Warring Spirits

As I’m writing this, the kids in my neighborhood in northern Virginia are finishing their preparations for Halloween. They are putting the final touches on costumes and plotting ways to get more candy than last year, or at least more than their siblings. The pandemic has put a damper on the usual trick-or-treating, but there will still be candy – and candy in abundance. They are talking about carving pumpkins and which house has the spookiest decorations.

My kids all know what Halloween is really about: All Hallows Eve developed as a reminder of our own mortality and our duty to pray for the dead. It’s a holiday that prepares us and points us toward tomorrow’s great feast of All Saints and the commemoration of All Souls that follows.

They also know that the macabre delights of today grew out of pagan superstitions of the past. These old festivities were co-opted by Christians and molded into something better. The kids will tell you that jack-o-lanterns were first carved as a way to ward off evil spirits – by superstitious children in a different age. And the feasting and costumes and bonfires are relics of a less enlightened time when people believed in witches and ghosts and evil spirits.

Many adults tell children not to believe in these things because adults don’t want to frighten children. And children try not to believe in such things because they want to seem grown-up. But, of course, the childish thing is not the belief in evil spirits, but the refusal to believe that such things exist. If there is any evidence that our world is less beset by demons than centuries past, I have not seen it.

The truth is that evil spirits are (as the St. Michael Prayer goes) “prowling about the world seeking the ruin of souls.” Fear of seeming unsophisticated makes many of us reluctant to acknowledge this. We prefer to explain moral evil only in terms of human agency and responsibility. Anything beyond than that is embarrassingly “unscientific,” and so we willfully ignore what is beyond our comprehension and control.

It was an exorcist priest who first pointed out to me the relative absence of evil spirits in the Old Testament. They’re there, of course – think of the stories of Job and Tobias, for example – but they are mostly hidden. In the Old Testament, the priest pointed out, evil spirits were so deeply embedded in our world, so at ease amongst us, that they were hardly noticed.

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But the New Testament tells a radically different story. The New Testament, from the Gospel of Matthew right on through to Revelation, is full of references to evil spirits.

When the incarnate Son of God arrives, the demons start coming out of the woodwork. They know Him, and they know why he has come. His presence sounds the death knell of their dominion: “Now is the time of judgment on this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out.” They fear him. And they obey him. The mission of the Church, the building up of the Kingdom of God, always comes at the expense of someone else’s reign.

St. Paul was especially clear about the enemy, and how the enemy was to be opposed:

For our struggle is not with flesh and blood but with the principalities, with the powers, with the world rulers of this present darkness, with the evil spirits in the heavens. Therefore, put on the armor of God, that you may be able to resist on the evil day and, having done everything, to hold your ground. So stand fast with your loins girded in truth, clothed with righteousness as a breastplate, and your feet shod in readiness for the gospel of peace.

The world is full of wickedness. We are awash in fear and anxiety and doubt.

You may recall the famous line from the film “The Usual Suspects”: “The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he did not exist.” Scanning the headlines one could be forgiven for thinking that the devil has gotten rather careless lately with his camouflage – gruesome beheadings in a French Cathedral, reports of black Masses in Spain, a priest desecrating an altar with unspeakable acts in Louisiana.

A few miles away from where I live, in downtown Washington, the shops along major thoroughfares a different sort of preparations are being made. Windows are being boarded up with sheets of plywood. There is a growing sense that the nights to come will be filled with fire and shrieking and wailing- the kinds of nights when good people are scared to go out. The specter of a masked mob haunts the city. People here are not preparing for Halloween, but for Election Night.

Our country is soul-sick from worshipping many idols – Mammon, Asmodeus, and Moloch. It shows. The signs are all around us, for those with eyes to see. But of the turmoil that surrounds us, who is to say whether it is a sign of strength or weakness in the enemy? In the spiritual warfare in which we are all engaged, how does the battle go? Who has the upper hand?

In a sense is doesn’t matter; we know the outcome because we have it from the Lord’s own lips: “I have overcome the world.”  And our strategy should be the same: “In all circumstances, hold faith as a shield, to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one. And take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.”

 

*Image: Mammon by George Frederic Watts, 1884-85 [TATE, London]

 

Stephen P. White

Stephen P. White is executive director of The Catholic Project at The Catholic University of America and a fellow in Catholic Studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.



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