Let me first preface this by saying I do not put the word demons in the title of this post in quotes because I don’t believe in them. Quite the contrary. I know they exist, that they hate God and they hate us because we are His creation. Like most of us who are trying to make it to Heaven one day, I have suffered spiritual attack at the hands of the Enemy (read compilation with imbedded links here).
Let me also preface this post by saying as a person who has been diagnosed with a mental illness, I am sensitive to the fact that in my life and in the lives of others who suffer under such crosses, one needs to be especially discerning with being able to differentiate ordinary temptations and even obsessions from the defects of the mind wounded by mental illness. Not everything is purely psychological, but nor is every ill-fated event initiated by a henchman of Satan. Over the past twenty years of treatment and ordinary spiritual practice (Mass attendance, rosary, Confession, etc), I have largely learned to distinguish what comes from my own mind and what comes from outside of it.
This is not always easy. In my past life, my mental illness contributed to sinful behavior, which in turn took me outside of the protection of divine grace (mortal sin), which in turn probably made me more susceptible to diabolical influence. There have also been times when I was fortified in faith and prayer and was still besieged by thoughts and temptations that went beyond melancholic ruminating and clearly came from “outside the self.”
For one thing, the Diagnostic Statistical Manual (DSM) specifies that one must experience symptoms of depression for at least two weeks for a diagnosis to be given. In my case, as least, I have lived through months of depression (as well as shorter but prolonged periods of mania) which “checked all the boxes.” However, during times in which my mind was being leveraged against me by what I felt were forces foreign to it (I’m not talking about schizo-affective thoughts, but normal diabolic temptation), it was more akin to a sudden thunderstorm that came out of nowhere–fierce and violent, but dispelled rather quickly with intercessory and personal prayer. Depression tends to roll in slowly like a settling fog, and is not always dispelled so quickly, but is usually helped by medication and therapy like CBT. And clinical depression is NOT a “dark night of the soul” (which 99% of us non-mystics will probably never experience vis-a-vis St. John of the Cross).
I write all this as a precursor because I have noticed a trend in the past couple years of a kind of over-emphasis on the work of demons. You can’t open up Catholic media or YouTube today without hearing an exorcist talk about them (obviously, because that is their line of work); but the fact that we are seeing movies about Exorcists and possession, weekly “Exorcist Diary” columns, and podcasts with exorcists seems like a kind of pendulum swing. For years, modernist theologians have been downplaying and pooh-poohing the reality of evil and the demonic as literal forces in the world; now we seem to have gone the opposite extreme: demons are everywhere, and we need to bring these stories to light.
I don’t think is a bad thing, per se. But it does make me pause and wonder why these topics on the demonic are generating so much interest. Is it a chicken-and-egg scenario that such content is being produced because there is an unmet need to bring it to light? Or is it because talk about demons are the content du jour. After all, the analytics don’t lie, and if “GOOGLE:DEMONS” is getting mad hits, than why not capitalize on the interest?
Columnist John Clark made an interesting observation about this phenomenon which I stumbled upon tonight in his NC Register article:
“…As far as I know, no movie has ever been made — nor has any popular book been written — about the minor exorcism that occurs before baptism. Why not? If it is exorcism itself that attracts our interest, why aren’t more Catholics routinely attending baptisms?”
Which brings me to an interesting observation from my armchair, which is this: during my time on social media, the Facebook posts that generated the most “buzz” were not the quote-unquote “boring” posts on prayer, the sacraments, theology, instances of charity, etc. They were the spiritually salacious ones posted to stir controversy, incite a misguided zeal or “rouse the troops” (See my post Fifty Shades of Rage). These were the posts with 200+ comments, the ones that made bored Catholics say “Oooo, I wonder what’s going on here?” and then add to the pile.
These back-and-forth exchanges were rarely spiritually edifying, stoked unnecessary curiosity, encouraged juvenile sound-offs, incited pride and vanity and attention-seeking, and contributed to wasted time and energy that would have been better spent in the, yes, boring work of prayer or spiritual reading. I should know, because I often posted and took part in such things myself. It’s one of the reasons why I eventually cut the cord with my engagement on social media: I didn’t like the wolf I was feeding, in myself first and foremost, but also what I was contributing in the world of online Catholic culture.
When I hear someone say, “my AV equipment wasn’t working because SATAN” or “I got a flat tire because…DEMON!”, I don’t discount that the Devil can disrupt our lives and attempt to derail the good in these ways. Like I said, I’ve had times when both grace was apparent and undeniable (though from a skeptic’s perspective, could have just been a matter of luck or timing), as well as instances of diabolic interference.
But I also don’t want to give the Devil more than his due. I like what Saint John of the Cross reassuringly says here:
“When the soul is clothed in faith the devil is ignorant of how to hinder it, neither is he successful in his efforts, for faith gives the soul strong protection against the devil, who is the mightiest and most astute enemy.”
We don’t spend a lot of time here in our household thinking or talking about demons. Especially for children, it is not always good to give undue emphasis to these things, given their impressionable imaginations and the potential susceptibility towards scruples. Yes, we have blessed salt and Epiphany water handy, as well as my copy of Deliverance Prayers for the Laity at my prayer station, and have found it effective in more than one instance with both myself and my children. But that was not because of the presence of demons, but the power of faith and grace. And remember–sacramentals are activated by faith. When our Lord couldn’t work miracles in His hometown, it was due to a lack of faith.
Faith, like a marriage, is grace…but it is also hard work. You have to tie yourself to the mast sometimes and just hold on in the dark night, not succumbing to the temptations to flee or violate your vows or throw in the towel. The ordinary things of marriage–the cleaning up after yourself, the being faithful, the deferring your preferences for your spouses’ sake–these are the things that go unnoticed and uncommented on, which don’t generate the viral hits but which constitute the daily instances of dying to self: the brick-by-brick foundation which is built up over time.
When your faith is fortified because it has not been built on the whims of sand and curiosity or trends, you shouldn’t fear the devil because, as St. John of the Cross says, faith gives strong protection against the devil. This is true even when the devil is the mightiest and most astute enemy and you are….well, you. That is because we do not rest on our own power, but in the mantle of the Theotokis and sanctifying grace which comes from God, who has the Devil on a leash.
Daily prayer, daily rosary, regular confession, reading of holy scripture, reception of the Eucharist…these are the “boring basics” we should be concentrating on building brick-by-brick into the foundation of our faith lives. It’s not glamorous. It’s not podcast worthy. It doesn’t get the hits. But it doesn’t mean we can’t learn about how to engage in battle with the Enemy. Read The Spiritual Combat (Dom Scupoli), or Discernment of Spirits (St. Ignatius) for starters. Read the lives of the saints who have the scars and have come out on the other side.
To the degree an interview with an exorcists aids one’s building brick-by-brick the foundation of faith, then okay. But when it becomes simply an opportunity for content creation, or a 2nd-party revenue stream riding the coattails of cultural curiosity, then maybe that focus would be better spent getting “back to basics.”