an average sort of Western Washingtonian secularist but who was not afraid of Big Questions. She had a dream once in which she met a vampire and, oddly, found that, in the dream, she was relieved because her encounter with supernatural evil opened the possibility of supernatural Goodness as well. In short, she reasoned, not without merit, that if there is a devil, there has to be a God, too, and that the whole secular project was basically a childish attempt to stick one’s fingers in one’s ears rather than lift up one’s eyes and look at the immensity of the universe in which we live.
Of course, this was only a dream, but it reflects something that is quite real in the history of the Church: namely, that the confrontation between Christ and Satan is something that has had no small influence on the missionary activity of the Church. People come to Christ, at least in part, because He breaks the chains of evil that are destroying their lives. We see this already in the New Testament itself, when Jesus exorcises various people, or heals them, or otherwise liberates them from evil, and they become His followers as a result. Like the man said: “That sort of thing changes your theology.” The Blind Man in John 9 becomes a follower of Jesus not because somebody offered him a diagram of the Trinity or a theory about justification by grace through faith, but because there was one thing he knew for certain: “I was blind, but now I see.”
The mission work of the Church down through the ages has offered something very similar. While the Church does not go looking for demons under every rug, she is, as Paul was, “not unaware of his schemes” (2 Cor 2:11) and has always preserved, in her liturgical life, her catechesis, and in the lives of her saints, the awareness that we are engaged in a war that involves more than the merely human and that demonic powers are real.
The only reply modernity has to this is empty claptrap like, “But this is the 21st century!” One might just as well say, “But this is Tuesday!” It does not alter the fact that the Church, following Jesus, has always taught that there exist angelic beings (i.e., incorporeal, rational beings created by God) who have abused their free will and made themselves enemies of God and of His creatures. There’s no conceivable way science can have anything to say against that proposition and there is plenty in our history, as well as in revelation, to support it, not only reaching back to the roots of the Christian tradition and its numerous accounts of exorcism, but even further back (to the story of the Fall and of the mysterious Dark Presence who is already in the Garden before Adam and Eve get there).
Jesus, of course, takes the devil for granted as a fact, as do His apostles. As the Catechism reminds us, the devil is:
To get the hang of what I mean, consider the great icon of evil in our times: the Nazi slaughter of the Jews. This act of barbarism required something no beast was capable of: extremely and prodigious amounts of organization, foresight, rational planning, and careful thought. It was, in a word, something only persons, not animals, could have achieved. And yet the whole point and effect of the thing was to reduce human persons to numbers and, ultimately, to ashes. The devil’s work always has this creepy quality to it: because in sin both angels and men are using all the gifts God gives them to “assert their nothingness,” as Augustine puts it. And part of the lust of the demons is what C. S. Lewis describes as the aggressive desire to “extend hell — to bring it bodily, if they could, into Heaven.”
Of course, hell cannot harm God in the slightest. So hell does what all cowards do: It attacks those whom He loves. In this case, that would be us, as well as the rest of the created order wherever possible. That is the sum of the Christian picture concerning our relationship with the forces of darkness: They hate God, us, and even themselves (since they owe their existence entirely to God and are utterly dependent upon Him for what goods they still retain, such as existence, power, and will). The drama of our existence is carried out in the strange arena of a created order in which God permits such beings to act (within limits) and permits us to resist or succumb to their lies.
That’s a vision of reality that is markedly more luminous and frighteningly more dark than we generally care to face. Our radically incurious and timid culture of secularism makes a careful study of thinking about it as little as possible, all while carrying on the ridiculous charade of prattling about “freedom” versus the supposed restrictions that an evil theocratic Church is just about to impose on us all. But, in fact, our culture wants nothing to do with real freedom. It wants comfort at all costs and does not want to contemplate for a second that God has chosen to allow us to live in a very dangerous world where our choices have wide-ranging and eternal consequences. Just how dangerous may be seen in the story of what happened to God Himself when He became man. A universe where devils and men are free to conspire to visit the horrors of the crucifixion on the Creator of the Universe is not a universe where we lack freedom. It is a universe where we face such terrifying and prodigious freedom that we are constantly inventing foolish little systems of order to try to rein in our radical capacity for evil.
Jesus’ response to the radical capacity for evil of fallen angels and their human stooges is, first and foremost, prayer. On at least one occasion, He speaks of prayer as the Big Gun against the devil, instructing His disciples who had failed to cast out a devil that “this kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer and fasting” (Mk 9:29). We snicker at their lack of faith, but when was the last time you saw Christians fighting other obvious evils in this world by this means? For us, prayer is often the last, not the first, resort. It would be a striking change indeed if our culture first went to prayer instead of to court, to war, or to fisticuffs. But when this is actually recommended while the blood is up and everybody is in a frenzy of war fever, people who recommend prayer as the first option tend to get dismissed as unrealistic peace-‘n-justice types who don’t understand what it takes to oppose “real evil.” Jesus would politely dissent from the view that demons don’t constitute “real evil.”
