Pope Francis has said that “we are all tempted because the law of our spiritual life, our Christian life is a struggle: a struggle. That’s because the Prince of this world, Satan, doesn’t want our holiness, he doesn’t want us to follow Christ. Maybe some of you might say: ‘But Father, how old fashioned you are to speak about the devil in the 21st century!’ But look out because the devil is present! The devil is here . . . even in the 21st century! And we mustn’t be naïve, right? We must learn from the Gospel how to fight against Satan.”
Paul Thigpen, author of many books, including A Year with the Saints, has compiled the new Manual for Spiritual Warfare, published by St. Benedict’s Press. A handy, attractive, resource, it better equips one for spiritual battle. He talks about the book and combatting evil in the world and our hearts.
Kathryn Jean Lopez: Why is it so crucial for Christians to be prepared “to understand and defeat” Satan?
Thigpen: The first rule of any type of warfare is to know your enemy. How can you fight an adversary you can’t identify? Worse yet, how can you avoid being a casualty in a battle going on all around you if you don’t even recognize that you’re in danger?
I realize that some Christians deny the existence of demons, including Satan, as fallen angels, actual personal beings (having a mind and will, but no body) who want to see us ultimately join them in hell. Such Christians believe that evil — or, at least, moral evil — is exclusively a result of human intentions and activities. So let’s address that issue first.
It’s reasonable to assume that, for Christians, the teaching of Jesus Christ must be accepted as true and his example as normative. (Why else would we call ourselves “Christians”?) All four of the Biblical Gospels make it abundantly clear that Jesus affirmed the existence of Satan, warned us about his interference in our lives — he’s “the ruler of this world” (John 12:31), “a liar and the father of lies” (John 8:44), and more — and engaged in direct combat with demonic powers. The accounts of his exorcisms are too numerous, and too central to his ministry, to dismiss — not to mention Jesus’ encounter with the Devil himself in the wilderness (see Luke 4:1–13).
Christians must take these accounts seriously. Some would try to interpret them as nothing more than encounters with mentally or physically ill people. But if that’s the case, then one or more of the following must be true:
Jesus was ignorant of the victims’ real condition and was mistaken about the existence of unclean spirits. But for a believing Christian, how can this option be possible? The divine Son of God, through whom all things were created, was ignorant and mistaken about something so important to his ministry and mission to the human race? And he mistook an inner dialogue with himself to be a conversation with a demon in the wilderness?
Jesus was trying to accommodate the culture by deliberately misdiagnosing these maladies in accordance with the false ideas of the time, rather than correcting the ideas (which were dangerous if true) and explaining that the illnesses were illnesses, as demons don’t really exist. How could Christians affirm that the holy Son of God would engage in a deception of that sort?
On at least one occasion, Jesus cast a mental illness out of a man and into a herd of pigs (see Matthew 8:28–34). This proposition is absurd on its face, and leaves only one more option:
The Gospel accounts are historically unreliable. Jesus never taught or did these things. Once again, for the Christian, this option in untenable. If these earliest and canonical accounts of Jesus’ life are unreliable about a matter so critical to his ministry, mission, and even identity (the demons called him the “Son of God,” which is why they had to submit to his authority; see Matthew 8:29), then why accept the testimony of these books about anything else he said or did?
In addition to the Gospel accounts, the Bible affirms in many places the existence of demons and their malicious intentions toward us. For Catholics, the Church’s authoritative tradition has continued to affirm that teaching since the beginning, and Church history is filled with countless examples of exorcisms and other encounters with demonic powers.
For all these reasons, then, I think it’s crucial for Christians to be prepared to understand and defeat Satan. It’s simply not an option to do otherwise.
Lopez: I know it’s in the Bible and all, but is the Devil really “as a roaring lion . . . seeking someone to devour”? How do you know this is true?
Thigpen: Let’s lay aside for a moment the consistent, persistent witness of the Christian Scriptures and tradition. Consider the massive accumulated evidence of confirming testimony. Throughout all history, peoples of vastly different cultures around the globe have affirmed the reality of evil spirits — even when they have disagreed about most other spiritual realities. Many of our contemporaries as well, who by any reasonable standard are intelligent and in their right mind, have testified to having encounters with demonic powers.
The recent case of demonic possession in Indiana, widely publicized, provides just one example. Extraordinary, preternatural phenomena were observed and reported by objective, perfectly sane witnesses — in this case, not just family members but medical and law-enforcement personnel who had had no previous experiences of that sort or even an interest in such phenomena. They witnessed some of the classic phenomena associated with demonic possession (and infestation of a house) that had no merely natural explanation. We simply can’t dismiss such testimonies as mass hallucinations or hoaxes.
