The Catechism of the Catholic Church declares that the devil is not only real, but most certainly is not just some blind impersonal force in human affairs. The devil is a thinking creature who delights in the temptation and torture of human beings. In John 8:44, Jesus speaks of the devil as “A murderer from the beginning, … a liar and the father of lies.” He who tempted Eve with the supreme lie was a pernicious being then called Serpent; so it is not without good reason that we naturally refer to an instigator of evil as “a snake in the grass.”
Over the last three centuries a plethora of skeptics, both inside and outside the Church, have downgraded the devil to a mysterious psychological force in those who have an amoral view of life, or are simply deranged. The reasons for doubts about the devil are no more logical than the reasons for doubts about the existence of God. But since there is no reason to believe there is a God – so the skeptic reasons – why should there be a devil? Strangely, the skeptic can dismiss equally all evidence for both God and the devil, that evidence being suggested through the vast witness most people have of both holiness and evil among humans. Yet the skeptics who deny both God and Satan have never successfully addressed the following question: If the devil does exist, is the skeptic on the devil’s side by denying both God and the devil? As G. K. Chesterton asked, is the devil’s greatest triumph that he has persuaded the modern world that both he (and God) do not exist?
Would it not be a matter of great concern to us that we know about our Enemy? Should we not acknowledge his existence, understand his destructive intent, and use the grace of God to foil his malignant design? But when was the last time anyone heard Satan mentioned in a homily? And because of that pastoral neglect, does Satan’s grip on us become tighter and tighter as time passes? It was Stephen Vincent Benét’s Devil and Daniel Webster that so cleverly reminded us of the devil’s wiles and showed us that the demon’s tricks can be overcome once we really know with whom we are dealing. C.S. Lewis in The Screwtape Letters wisely discerned and described some of the devil’s strategies. So also did Peter Kreeft in The Snakebite Letters (see my article Advice to Hell Raisers in New Oxford Review, June, 2011).
The recent sex scandals of the Church show us the Body of Christ battered, bruised, and bloodied yet again. This, no doubt, is a great achievement of the devil. But as Jacques Maritain once reminded us in his book On the Church of Christ, while the Church is the Body of Christ, this Body is filled not with sin (as its enemies would have us believe) but with sinners in need of redemption. If there is a favored target for the devil to shoot his arrows at (because that target poses for him the greatest threat) it is surely the Catholic Church, and this we know by how many arrows have scandalously hit their mark.
But if the devil has his strategies for defeating us, we can just as surely have our strategies for defeating him. How else can we begin but by giving ourselves to the power of prayer? Jesus taught us how to pray, and assured us our prayers would be answered. In the Lord’s Prayer it is significant that the prayer ends with the climactic request “lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” In I Peter 5:7 we find the prayer of the first pope: “Be sober and vigilant. Your opponent the devil is prowling around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.” By the 19th century it was apparent to Pope Leo XIII that the world was being led into the most fatal of temptations by Satan … rank and promiscuous liberalism. And so we have that second prayer composed by a pope directed against the power of Satan, the great prayer to St. Michael the Archangel to defeat the evil one, recited at the end of every low Mass from the time of Pope Leo until after Vatican II, when as never before liberal theology began to raise aloft its ugly head inside the Catholic Church.
Prayers to the Virgin Mother are also efficacious. It was in Genesis 3:15 that God said to the Serpent “I will put enmity between you the woman.” The Mother of God, while her son agonized on the cross, was the only woman who ever suffered more anguish than guilty Eve. Eve got us into trouble, Mary can get us out. Mary without sin is the one person in heaven to have the most influence with prayers to the Father that we might be spared the fate of the damned. To be rescued by saving grace from the sins against sexual purity, she above all can be the saint to whom we pray.
Spiritual writers tell us if we pray for wisdom first, all other goods may follow. This is because we need to have the power of insight into the choices we make between knowledge and ignorance, pride and humility, love and hate, faith and unbelief, God and Satan. The sacrament of Confirmation bestows the grace of wisdom, and wisdom is listed first among the seven gifts from the Holy Spirit we receive with that sacrament. Is it not remarkable that in our society today wisdom is so little looked for and treasured? Knowledge, yes. Cleverness, yes. Wisdom…not so much. Let us define wisdom, and then we see the importance of looking for it. Wisdom, according to one who says he has found it, is the deliberate habit of searching for the good, the true, and the beautiful. It is likewise the habit of discerning the bad, the false, and the ugly. Wisdom is not ingrained as a natural human trait. It is, rather, cultivated by being taught, or by learning from the experiences of life, or by some unaccountable inspiration. Some refuse to be taught, other refuse to learn.
In Proverbs 9:10 we hear about wisdom: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding.” Yet it is wisdom to choose the fear of the Lord, and most unwise to reject God’s counsel while turning to Satan for our comforts. We also act foolishly when rejecting our teachers who are showing us the wisdom of turning to God and listening to Him. One of those teachers, St. Jose Escriva, advised that we have the wisdom always to make important decisions only in the conscious presence of God, for if our very first inclination is ill-advised, God will grant us to see that it comes from the devil.