Once the existence of the demonic is granted, we can face other problems. Lewis remarks:
I mentioned that there is another way of “believing in” the devil that has an odd affinity with such direct dabbling in the occult. This is the paranoid way that some Christians can take, which, while being called “spiritual warfare,” is actually a sort of terrified fascination with the devil that can supplant the worship of God. I have known Christians whose every waking hour was spent studying the darkness; “researching” the occult; and consuming hours, days, months, and years feverishly “making connections” between this and that feared occultic quack or movement — all in the barren and fruitless notion that they were somehow doing some good and not merely feeding an endless paranoid appetite for conspiracy. I have watched as such Christians have rendered their lives into little psychic hells in which no one could be trusted, the devil lurked behind every good thing (including the Mass itself), and the universe appeared to them to be barren of God. The problem lay not in God’s absence but with their persistent and stubborn choice to “give Satan the glory” by devoting all their waking thought to fearing him instead of loving God. It is a tragic choice, but one which we can all make in our own ways, whenever we opt to give fear, anger, doubt, and suspicion pride of place.
In contrast to all this is the healthy wayof “believing in” Satan: namely, to accept his existence as part of The Way the World Is, much the way you accept the fact of AIDS, earthquakes, and bee stings while taking care to avoid or minimize their danger. There’s no use crying over it or curling up in a helpless ball about it. Best to get on with life and follow Jesus and be aware of the devil’s schemes so that when he attacks you are not blindsided. But don’t obsess about it, either. Recall that “Greater is he who is in you than he who is in the world” (1 Jn 4:4) and get on with the life of being a disciple of Jesus.
It is notable that “Deliver us from evil” is the last, not the first, of the petitions in the Our Father. This is suggestive of the place that “fear of the devil” should have in our lives. On the one hand, we should be aware that, apart from grace, we are not adequate to deal with the Prince of This World. That’s why it’s a petition in the Our Father. As the song says,
On the contrary, that man is Jesus Christ, and Him only. To be sure, by grace, we can participate in His glorious humanity and, by the Spirit, find the strength within to overcome evil — but only by grace, not because of our native and intrinsic wonderfulness. That is why He teaches us to pray to God the Father through Him to deliver us from evil. Because we cannot deliver ourselves, whatever Yankee myths about Daniel Webster outwitting the devil may have taught Americans to think. Apart from Him, we can do nothing (Jn 15:5).
That said, however, the Christian and Catholic tradition is surprisingly lighthearted about the devil, whom medieval piety breezily called an “ass” and the ape of God. This attitude is right there in the apostolic DNA, when Paul tells us Jesus “disarmed the principalities and powers and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in him” (Col 2:15). The Catholic tradition concerning the devil tends toward “take him seriously, but hold him lightly.” It is the confidence of a tradition founded on the belief that the worst thing that could ever conceivably happen is not in some future apocalypse, but in the past, when God was murdered in the most brutal way possible — and it only served to bring about the greatest blessing God has ever wrought: the destruction of death and our incorporation into the life of the Blessed Trinity Himself. Having wrought such an Epic Fail, the devil becomes, quite rightly, a figure of fun in the Christian tradition, and Christians have a certain divinely won right to laugh in his face. We are of the Church of Peter, and the gates of hell (a defensive image from ancient siege warfare) shall not prevail against us.
Of course, this petition, like the whole of the Our Father, is corporate: Deliver us from evil. Our prayer necessarily involves the whole of the Church in all its suffering and in both heaven and earth, including the angels. Because there are devils, the Church has, from its inception, understood our deliverance from evil to involve the participation of both the saints and angels. Revelation 12, in particular, associates the battle against the ancient Dragon, who is called the Devil and Satan, with the Blessed Virgin Mary and with St. Michael the Archangel. Similarly, our prayers for those who are still being cleansed of the effects of sin and evil in their lives (in purgatory) are absolutely crucial because we are, as Paul points out “members of one another” (Rom 12:5). The interconnectedness of the communion of saints is precisely one of the things the devil loathes the most because it is the opposite of pride, which is the sin that made the devil the devil. A child who is willing to ask his mother or older brother for help is in much less spiritual danger than the fool who sings, “I did it My Way!”
Ultimately, our prayer to be delivered from evil is a prayer to be delivered from sin. The devil can throw all sorts of awful stuff at us, and some people have suffered horrible cruelties inspired by his malice. But if we do not, as a result, break our communion with God by sinning against Him, the critical aspect of the mission has failed as far as the devil is concerned. His goal is always to persuade us to imitate him in his rebellion. God can and does (when it is for our good and His glory) “deliver us from evil,” in the sense of protecting us from hurts the devil may want to inflict on our circumstances. But sometimes, God will allow the devil to inflict grievous blows on this world and His saints, just as, in His own case, He allowed Satan the lash, the crown of thorns, and the nails. But we can expect that when our hour comes, though “you will be hated by all for my name’s sake,” nonetheless “he who endures to the end will be saved” (Mt 10:22).