No doubt, some types of mental and physical illness have been wrongly attributed to demons, today as in the past. Nor can we deny that superstitions and legends about evil spirits abound. But these misguided ideas about the Devil don’t in themselves prove that he doesn’t exist, just as age-old beliefs about a flat earth don’t prove that our planet doesn’t exist.
Skeptics may demand “scientific” evidence. But what kind of relevant evidence would scientists be capable of measuring? The natural sciences measure matter, energy, time, and motion; the social sciences analyze human behavior. Demons have no physical bodies, and they aren’t human. We can’t put them in test tubes or subject them to psychoanalysis.
The most, then, that scientists can do is observe the effects of demons on the physical world or on human behavior. But the prevailing mentality among scientists will press them to seek other explanations for such phenomena, even when those explanations are utterly inadequate.
Lopez: Can Satan really be combated with a handbook?
Thigpen: The “father of lies” can indeed be combated with truth; that’s how Jesus engaged him and defeated him in the wilderness (by the truths of Scripture). That’s the intent of the book: to supply readers with powerful truths that will expose the Enemy for what he is; defend them from his assaults; and liberate them from the bondage of his destructive deceptions. “You will know the truth,” Jesus said, “and the truth will set you free” (John 8:32).
The first part of the book, then, lays a foundation for understanding the nature of the Enemy and his strategies; the identity and capabilities of our Commander and comrades; the weapons and armor of our warfare; and some actions to avoid because they “invite the Enemy into your camp.”
Some of the most powerful weapons in our arsenal are Scripture and prayer. So the second part of the book provides a compilation of Biblical passages and prayers with special relevance to spiritual warfare. It also includes relevant words of wisdom from the saints, along with anecdotes of spiritual combat in their lives.
Lopez: You write that
like it or not, you are at war.
No matter who you are — whether or not you know it — you have a mortal enemy who wants to destroy you, not just in this life, but in the next.
No matter where you live on this planet — whether or not you can see it — you live on a hotly contested battlefield, and you can’t escape the conflict.
It’s a spiritual war with crucial consequences in your everyday life. And the outcome of that war will determine your eternal destiny.
If this is true, then why — the hell? — are we not talking more about it?
Thigpen: The modern world is largely blinded to these realities by its pride. We see ourselves as so much more “enlightened” than our ancestors who believed such things. We confuse advances in knowledge and technique with advances in wisdom.
In particular, our scientific advances, which in themselves are marvelous, have led many to a kind of naïve and narcissistic scientism that places all its faith in human science, narrowly understood. We assume that science is capable of analyzing and understanding everything that exists, even though there are some realities it simply can’t detect, observe, or measure. In fact, we forget that, even with regard to the realities that science can work with, scientific knowledge is still growing and changing, refining itself. Theories are challenged and replaced. Paradigms shift. Frontiers expand.
In addition, our logic in these matters is often faulty. Since some cases of epilepsy or multiple-personality disorder, for example, were in the past mistakenly attributed to demons, conclude that demons must not exist at all.
Meanwhile, the Devil takes advantage of the situation (and probably helped to inspire it) because it allows him a stealth strategy: Those who deny his existence are an easy prey.
There’s yet one other important reason why so many of us don’t recognize the work of the Enemy: The kind of extraordinary phenomena that Hollywood loves to sensationalize (demonic possession, oppression, obsession, and infestation) is only a part of his activity, and not so common. His more ordinary activity in the lives of most people is extremely subtle, though effective. We can sum it up in one word: temptation.
In their ordinary activity, demons introduce into our minds various thoughts that can lead us into evil: doubts about God and his goodness, deceptions, accusations, enticements, provocations, and more. Since demons have no bodies, they can communicate these thoughts to us directly; the thoughts don’t come to us through our senses, such as seeing or hearing. This means we may have trouble discerning them as thoughts from the outside; we mistake them as our own. Once again, a stealth strategy.
Lopez: Do you worry about being sensational and unnecessarily scaring people with this combat stuff?
Thigpen: I worked hard to make the book balanced and to avoid sensationalism. A number of readers have assured me that I achieved that goal, but, of course, others may disagree. On the one hand, I don’t want people looking for a demon under every bush. On the other, the warfare is real, and we can see casualties everywhere.
Scripture warns us repeatedly about the battle for our souls, without pulling any punches because someone might be frightened by the warning. Given how little is said about it today, I would be remiss not to raise my voice.
