Be strong in the Lord, and in the strength of His might. Put on the full armor of God, that you may be able to stand firm against the schemes of the devil. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places. Therefore, take up the full armor of God, that you may be able to resist in the evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm. — Ephesians 6:10-13
Journalist Rod Dreher recently recounted a disturbing story on his blog. A Catholic friend of his – respectable, upper middle-class, devout, normal in every sense of the word – confided to him in a phone call recently that his wife has been undergoing regular exorcisms.
The friend – whom Dreher calls “Nathan” – explains that it all began normally enough, when his wife fell into a state of depression, a condition that she had suffered from as a teenager. This time, however, there were other, far stranger symptoms, beginning with a strong aversion to religious items. It escalated from there. Now, writes Dreher, “The wife goes through periods in which she hears foul blasphemies, and feels compelled to commit suicide. In the exorcism sessions, Nathan says the demons, under compulsion from the exorcist, speak of these things — in particular, how they intend to destroy Nathan’s wife, and her family life.”
Dreher insists that his friend is the furthest thing from a pseudo-mystical nut, given to strange spiritual enthusiasms or to finding angels and demons under every rock. The diagnosis of possession was a last resort, when all other natural explanations were ruled out.
As Catholics, we know that the devil is real. However, it sometimes seems that we do everything possible to avoid this reality. The idea that there are malevolent forces at work in the world drawing souls away from God into hell, and otherwise sowing chaos and confusion, is a deeply unsettling one. It is far more comfortable to assume a modern, rational, “reasonable” faith, one that downplays some of the stranger spiritual doctrines of Christianity and that focuses instead on pursuing moderate moral reform and positive social change.
Nathan and his wife no longer have the luxury of believing in this comforting version of “Christianity lite.” Spiritual warfare has come to their doorstep in a way few of us can imagine. The mysterious world of warring spirits, of heaven and hell, of damnation and redemption, of good and evil, is a daily reality for them. When coming face to face with the devil, the shades of gray in which we like to spend most of our days fade against a backdrop of starker colors.
Spiritual Warfare Surrounds Us
In many respects, the same is increasingly true of all Christians. Every day, it seems, we are being confronted with deeds of such profound evil that it is difficult to interpret them according to that standard modern moral code: i.e. that everyone is more or less “well-intentioned,” and that if we only walked a mile in their shoes, we might understand. Who, for instance, can read the Pennsylvania grand jury report detailing decades of clerical sex abuse without feeling a gut-wrenching sickness, without feeling that here we are coming face-to-face with evil, that we have entered a world devoid of comforting shades of grey, but one rather that is utterly suffused with a corruption that is darker than merely human.
For many people, the reality that evil of such a degree exists, and surrounds us, has come as a cold shock. Many simply do not know how to process it. On the other hand, for those of us involved full-time in the pro-life movement, the reality of such evil is unavoidable. To stay truly informed about the pro-life issues is to routinely read stories about abortionists “twisting” the heads off babies, of hospital staff abandoning living babies to slowly die after botched abortions, of abortionists negotiating the best prices for the bodies of the babies they have killed; it is to watch videos of abortion clinic works sorting through the disembodied limbs of fully formed babies to find fresh organs to sell; it is to listen to self-proclaimed “Catholic” politicians unapologetically defending the “right” to crush the skulls and suck out the brains of babies who are already halfway out of their mothers’ birth canals. In some cases, the diabolical underpinning of abortion becomes explicit, as when abortion supporters openly invoke Satan.
To read these stories is to know what St. Paul meant, when he said that “our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12).
Meanwhile, every day Christians are being confronted with ever more extreme moral innovations in the face of which silence or reasonable “dialogue” no longer seems an option: “drag queen” story-time in our public libraries, transgenderism in our kindergarteners’ classrooms, overt Satanism in mainstream movies and entertainment, students hounded for gently speaking up for basic moral truths about life and the family, Christian business-owners tarred and feathered for politely defending their beliefs, and Christian doctors being told to reject the Hippocratic oath, ignore their consciences and accept the “new” moral norms. I am far from the only one to note that our culture’s rejection of the old moral consensus is rapidly escalating, and that to even politely resist the new status quo is to make oneself a target of a rage that scarcely seems rational. In the face of such institutionalized evil, a lukewarm faith no longer seems a viable option – only holiness suffices.
