“Don’t ignore the presence of the demonic in these people and their actions,” he cautioned me.
“St. Teresa of Avila admonished her nuns and novices not to blame the devil for their own weaknesses of will and self-control,” I answered.
“Right, but in the 16th century, evil was not a scary movie or television show portraying Lucifer as handsome, beneficent and sexy. St. Teresa of Avila and the culture of her century understood the hatred held by Satan for mankind.”
Ever since my husband and I spoke about the last of the seemingly endless list of hideous events regularly occurring in our country and world, I keep replaying his comment about the denial of evil in my head. So much so that I decided to explore it more deeply, an exploration which for me, requires writing.
The impetus for that talk was a conversation I had with a priest after daily Mass a couple of weeks ago. Following his homily about the Texas church massacre, I spoke with the priest-celebrant about a subject which seems to receive only scant media coverage: Homicidal and suicidal ideation as a side effect of psychoactive drugs.
During his homily, the Franciscan had asked: “What could be done?” “What had happened to create a culture where Americans are no longer safe in church?”
My comments to him were brief, less than a few minutes of a subject poorly understood by many; the growing prevalence and side effects of psychoactive medications. Between twenty and thirty percent of American adults take psychotropic medications, the number increases each year. The frightening side effects of homicidal and suicidal ideation from these drugs and association with violence are real but receive little notice. I thought these facts might be useful.
A few days later, my husband and I revisited my conversation with that priest. Remarking that the priest’s questions were most likely rhetorical, he wondered if the facts I had offered had bounced off since the man had just celebrated Mass and was in a mindset very different from one I was suggesting. More fitting than an offering of the distressing mental health data to the distraught priest, in retrospect, might have been repeating my husband’s remarks about the Evil One and his presence, perhaps even control over the perpetrators of these crimes, had I the presence of mind to do so.
• How is it that I never considered demonic influence in these men who decide to massacre?
• And in the many homilies by priests I have heard on recent awful events, why did none of them even allude to an evil entity?
“The greatest achievement by the devil has been to make us believe he doesn’t exist.” Pope Francis’ book, On Heaven and Earth, was republished shortly after his election to the papacy.
“Maybe his [Satan’s] greatest achievement in these times has been to make us believe that he does not exist and that all can be fixed on a purely human level.” The pontiff further writes, “Jesus defines the Devil “as the Father of Lies, and the book of Wisdom says that sin entered the world through the Devil’s envy of God’s masterpiece,” said Pope Francis. “His fruits are always destruction: division, hate, and slander.” The phrase is worthy of repeating, isn’t it? Destruction: division, hate, and slander.
• I wonder if the denial of Satan’s existence works inversely to the rejection of God? Where lack of faith in the Lord mitigated-even prevented- his ability to heal, could denial of evil amplify the demonic?
• Curious about the origin of that phrase, ‘the greatest or loveliest trick of the Devil is to persuade you that he does not exist,' a quick online search reveals the poet Baudelaire to be the apparent source. Baudelaire wrote The Generous Gambler in 1864. A short story describing an interaction with “a mysterious Being whom I had always desired to know and whom I recognized immediately.” A quick read, it’s easy to dismiss the words as merely poetic fancy. Unless we reread. Then phrases like this one cause a shudder and beg for reflection:
He complained in no way of the evil reputation under which he lived, indeed, all over the world, and he assured me that he himself was of all living beings the most interested in the destruction of Superstition, and he avowed to me that he had been afraid, relatively as to his proper power, once only, and that was on the day when he had heard a preacher, more subtle than the rest of the human herd, cry in his pulpit: "My dear brethren, do not ever forget, when you hear the progress of lights praised, that the loveliest trick of the Devil is to persuade you that he does not exist!"
What can we believers make out of this world we’ve been placed in? Where we are commanded by Christ to love not those who love us but our enemies which we must construe as those wishing us harm? Including those who slaughter strangers in a church, at concerts or at schools?
“I’ve decided that I love the word wrestle,” declared a priest whose homilies I have written about elsewhere. Father Chris was speaking of the Gospel parable in Luke where a man invites many to a celebratory dinner, but the invitation is refused. None of the reasons for refusing the invitation is a trivial one. One man has a new wife, another newly purchased property and the last, many oxen needing evaluation. But the master of the house flies into a rage when told of the refusal.
Always the tension of the demands of our daily life against a reality comprised of what is hoped for and evidence of what is yet unseen. The verb wrestles best fits the tension of living our faith here in this 21st century. Each day we start again, sure that without Him, nothing is possible.