Lopez: Pope Francis does frequently talk about the Devil. How does it mesh with all his talk of mercy and the conventional sense that he’s welcoming?
Thigpen: The Devil is unspeakably evil, and his intentions for us are the most horrifying we can imagine. To warn of his intentions and activity, then, is an act of great mercy. It’s at the very heart of the Christian proclamation: “The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the Devil” (1 John 3:8). To remain silent about this spiritual combat would be a failure in mercy.
As for whether talk of the Devil is “welcoming”: I suppose that for some who dismiss the Devil’s existence or relevance to everyday life, any warnings about him might be discomfiting and off-putting. But for those who recognize that they are suffering from the Devil’s assaults, nothing could be more welcoming than a Church that says, “Our Lord has vanquished your mortal Enemy. We want to help you make his victory your own.”
Lopez: How is the sacrament of confession a “field hospital”?
Thigpen: Each time we sin, the Devil strengthens his grip on us. Through confession, we loosen that grip and pull free of his control. Not only do we receive forgiveness of past sins, we receive grace to resist temptations to come.
Scripture speaks of forgiveness of sins through confession as a healing of the soul: “Confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed” (James 5:16). That’s why I like to view this powerful sacrament as a kind of field hospital for soldiers who have been wounded by sin in spiritual battle.
Lopez: How does Satan take advantage of our struggles?
Thigpen: Scripture speaks of our ongoing battles with the world, the flesh, and the Devil (see James 4:1–7). Though it’s true that at times our struggles with the flesh and the world may not be directly provoked by the Devil’s interference, still he takes advantage of those struggles and seeks by way of them to establish a stronger presence in our lives. It can happen in countless ways.
Consider, for example, a young man whose hormones are raging (the flesh). He visits what he thinks to be an innocuous website, but it makes money through advertising links to pornographic sites (the world). He hesitates, feeling the pressure of those two forces. Then the Enemy, taking advantage of the situation, speaks directly into his mind to weaken his resolve, with thoughts that seem to be his own: Why not? It won’t hurt me. Everybody does it. Go ahead.
Lopez: Why is the sign of the cross so powerful against evil?
Thigpen: For starters, the Devil intended to thwart and destroy the work of Christ through the Cross — but instead, it turned out to be the instrument of his own defeat. Through the Cross, he wasn’t just conquered; he was humiliated. So he and his proud allies have a strong aversion to any representation of the cross of Christ.
But more importantly, the sign of the cross is what Catholic tradition calls a sacramental. Sacramentals are “sacred signs which . . . signify effects, particularly of a spiritual nature, which are obtained through the intercession of the Church” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1667). There is remarkable power in the prayer of the Church, and that power can be made accessible to us through the sign of the cross and other sacramentals, such as holy water, a blessed crucifix, or a blessed Saint Benedict medal. I’ve seen the remarkable effects of these sacramentals in encounters with demonic powers.
Lopez: How do the virtues provide defensive armor?
Thigpen: Saint Paul urges Christians to put on “the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil” (Ephesians 6:11). In this Biblical passage and others, he specifies certain virtues—faith, hope, love—as part of that armor. If we think about the matter, it makes sense to speak of virtues as defensive armor: Those who have a virtuous character aren’t as vulnerable to the assaults of the Enemy through temptation.
If I’m generous instead of greedy, the temptation to steal won’t have much power over me. If I’m honest and a lover of truth, I won’t be as likely to give in when tempted to lie or cheat. And so it goes with all the virtues.
Lopez: You write that “a clear knowledge of the Church’s teaching exposes the lies and enticements of the Devil. A firm trust in God renders powerless the doubts and accusations he hurls at us.” If one feels ill equipped, what’s a good recourse?
Thigpen: I’d recommend taking the Bible in one hand and the Catechism in the other. Then read them slowly, thoughtfully, and, above all, prayerfully. And if you want a short summary of the Church’s teaching, along with some particularly helpful scriptural passages and prayers — well, that’s why I wrote this book.
Lopez: You note that the “temptation to despair is a powerful tactic of the Enemy.” You emphasize: “If we lose hope for our salvation, we open our minds wide to all the poisonous thoughts that the Enemy seeks to plant there. If we should conclude that we have no hope of winning the battle, why even fight? So we must never take off the helmet of hope if we hope to overcome the Devil.” Despair is quite the temptation today. So many feel it. What should churches, civil organizations, culture be doing to better combat it?
Thigpen: Despair is of course the loss of hope. So if we want to understand and overcome our despair, we must ask ourselves two questions: What is it that we hope for? In whom do we place our hope?
