“Come Holy Spirit and Fill the Hearts of Your Faithful….” Days after celebrating Pentecost, as Christians we have rekindled our devotion to the third person of the Trinity, perhaps praying once again for his presence and help. But at the same time as we call on the Holy Spirit, teens in the wider culture are calling for a different sort of spirit—namely, the Devil.
Just as people regularly fail to take seriously tarot cards or Ouija boards, the digital generation is wading into dangerous waters with the #charliecharliechallenge played out on Twitter. Roughly based on an old Mexican practice, people are attempting to contact a “ghost” named Charlie by placing pencils in the form of a cross. Within the squares the pencils create, the user writes the words “yes” and “no” and then calls out to Charlie. If the pencils move and point to the word “yes,” the participant assumes Charlie is there and begins to ask him questions.
The Twitter storm over this demonic practice contains a mixture of skepticism, belief, joking around and, yes, even fear when the person actually experiences something they perceive as paranormal. For most people, the CharlieCharlie Challenge is just another fun trend to engage in online. But as Catholics, it is easy to recognize the danger that both participants and society as a whole has found itself in.
In a theology lesson some years ago that I’ll always remember, a priest taught my high school class that there are no ambivalent spirits, they are only good or evil. It is for this reason that the fuzzy sort of spiritualism is so insidious. From what sort of philosophical system springs the belief that there are “supernatural forces out there” and that is somehow harmless to call upon them. It is clear in this most recent example that many believe that paranormal experiences can occur—and rightly so. The problem becomes when they are not praying to God, but rather dabbling in inviting a mysterious spiritual being to present himself.
We know that demonic possession is real and present in our world today. And while exorcists rightly do not broadcast the details of their work, each diocese has a trained exorcist for a reason. What can seem like a harmless, or even exciting, game can quickly become an encounter not with the ghost “Charlie,” but a demon.
Of course, this disbelief in evil forces is found even amongst Christians. How often do you hear preaching about the existence of evil or the devil during Mass? How many people know the purpose of the St. Michael prayer? “Protect me from the wickedness and snares of the devil” too often seems like an anthropomorphism of a warm and fuzzy wish to “be a loving person” rather than a plea for protection from the grasp of the overlord of hell.
In a famous passage of C.S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters, Screwtape advises his fellow demon Wormwood that “Our policy, for the moment, is to conceal ourselves.” The strategy here is that we will not guard ourselves against evil if we don’t really believe it exists. Fr. Amorth, a Roman exorcist, says that we are in the most danger from the devil when we do not believe in his existence.
This trend in the Church is certainly reflective of a wider lack of awe. In contrast to the teens engaged in calling on Charlie, many teens the world over were recently confirmed. During the catechesis leading up to reception of the sacrament they are, hopefully, learning about the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit. One of these is “Wonder and Awe.” This gift allows us to recognize the power and majesty of God and have a healthy fear of being separated from him. This idea of holy fear is undoubtedly counter cultural. People mistakenly want an innocuous deity that conforms to their own vision of the world, not a God who is the Way, the Truth and the Light.
Games like the #Charliecharliechallenge are an illusion in more ways than one. For some, the game may seem to fit the dictionary definition of “a thing that is or is likely to be wrongly perceived or interpreted by the senses.” If, for example, the pencil moves when Charlie is called upon, the participant puts it down to a party trick, a mere illusion. But perhaps we should consider the Middle English root of the word “deception” or even further back, the Latin root, which is “to mock.”
We would all do well to take Screwtape’s words to heart. What can seem like a harmless game—that we want to dismiss because we don’t want to face the reality of the presence of evil—can be one of many illusions put in place by the Great Deceiver. He indeed mocks and deceives, and is certainly not above manipulating people’s ignorant desires for answers to life’s problems or just a little paranormal entertainment into an opening for his own demonic entrance into their lives.