Spiritual Warfare Is Closer Than We Realize
C.S. Lewis famously stated that “the devil’s best trick is to persuade you that he doesn’t exist.” To forthrightly face the horrors of the sex abuse crisis or of legalized abortion or the attacks on the family is to make it far more difficult to discount the reality of malevolence at work in the world. However, one needn’t go so far afield as that to find evil at work. Not only must we open our eyes to and face the tangible evil in the broader culture; so too must we become sensitive to the ways evil is at work far closer to home.
In the absence of prophetic preaching from our pulpits, and as a consequence of a pervasive moral relativism that affects our churches as much as our culture, many Christians have adopted a lukewarmness that blinds them to the spiritual warfare in their families and personal lives.
Some of those reading this column, for instance, may have marriages that are disintegrating due to their habitual use of pornography; they even have come to justify what they are doing, placing the blame on their spouse, or arguing with themselves that after all pornography use is “normal.” Others reading this column may be harboring deep resentment over some past injury, a resentment that has poisoned their relationship with God and with their family or neighbors. Others may be consumed by addictions to alcohol, or entertainment, or the pursuit of wealth, to the point that they have become insensitive to God’s voice in their lives.
These “everyday” forms of evil, and others like them, lack the overt sordidness of the horrors we read in newspapers. Nevertheless, they represent ways in which we have become numbed to the presence of evil in our lives, evil that is holding us back from being the saints we are called to. “The greatest sin is to lose the sense of sin!” said Pope Pius XII. Many Christians have lost the sense of sin in some part of their lives, or even altogether. Such Christians can no longer comprehend the famous saying of French author Leon Bloy, “The only tragedy in life is not to become a saint!” Everything they see is now in shades of a dull monochrome: the outlines of good and evil have faded, and their highest ambition now is to be a “nice” person. The devil has successfully persuaded them that he doesn’t exist.
Against such as these, the angel in Revelations spoke his terrifying condemnation: “So, because you are lukewarm—neither hot nor cold—I am about to spit you out of my mouth.”
The Comeback of the St. Michael Prayer
“Nathan’s” experiences with his wife’s possession has utterly changed his perspective on the faith. “Once you’ve seen reality through the eyes of spiritual warfare,” he told Dreher, “you can’t go back. It’s everywhere.”
Nathan now sees the world as St. Paul saw the world, and as traditional Christian teaching has always seen the world: a battleground in which every person is engaged in the struggle, not merely against the flesh, but “against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places.” To be a Christian is not to choose a “safe” and reasonable moral philosophy, it is to take up arms in this struggle, and to be satisfied with nothing less than holiness: “to be perfect as our heavenly father is perfect.”
The Church provides many tools to engage in this struggle. “Nathan says that this ordeal has taught him about the power of prayer, and of the Church’s weapons against these things,” writes Dreher.
This whole column, in fact, was inspired by the resurgence of one of these weapons: The Prayer to St. Michael the Archangel. For 80 years, this powerful prayer, invoking the archangel’s assistance in the battle against the “wickedness and snares of the devil,” was prayed after every single Catholic low mass. The required recitation of the prayer after Mass was suppressed during the liturgical reforms of the 1960s.
Now, however, it is making a comeback. In response to the horrors of the current sex abuse scandal, and the general confusion affecting the Church and the culture, at least 13 U.S. bishops have reportedly urged that the prayer be recited after Holy Mass. I take this as an extremely positive sign. This may, in fact, represent the “good fruit” that Christ is bringing out of the horrors of the past few months and decades.
For too long the Church has been too “comfortable.” We enjoyed social respectability. We grew soft. And in that softness, sin flourished. Now, in response to the failures of some of our pastors and shepherds, other shepherds are waking to the danger of lukewarmness. In response, they are urging their flock to take up arms and to engage in spiritual warfare, beginning by praying this prayer to St. Michael after Holy Mass. It is a good start.
I hope you too will join me in praying this prayer every single day:
“St. Michael the Archangel, defend us in the day of battle; be our safeguard against the wickedness and snares of the devil. May God rebuke him, we humbly pray, and do thou, prince of the heavenly host, by the power of God thrust down to hell Satan and all wicked spirits, who wander through the world for the ruin of souls. Amen.”