Wisdom’s great partner is Prudence; for as someone has said, prudence is the footprint of wisdom, which might be illustrated by the old saying, if you have the wisdom and courage to tell the truth, you should also have the prudence to ride a fast horse. Prudence, for the wise person, is careful and protective. If wisdom is seeing and saying things that need to be said, prudence is knowing the right moment to say them. If wisdom is liberal in giving of itself, prudence is conservative in not giving too much. The way for the wise person to unwisely offend others is to oppress them with his vast and ever superior insights. The point of prudence is to hold wisdom in its place; for wisdom, if it is not kept in check, may end in rancid vanity.
It is not possible to be truly wise without knowing how little we know. Therefore, humility is the fuel that generates wisdom, for the wise person never tires of seeking all things that are good, true, and beautiful. It is humility’s opposite, pride, that fuels the laziness of the ignorant who believe they know all they need to know, and who scorn books from which they can learn and teachers who could impart knowledge to them. It would have been the height of wisdom for Adam and Eve to have had the humility to obey God’s command, and by that obedience to have seen through the Serpent’s treachery. But Satan’s trick was too much for their pride … could they not become gods in their own right? Without humility, wisdom will serve in the end to defeat so-called wise men, as King Solomon, reputed the wisest of men, learned to his great chagrin. For Solomon, with all his wisdom, did not recognize the definition of humility given us by St. Bernard: “humility is the virtue by which a man comes to be despicable in his own eyes through the discovery and knowledge of what he really is.”
Allied to humility is obedience to righteous authority, first God’s, and then obedience to righteous authority everywhere, from parents to the state wherever such authority reflects God’s will. “Liberty is obedience to the law which one has laid down for oneself,” said Rousseau. But this is the beginning of anarchy and nihilism. The law one has laid down for oneself has no necessary imprimatur from God, and may well reflect the devil’s own inspiration. This is one reason why Rousseau’s enormous influence in the history of politics gave atheism more respect than it deserved. With a single sentence he removed God from all considerations of right and wrong, which since his time has encouraged the gradual triumph of moral relativism.
Now we look at patience, which gets little recognition or use as a weapon against Satan, who lures us into wrongdoing on the principle that we should get our pleasures in life, and get them sooner rather than later. We have all heard of the impatient Christian who prays to God for some important gift or favor, and upon not seeing the request immediately granted, blames God for failing to come through. and this is followed by turning his back upon God altogether. As Archbishop Fulton Sheen used to say, all prayer are answered with Yes, No, or Wait! Scripture reminds us that our inherited punishment for the original sin of Adam and Eve is that we would all have to toil our way through life. No one escapes the punishment. Seeking impatiently to subvert life’s toil by robbing a bank, for example, ends more often than not in the more tiresome toil of the prison work yard. One might learn patience by waiting many years for parole, but it would be the hardest way to learn patience.
The Theological Virtues
Then we come to three great weapons for defending ourselves from Satan: faith, hope, and charity. St. Paul said charity is the greatest of these. St. Augustine puts a different slant on it. “There is no love without hope, no hope without love, and neither hope nor love without faith.” Faith is the prism by which we see God in varying degrees of focus. It is no accident that those without faith tend in some ways to be cynical and without hope or tender feelings for others. The prisons are full of people without faith. Those involved in prison ministry often note how few prisoners attend worship services. They are hostile or indifferent to faith and have lost hope in their own salvation. Is there any reason to wonder why anger grows behind prison walls?
Faith in the supernatural life of the soul lifts the human heart above its purely animal self. By faith in God’s love and mercy, we are able to acquire an attitude toward material things that preserves us from the fate of being greedy for worldly goods. Likewise, every community of the faithful protects us from the isolation that lack of faith produces. Satan loves lonely souls, and why shouldn’t he? A legion of devils can surround and defeat those souls who, lacking God and fellow faithful in their lives, are without the power and grace to resist.
A thousand years ago human flight to the moon would have been considered preposterous by skeptical thinkers. Yet how do we know that at some unspecified moment the Holy Spirit did not plant the seed of faith and guide the imagination and reason of men toward the great event? May we suspect that every doubting Thomas will someday take the first step toward religious faith? If it is Satan’s strategy to persuade us that we can get along without faith, and without God’s grace, this strategy has worked in billions of souls since the dawn of human history. The devil wants us to have faith in nothing and no one, and does not even want us to believe in him; for to believe in him is to know the enemy and be able to detect his evil designs.
Saint Anselm said, “I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand.” Every person of science and invention understands this principle. Imagination is the gateway to truth. The inventor imagines the airplane before he understands the principles of flying. Einstein imagines curved space before anyone can prove that space is curved. What seems impossible is proven possible. This is how we come to God, with an open heart and an open mind. Faith is a thing we grow into, not a thing that we find all of a sudden. Atheism is the premature closing of the mind and the heart to the growth of faith. For self-evident reasons, in many people atheism takes hold in the early years of life when emotions like anger and rebellion are able overcome the power of reason.
