Matt C. Abbott
September 12, 2012
Do you 'believe in' the devil?
By Matt C. Abbott

The devil never sleeps — even if you don't believe in him. Or, more accurately, recognize his existence and (evil) works.

Below is the introduction to the book The Devil You Don't Know: Recognizing and Resisting Evil in Everyday Life, by Father Louis J. Cameli, a priest of the Archdiocese of Chicago. Thanks to Ave Maria Press for allowing me to reproduce the excerpt in this column. Click here to order the book.



    Keep alert. Like a roaring lion your adversary the devil prowls
    around, looking for someone to devour. Resist him, steadfast in your
    faith.
    (1 Peter 5:8-9)
A dead giveaway that people have been away from Church for a very long time is a reason that they sometimes provide for their absence, "Oh, I don't go to church because of all that fire and brimstone stuff — all the harping on hell and the devil." In fact, for a long time in most mainline Protestant churches and in the Catholic Church as well, very little has been said about hell and the devil. The topic seems to be out of fashion, nothing to be taken seriously except perhaps for entertainment purposes in Hollywood. So, when I shared with friends and colleagues that I was writing a book about the devil, I immediately saw their puzzled faces that seemed to say, "Why would you ever take up such a project?" I also caught a number of specific questions from them.

As I thought about a way to introduce this book, it occurred to me that the questions I had heard in the process of writing it were probably the same kinds of questions that might interest a reader about to launch into the text. The questions are not theoretical but personal. I mean that they are addressed to me, because friends (and perhaps you as a reader) want to know where I stand on issues that are foundational for what I have written. So, by way of introduction, I will share six questions that I have heard and that seemed to be especially important.

1. Do you really believe in the devil?

Absolutely not. I believe in Jesus Christ, who is the victor over the devil. Biblically, believing means both affirming the truth that God has revealed and relying in trust on God, who has revealed the truth. We cannot, therefore, believe in the devil as we believe in God. On the other hand, the existence of devils and demons belongs to the revealed truth not as independent facts but as realities connected to the triumph of Jesus Christ over sin and death. The Catechism of the Catholic Church carefully identifies the devil and demons always in coordination with the history of our salvation in Jesus Christ. The baptismal liturgy offers additional support for the claim that we do not believe directly in the devil as such, but rather we believe in Jesus Christ and, in that belief, know of the devil's existence, work, and aims. The baptismal liturgy asks the candidates for baptism: "Do you believe in God, the Father...in Jesus Christ...in the Holy Spirit?" The question concerning the devil is not about belief but rather about rejection and renunciation: "Do you reject Satan, father of sin and prince of darkness...and all his works, and all his empty promises?"

I think that we can take our understanding of the devil's existence and action a step further. Besides our understanding connected with the larger affirmations of our faith in Jesus Christ and the Church's teaching and liturgical tradition, I would also affirm that we also have direct personal knowledge of the devil's existence and works. This comes to us through reflection on our human condition that is marked by the evil one's troubling presence.

I have come to know, not believe, the devil's existence, works, and aims in three particular ways. Some time ago, I taught a course on the spiritual literature that emerged from the Second World War. The writings put me in touch with the Holocaust, or Shoah, and the Nazi efforts to destroy the Jewish people and to harm so many others as well. Over and over again, as I studied the history and the writings of those caught in this maelstrom, I encountered something or someone who was intelligent, concealed, powerful, and extraordinarily destructive. And whatever or whoever this was exceeded human dimensions in its capacity to bring harm to people and to inspire others to annihilate them. I felt through this study that I had encountered the reality of the devil as a fact of life and human history. In this encounter with history and human suffering, I knew the presence of this being that we call by many names, but whose essence is to be forever the evil one.

In my ministry as a spiritual director, I have accompanied people who have tried to stake out a path of discipleship, to be faithful followers of Jesus Christ. They have invariably encountered hostile forces that would subvert their journey. Sometimes their own internal processes caused them to stumble, but often there was something more than their own spiritual clumsiness. On their journeys, they had — in various forms and ways — encountered an adversary. This is the second way I have come to know the subversive presence of the devil.

Finally, I can say quite honestly that in my own life's journey I have known the presence of the evil one. The destination of my journey — I hope and pray — is God, whom I reach through Jesus Christ his Son and in the power of the Holy Spirit. Along the way, I have met resistances and pulls that would lead me away from the very direction I have embraced. I have struggled, and this struggle has been more than a struggle with myself. In other words, I have met one who seems to want to harm me at the most fundamental level of my life — in my relationship with God. It is not a continuously obsessive or oppressive presence, but it makes me know that I am indeed engaged in a struggle. I need God's help.

In brief, I can say that I do not believe in the devil as I believe in God. I have come to know the existence, presence, works, and destructive aims of the devil in the saving work of Jesus Christ. There are also ways that human history, the spiritual lives of others, and my own spiritual journey verify this evil one we call the devil.

2. Do you believe that the devil is a person? Or, is it better to say that "devil talk" is really symbolic language to speak about the problem of evil?

For people of faith, what constitutes us as real persons is our orientation to God, our steady movement toward the one who is both our origin and our destiny. If that is the case, then the devil cannot be a person. The devil is irrevocably opposed to God and oriented away from God. In fact, in 1973 Joseph Ratzinger wrote in this context: "If one asks whether the devil is a person, then one must in an altogether correct way answer that he is the Un-Person, the disintegration and corruption of what it means to be a person. And so it is particular to him that he moves about without a face and that his inability to be recognized is his actual strength." The engaging figure of Mephistopheles from the story of Faust notwithstanding, the devil really has no personality.

