The Devil Is Real!
Already in the first chapter of St Mark's Gospel we are witnessing a dramatic encounter between Christ and the devil. The devil makes his appearance through one of his slaves, a demon who has taken possession of a child of God. When Jesus, the Savior of sinners and conqueror of evil, approaches this possessed man, the demon cries out in panic and desperation. Jesus silences the demonic and frees the possessed man.
The devil is not a fashionable topic for those of us who live in the post-modern world. Yet, the story of Christ's life and ministry simply cannot be told without referring to the devil. The Apostle John, in his First Letter (4:8), actually sums up Jesus' mission with the following words: "The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil." The Gospel writers carefully distinguish between cases of mere physical sickness and cases of a demonic character (both of which Jesus cures). Jesus frequently refers to the devil in his parables and other teachings, and the devil himself tempts Jesus in the desert and returns again later to engineer Judas' betrayal (cf. John 13:2).
This Gospel teaches us an undeniable, if uncomfortable lesson: the devil is real, and he is interested in sabotaging the work of grace. The devil is a fallen angel, an angel who was created good by God but then rebelled against God and took many of his fellow angels with him in that rebellion. They try to convince us, human beings, to rebel against God too. This basic spiritual truth is a huge comfort. It helps us make sense of all the unpleasant influences at work in and around us - we are not crazy; we are not failures; we are simply engaged in a spiritual battle.
Here's how the Catechism explains it (#414): "Satan or the devil and the other demons are fallen angels who have freely refused to serve God and his plan. Their choice against God is definitive. They try to associate man in their revolt against God."
Dabbling in the Occult and Hunting for Tigers
This is why the Church consistently and tirelessly warns all of her children against experimenting with occult practices. These are popular and accepted in our society, but that doesn't mean that they are good. Horoscopes, Ouija boards, palm reading, tea leaves, crystals, these seemingly innocent entertainments are hooks the devil uses to draw us into his web of lies and false promises. They are the first step towards deeper contact with evil spirits through things like Wicca, neo-paganism, New Age, white and black magic, spiritism, and even Satanism. Far from innocent pastimes, these activities directly contradict our friendship with Christ, because they look for fulfilment, meaning, and purpose apart from Christ.
Dabbling with them is consciously and foolishly putting our friendship with Christ at risk.
It's like the tactic used by a tribe of hunters in India to catch tigers. After finding a tiger's tracks, they would gather many large leaves from the prauss tree. Then they would smear these leaves with a sticky, gummy substance made from the berries of another tree. They would spread the leaves, sticky side up, on the ground around the shady spot where the tiger slept during the hot part of the day. When the tiger returns to its lair, it just has to step on one of those leaves and his fate is decided. The leaf sticks to its paw. It tries to shake the leaf off, but that doesn't work. So it rubs the leaf against its face to try and remove it, but that ends up covering its face with the gum. The Tiger ends up becoming completely enveloped and blinded in the sticky leaves - as if it were tarred and feathered. When its howls of frustration start to ring out, the villagers know that their quarry is ready to bag. Dabbling in the occult is like putting our paw on one of those leaves.
Praying to Our Guardian Angel
The reality of spiritual warfare is one reason the Church has always encouraged us to have a devotion to our guardian angel. God has assigned a guardian angel to each one of us, to help guide and guard us throughout our life. Most of the time the guardian angel guides us by being a messenger of God's will to our minds. Good ideas and inspirations that pop up unlooked for can often come through our guardian angel. Our angels guard us by protecting us from the evil of sin and the malice of the devil.
There is long tradition in the Church of praying to our guardian angel each day. In Catholic countries, workers and townspeople used to stop their activity in the middle of the day and at sunset, when the church bells rang, and pray the Angelus. The last prayer of the Angelus, in many places, was the prayer to the guardian angel. Many Christians pray this prayer whenever they have to travel, or before they go to bed.
One modern translation of this ancient prayer goes like this:
Angel sent by God to guide me,
Be my light and walk beside me,
Be my guardian and protect me,
On the paths of life direct me.
It is simple prayer, but an effective one that gives God's grace room to work in our lives. It also reminds us that we are part of a bigger story, engaged in a spiritual battle, with allies, like Mary, the saints, and the good angels, and enemies, like the devil and his demons.
As we continue with this Mass, surrounded by many angels, let's renew our faith in this bigger picture, and let's renew our commitment to being courageous soldiers of Christ, no matter how hard the battle may get.
Three Ways to Beat the Devil
There is a spiritual battle going on beneath and above the surface of human history, and of our personal history. We cannot avoid being involved in this battle as long as we are here on earth - the devil is just too interested in making our lives miserable, now and forever, by separating us from God. Jesus was able to expel the demon from this possessed man easily and definitively. He is also able to give us strength to overcome the temptations that plague us.
Three things especially can help this strength flow more freely in our lives.
First, stay close to Christ.
It was because this man was close to Christ that Jesus was able to expel the demon.
The same goes for us if we stay close to Christ, especially through regular prayer and the Eucharist.
Second, stay close to the truth.
The devil's main weapon is deception.
He manipulates our selfish tendencies by spreading lies and half-truths.
This is one reason he fights to keep us out of the confessional.
Confession is the gift of truth:
we face the truth about ourselves by confessing our sins, failures, and weaknesses,
and God, through the priest, reminds us of his truth: mercy, forgiveness, unconditional grace.
The devil loves the darkness; confession unleashes the light.
Third, stay close to others in need.
The devil is the lord of selfishness, and Christ is the Lord of love.
When we resist our selfishness by serving others, whatever their need may be, we weaken the devil's influence in our lives.
Every Christian is a spiritual warrior! Today, as Jesus renews his commitment to us in this Mass, let's renew our commitment to him. Let's promise him that this week we will do something specific to help us stay close to Christ, close to the truth, and close to others in need.