Faith is a willingness to follow. Without faith, we are like sheep without a shepherd. We lose our way just because there is no one who cares enough to guide us. This is why Jesus so often used the analogy of the sheep and the shepherd. The main symbol of a bishop’s authority is the shepherd’s staff. He is the one we turn to because, like our Lord, he is supposed to care. He is not in it for the glory and benefits of office, or to wield unseemly power over others. He is in that role because he cares enough to lay down his life should the wolves from hell attack his sheep. The persecution of the Church almost always begins with the bishops, and the recent fate of the wrongly imprisoned Cardinal George Pell perfectly illustrates this point.
Hope is the least talked about and most persistent of all virtues. There is not a day goes by that we do not experience a horde of hopes both material and spiritual. As the saying goes, hope springs eternal. It is the easiest of virtues to acquire, the hardest to abandon. Hope concerns most of all not what we think or what we do, but what we desire. We think we shape our own desires, and sometimes we do; but sometimes we do not. God, our parents, and the world compete to influence what we should desire. The competition is fierce. It is our hope in God that Satan wishes to crush, and it is the persistence of our hope that frustrates the devil’s plan. Do we hope to be immortal? Do we hope for everlasting joy? If Satan can blast those hopes, half of the worst he can accomplish is done.
Satan in hell is hope-less, and since misery loves company, we can understand why he wants us to join him there. The more we are deprived of this or that, the more we hope. Hope flourishes best in our darkest hour. This is why greedy people who have too much seem not to hope. They have nothing left to hope for. Some kill themselves with boredom and debauchery. Then there are those who despair at the enormity of their temptations. Rather, they should be full of hope even then. As Saint John Vianney said, “The greatest of evils is not to be tempted, because then there are grounds for believing that the devil looks upon us as his property.” When in doubt about whether we should hope for this or that, perhaps the best test to apply is whether Jesus would have hoped for it. For example, would Jesus have hoped for a trip to Las Vegas?
Aside from food and water, everything else can be taken from us and we can survive … everything but hope. This is why, where children are concerned, there is cruelty in telling them there is no God, that they have no immortal soul, and sooner or later they will be food for worms. We cannot know how many children force-fed this dark philosophy have been wounded to the depths of the soul. Children whose hopes are viciously dashed by their parents do not have to grow up vicious. They can grow up, by the grace of God, determined to plant hope in their own children. Losing hope is one reason why atheists have trouble passing on their legacy. And it is a basic reason why atheism fails in the long run to eclipse religion and religion’s ally, Reason itself. After all, is it not more reasonable to be guided by hope than by resignation to despair?
God is love, said St. John. This is what makes us all godly, our friendship with God, which at first is weak but subject to supernatural growth when rightly nurtured. There is a natural human love between husband and wife that in youth cannot be compared with any other love in the world. Lovers before the altar turn away from the altar toward each other to exchange their vows. The only love greater is when a husband and wife in their last years turn away from each other toward the altar for their lasting consolations. This may signify that at long last, Satan is in retreat.
Love is essentially giving, and so its other name is charity. Jesus gives us life and love. The Serpent gives us hate and death. St. Paul said charity is greater than faith. He does not say why. Perhaps it is because people can be divided by faith, but are united by charity. Some say it is no virtue to give unless the giving hurts. This is not what Jesus said. He said the old woman who gave her last penny to the poor gave more than the rich man. He did not say the rich man’s giving was not a virtue. All giving is a virtue, unless the giving is foolhardy.
Give St. Paul his due. Love is greater than hope and faith, because God is love. But it’s a shallow conclusion some may wish to draw that love will suffice – or can even exist – without faith and hope, a view we might hear especially from those who do not believe or do not hope in a loving God who is the fountain of all love. We know that the triad of meat and fruit and vegetables will nourish us though life. But if meat is the the plenitude of protein, and love is the plenitude of virtue, our bodies cannot do without our fruit and our vegetables any more than our souls can do without faith and hope. If the body fails without a holistic approach to nourishment, so does the soul!
The Vanishing Ladder
Anthony de Mello offers the spiritual metaphor of the vanishing ladder. Any authentic lift of the human spirit toward the Father involves the necessary will to climb the ladder that vanishes into heaven. We hardly ever know why the decision to climb is made at one point in our lives rather than at another. Some of us may climb to escape some evil we have experienced up close and personal. For others, the spiritual climb may not really begin until the prospect of death becomes more an approaching fact than a remote event. Yet again, just the coming of wisdom with old age is enough to help some people see the truth that will liberate them from the tenacious grip of hell’s angels.
A final thought: there are only two questions we have to answer when the Tempter’s whisper begins: who loves me more, God or Satan? And whom do I love more, the One who loves me, or the hideous one who hates me nearly as much as he hates God?