With that understanding of what it means to be a person, I can affirm that the devil is not a person. Still, this fallen creature of God is endowed with intelligence and a will, perverse as it might be. These endowments, it seems to me, make the devil personal if not a fully constituted person. So the biblical witness and our way of talking about the devil can use personal categories. We say "he," although of course the devil has no gender. That "he" gives us some way of indicating the personal dimension of the evil one. Perhaps, it seems to be pure word play to speak of the devil as a personal un-person. But this is much more than playing with words. References to a personal being that is not a person reflect the contradictions and paradoxes that characterize the devil. Created good by God and loved by God, the devil opted against God. Destined by his own decision to remain apart from and alienated from God irrevocably, he cannot remain at peace with his decision but wants to drag all creation, particularly humanity, with him away from God.

The question was whether "devil talk" was symbolic rather than a reference to a real person. The answer is that references to the devil are not just symbolic, although there are symbolic elements in play. The devil, however, is not a person, that is, a being of intelligence and will oriented to God. He does retain elements that make him personal. And that fact may be essential for understanding how he can get to us and hook us. He does so with his intelligence and perverse willfulness.

3. Aren't you afraid of the devil?

No, I am not afraid of the devil. The words of Jesus in John's Gospel at the Last Supper are very important for me: "Take courage. I have conquered the world" (John 16:33). In this matter of learning not to fear the devil, I have found wonderful instruction in the writings of Saint Teresa of Jesus, who had her own significant struggles with the evil one: "May what was said be of help that the true servant of God might pay no attention to the scarecrows the devil set up in order to cause fear. We should know that each time we pay no attention to them they are weakened, and the soul gains much more mastery."

Although I am not afraid, I try to stay alert, following the injunction that we find in the first letter of Peter: "Keep alert. Like a roaring lion your adversary the devil prowls around, looking for someone to devour. Resist him, steadfast in your faith" (1 Peter 5:8-9). I try to couple alertness with resistance. I do not resist the devil by dint of my own strength, which is completely insufficient. For me, resistance means holding close to faith in Jesus Christ, victor over sin and death. In another way, I try to stay alert especially in spiritual matters by maintaining an attitude of discernment: "Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God" (1 John 4:1).

I fully agree with Walter Kasper's conclusion: "The basic Christian attitude before the reality of the evil one is not fear but hope in his definitive defeat." In the end, I can say that I am not afraid of the devil, but I do take the reality of the evil one very seriously by being alert, resisting him in faith, discerning all the spiritual impulses I encounter, and returning often to my fundamental hope in Jesus Christ and his victory.

4. Why did you write this book?

Throughout my years of service as a priest, I have been especially concerned about Christian formation, both of individuals and church communities. What matters most in Christian formation, that process of our continuing transformation in Christ, is the grace of God. God has been good beyond measure to us, and this is evident in the mystery of Jesus Christ and the gifts of the Holy Spirit that he has poured out upon us. Our first and continuing response must be praise and thanksgiving. At the same time, it would be foolish to think that we have already arrived at our heavenly destination and full transformation in Christ. We are pilgrims who are on the way. As pilgrims we are subject to the trials, struggles, and temptations that accompany us on our journey. Sometimes, we are our own worst enemies. On our own, we subvert the journey, make detours, or even regress. But in addition to our own unsure footing, there is one who wants to pull us away from God and desires our ruin. That is why the Lord Jesus taught us to pray,

"Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one."

There are many na´ve Christians who do not sufficiently take into account the adversary who wishes their destruction. There are also others who only see the work of the devil in spectacular or dramatic ways — demonic possession or signs of the coming of the anti-Christ. More and more, I am convinced that what is needed is a sober Christian realism about the devil and his works. Followers of Jesus need to recognize the ordinary work of the devil that can be so easily insinuated in their daily lives — so seamlessly that it goes unnoticed but is by no means ineffective. I have written this book so that people may appreciate the reality of their daily struggle with the one who would subvert their journey to God. I want them to recognize the daily devil that they did not know.

5. Did you include any of your personal experiences of the devil in the book?

Yes, I did. In fact, as I read over what I wrote, I realized that almost every line has an autobiographical quality to it. Whatever is here represents the traditions of faith, my own lived experience, and my pastoral experience. There is nothing here that has not been a part of my own spiritual journey. That is a difficult admission to make, but it is true and humbling. This book falls under the general category of Christian spirituality. And every study of Christian spirituality is self-implicating. I am not writing about the Christian life and its struggles with the devil as if it were outside of me. I am bound to the topic. Perhaps more significantly, we are all bound together in the topic. To write, to read, to study about the dimension of struggle in the Christian life is not about something out there; it is about us. Because of the personal nature of these reflections, I have felt a special responsibility to be genuine and clear. I have tried as best as I could to be transparently honest.

6. How do you think this book will help people?

I have some simple hopes for the readers of this book. I hope that in reading it, they may understand their own struggles more clearly. I hope that they will be more alert to what would pull them away from God. I hope that they will learn to be more dependent on Jesus Christ. If these hopes are fulfilled, I will be very happy.

(Excerpted from The Devil You Don't Know by Louis J. Cameli. Copyright 2011 by Ave Maria Press, P.O. Box 428, Notre Dame, IN 46556. Used with permission of the publisher.)

© Matt C. Abbott

 

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Matt C. Abbott

Matt C. Abbott is a Catholic commentator with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Communication, Media and Theatre from Northeastern Illinois University. He has been interviewed on MSNBC, NPR and WLS-TV in Chicago, and has been quoted in The New York Times and the Chicago Tribune. He can be reached at mattcabbott@gmail.com.

(Note: I welcome thoughtful feedback from readers. If you want our correspondence to remain confidential, please specify as such in your initial email to me... (more)

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