It seems to me that the widespread loss of hope in our culture is the inevitable result of our secularization. We’ve moved away from a hope of eternal life to a hope of prosperity and security in this life. And we’ve moved away from a lively confidence in God to an arrogant confidence in ourselves.
If we hope to grasp and never lose good things that by their nature must pass away, our hope will sooner or later be dashed. And if, to secure those goods, we place our primary hope in our economy, our government, our military might, or any other merely human institution or endeavor, sooner or later we’ll be disillusioned. In a time as terrifying as ours, such disillusionment leads quickly to paralyzing despair.
I’ve often heard from Christian friends, “I don’t know what the future holds, but I know Who holds the future.” If we want to see a revival of hope, we must have a revival of faith in the God who alone is worthy of our hope. And what we seek from Him above all must be eternal life, not the fragile goods of this fleeting life. Anything less will finally lead to despair.
Lopez: You caution that one should not “invite the Enemy into your camp.” Who would ever do that?!
Thigpen: The people of ancient Troy did precisely that when they welcomed the Trojan horse, full of hidden enemy soldiers, into their city. Of course, they did it unwittingly, because they had been deceived.
Satan has a host of Trojan horses. For example, when people dabble in occult practices, for whatever reason — looking to enhance their personal power, indulging their curiosity, seeking entertainment — they can open doors into the demonic realm. I know this from personal experience in my early atheist years, but the truth has been confirmed by the exorcists I’ve consulted. In addition, some exorcists testify, substance abuse, serious sexual sin, pornography, and abortions can open people to demonic influence.
Lopez: Someone picking up your book might not take warnings against using Ouija boards seriously. It may sound like a warning out of the Brady Bunch — dated and unserious.
Thigpen: Those who think that no one today still fools around with Ouija boards should note that last year’s film Ouija, which came out in late October, reportedly contributed to a sales spike of 300 percent for that item during the Christmas shopping season.
Those who conclude that the motions of the board’s planchette are simply random or an “ideomotor” response should talk to people whose terrifying experiences strongly suggest otherwise. And they should consult exorcists about their work with Ouija “players” who opened doors that should never have been opened. No doubt player hoaxes or other natural causes sometimes account for the board movements. But the preternatural phenomena are also common. Why take the risk?
Lopez: Why do you go out of your way to point out the book is for private use?
Thigpen: The book is intended for use by people who need to be awakened to the reality of spiritual warfare; want to resist the Enemy’s ordinary activity in their lives (temptation); or want to know more about how to recognize his extraordinary activity (possession, infestation, and so on) so they can seek help. It’s not a “how to” book for wannabe exorcists.
To be effective, exorcism requires a certain God-given authority on the part of the minister. Otherwise, the results can be disastrous. We can see this danger illustrated by an incident recorded in the Book of Acts, when a group of men who attempted to perform an exorcism without being authorized by Jesus or one of his apostles. They ended up fleeing the scene “naked and wounded” (see Acts 19:13–16).
Catholics believe that ultimately the authority to overcome demons comes from Jesus Christ, who as the divine Son of God demonstrated His power over them, decisively defeated them on the cross, and then delegated this authority to His apostles. They in turn delegated this authority to their successors, the bishops, so that bishops must now authorize certain priests as exorcists.
Effective dealing with demonic powers also requires knowledge and training. Church representatives want to help those seeking exorcism to exhaust every other possibility first, consulting with medical professionals to rule out purely physical or mental causes. In addition, new exorcists are best trained by seasoned exorcists who possess a kind of spiritual “savvy,” gained by long experience, that’s necessary in dealing with unclean spirits — who are of course not only dangerous but exceedingly wily. That kind of formation doesn’t come through a book alone.
We should note, too, that exorcists need a proven character. If virtues are our spiritual armor, then serious moral weaknesses can represent major vulnerabilities for an exorcist.
Media reports continue to appear about the victims of self-appointed, incompetent, unscrupulous “exorcists” who end up doing tremendous psychological and physical harm to people who are suffering. These reports remind us that, for all the reasons just noted, the Church is wise to be cautious about who is authorized for the ministry of exorcism.
Lopez: “God allows evil because He’s powerful enough to bring out of the greatest evil a much greater good.” Surely God doesn’t need to show off. Why doesn’t he just get rid of it already?
Thigpen: People often ask: If God is infinitely more powerful than the Devil, why doesn’t God stop him from working so much evil on planet earth? We could ask a similar question about why God doesn’t prevent human beings from committing the wicked deeds that we hear about in the news nearly every day. The continuing presence of evil in the world is at one level a mystery that we can’t fully solve in this life.
Even so, if God is indeed powerful enough to bring out of even the greatest evil a much greater good, then He’s justified in allowing evil, because He does the greater good for our sake — not to “show off.”
The classic example of this truth, of course, is the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. The Gospel tells us that when “Satan entered into Judas,” he went out to betray Jesus (see Luke 22:3–4). At the Devil’s instigation, then, came the worst evil imaginable: the brutal torture and execution of the perfectly innocent Son of God.
Yet the glory of the empty tomb cast a whole new light on the horror of the cross. The Devil’s plans were overthrown. Jesus’ resurrection demonstrated conclusively to all — the demons included — that out of the greatest of evils, God can bring an even greater good: the salvation of the world.
At the same time, we can’t forget that our days on earth are a time of testing, purifying, straightening, strengthening. God’s intention, if only we’ll cooperate, is to make us capable of bearing the exquisite weight of glory that awaits His friends in heaven (see 2 Corinthians 4:17). So what better tools could there be for His purpose than the demons — who perpetually test us by tempting us, so that we become purer and stronger and straighter every time we resist the temptation?
In this sense, we might say, quoting Saint Augustine, “as an artist, God makes use even of the Devil.”
Lopez: Are we missing the mark if we’re bothered by Fifty Shades of Grey when the real problem is powers and principalities?
Thigpen: I don’t think it’s a case of either/or. I consider Fifty Shades of Grey to be pornographic filth, splashing its toxic waste on millions of souls. Satan is certainly making the most of it.
Lopez: Modern culture seems to embrace angels as guardians, but you point to them as warriors, too.
Thigpen: In the Old Testament, we find God’s angels fighting for His people in Daniel’s prophetic vision (Daniel 10:12–14, 20–21). In the New Testament, Saint John’s vision in the Book of Revelation tells of the spiritual war that resulted when Satan (depicted as the Dragon) and his allies rebelled against God. The good angels fought these fallen angels and cast them out of heaven, but the fallen angels are still busy warring against human beings. So by God’s design, we need the assistance of the good angels to repel and overcome them (see Revelation 12:7–12).
In both Testaments’ descriptions of heavenly combat, one angel is singled out as a leader of the angelic hosts: Saint Michael the archangel. (“Archangel” means “first” or “principal” angel.) In Daniel, the angel Gabriel calls him “one of the chief princes” of the angelic warriors (Daniel 10:13). Michael is also mentioned in the Book of Jude, as contending with the Devil (Jude 9).
Drawing from these Biblical insights, Christian tradition has revered Saint Michael and honored his role as the great spiritual warrior fighting for the Church. From early times Christians have asked for assistance from him and from the angels he commands while we are still in the battle with the Dragon.
Lopez: How is humility so important, and how might one grow in it?
Thigpen: Humility is the essential virtue that provides the soil in which all the other virtues grow. Saint Paul tells us that through the humility of Christ, the Devil was defeated (see Philippians 2:3–11). And we, too, must humble ourselves if God is to exalt us in victory (see James 4:10).
When Saint Peter exhorts us to “clothe [ourselves] . . . with humility toward one another,” he goes on to warn us that this armor is necessary because our “adversary the Devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:5, 8). Humility keeps us from dangerous “high places” where the Enemy could tempt us to pride, and from the destruction that inevitably follows pride (see Proverbs 16:18).
Saint Anthony the Great was a pioneer among the ancient fathers and mothers of the desert, a champion in spiritual warfare who endured horrific demonic attacks. He once reported a vision.
“I saw all the Devil’s traps set upon the earth,” he recalled, “and I groaned and said, ‘Who do you think can pass through them?’ And I heard a voice saying: ‘Humility.’”
Like soldiers crawling under a barbed-wire fence, we can crawl right under the Enemy’s snares by lowering ourselves through humility.
Another story from the ancient Christian monks of the desert tells how a demon, in the guise of a good “angel of light” (see 2 Corinthians 11:14), one day appeared to a monk. He announced, “I am the angel Gabriel, and I have been sent to you!” His strategy, of course, was to entice the man into pride and vanity.
But the monk replied: “You must have been sent to someone else. I’m not worthy to have an angel visit me.” So the demon vanished. The monk’s humility had protected him from taking the bait.
How do we grow in humility? I’m convinced that it’s a grace we must seek from God. There’s actually a traditional “Litany of Humility” that we can pray, and it specifies some of the occasions when we can demonstrate that virtue by cooperating with His grace. But it should come with a warning: When we ask for the gift of humility, we’re actually asking God to send us situations that will humble us. And if we don’t respond rightly to those situations, we’ll be humiliated.