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The Evil Spirit in Conflict with Christ and His Followers

by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

It is the privilege and joy of the Handmaids of the Precious Blood to bring to you a spiritual conference given by Father John A. Hardon S.J.. Father Hardon’s conferences have proved to be of invaluable inspiration to priests, religious and laity alike, particularly in these days of unrest and turmoil. Father Hardon is professor of Systematic Theology at the Jesuit School of Theology, Loyola University, Chicago. Father conducts a course in Catholic higher education at Saint John University in Jamaica, New York. He is a well-known author and consultant to various national religious and educational enterprises, and is renowned as a retreat master and spiritual director. Father Hardon is the author of the Catholic Catechism, a contemporary catechism written according to the norms established by the Holy See in the New General Catechetical Directory. In the following conference Father Hardon speaks on the subject: The Evil Spirit in Conflict with Christ and His Followers. Father Hardon:

A balanced understanding of Christ and His Church includes the realization of conflict with the evil spirit or as Saint John calls him, “The spirit of darkness.” Until not so long ago it was not popular to even talk about the devil, and all of a sudden he has become quite popular. Though I am afraid that much of the popularity is not very deep, though it does indicate an instinctive realization in man’s heart that besides the world of sense, space, and time, that there is a world of spirit. And not only a spirit world which is good, but given the shear magnitude of the evil in the world there must be besides human malice, invisible malice that is at work in the human race today.

We of course who believe in the Holy Spirit, also and we might (well we don’t) include in our recitation of the Creed, I believe in the Holy Spirit and I believe in the evil spirit. We believe in both. We believe he is not only the instinctive or even logical conclusion to some explanation of the evil in the world. We believe because faith tells us that he is not only real, but his name, which is legion, is to be taken seriously in any serious approach to the spiritual life.

Saint Ignatius the great master of modern spirituality whose principles have shaped so much of the thinking of the great writers and directors of the spirit for centuries. Told his sons they should never conduct a retreat, never any extended instruction or education of the people without making sure, that while being encouraged to the practice of virtue and the following of Christ, they be thoroughly informed about the reality and the machinations of the evil one.

We take as the context for our meditation, the beginning of Christ’s public life. The three synoptic evangelists: Matthew, Mark and Luke all give the narrative. St. Matthew’s however is the most detailed and it is the one that we shall use as the context for our reflections. He tells us that Christ was led by the Holy Spirit. Notice? He was led by the Holy Spirit to the dessert in order to be tempted by the evil spirit. He further says that Christ fasted for forty days and forty nights. That after that long period of time he was understandably hungry. Then he describes the three sets of temptations. Let me read them from St. Matthew:

“The tempter came and said to Him, ‘If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to turn into loaves.’ ”
“ But He replied, ‘Scripture says: “Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’ ”
“The devil then took Him to the holy city and made Him stand on the parapet of the temple.”
‘If you are the Son of God,’ he said, ‘throw yourself down, for scripture says, “He will put you in His angel’s charge, and they will support you on their hands in case you hurt your foot against a stone.’ ”
“Jesus said to him, ‘Scripture also says, “ You must not put the Lord your God to the test.”
“Next taking him to a very high mountain the devil showed Him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor.”
“I will give you all these” he said, “if you fall at my feet and worship me.”
“Then Jesus said, ‘ Be off Satan, for scripture says: “You must worship the Lord your God and serve Him alone.”
“Then the devil left Him and angels appeared and looked after Him.”

So far the evangelist.

We might for just a moment briefly recapitulate each of three temptations, say just a word about each one and then begin to draw some very salutary implications for ourselves. You remember Saint John tells us that there are three great sources of temptation we have? The three great concupiscences by which he meant, the three kinds of desires which because we have a fallen nature tend to betray us: There is concupiscence of the flesh. Given the fact that the devil began by asking, “If you are…” The fathers of the Church agree that the devil did not really know if Christ really was the Son of God. Concupiscence of the flesh then, symbolized by the temptation to gluttony. Then concupiscence of the eyes, where Christ was tempted in such a way as to want to display Himself, and in effect tempt God’s providence. Sin against presumption. And finally everything was promised to Christ, so the devil told Him if only Christ knelt down to worship him. The concupiscence which John calls the pride of life.

In order to look at these three sources of temptations and apply them to ourselves, we got to remind ourselves that there are, after all, three ways we can be tempted. I am now distinguishing from the concupiscence of the flesh, of the eyes and the pride of life. I am speaking in general. We can be tempted by people outside of us, which is typified by the world; we can be tempted from within ourselves which is typified by the flesh; and we can be tempted by the evil spirit.

Temptations from the world may be summarily described as all the temptations to which we are subject through the bad example of people who surround us, not only physically. Indeed this is one of the graces of the religious life; to, if you wish, deliver ourselves so far as it is possible from what is symbolized by the world, and one of the rights that religious have when they enter a community is to be given good example.

What is behind this temptation? What is the urge? How come we are tempted by people’s (as we say) bad example? It is I think mainly based on the urge that we all have to conformity. We want to be like other people. We want others to accept us. And the one thing that for most of us, we most dread (though thank God we have not all been exposed to this trial) we most dread to be rejected. So that seeing how others behave, we don’t want to be different. We fear being ostracized.

The flesh: Now why do we use the word flesh? And more commonly we attribute this to temptations, well of the body. Say, the sensual or sexual passions, which we all have with our fallen natures, really, and this is of great moment. One of the great discoveries I made as I studied and later began to teach theology, (which I never tire of telling my students) this flesh is not only passions of flesh, it covers all our passions whether of body or of spirit! Somewhere along the line, I don’t know where, the mistaken notion has gained ground that this thing we call concupiscence which is what this is all about, this fallen nature of ours; these inner irrational drives that we have. Somehow a lot of people I know think concupiscence has to do with the flesh only. Oh no! This irrationality which is part of our fallen nature is the mad drive within us, which is both in the body and the soul. The Church never teaches us that it is only our flesh which is fallen. Am I clear? It is our nature, which is fallen. Is this ever practically important. These maddening desires of ours are, except for God’s grace, out of control; not only in our bodily urges, but in the urges of our spirit; of the mind, and of the will.

Over the years the Church has found a convenient synthesis in what we call (synonyms are possible and I can recommend a number) we call them seven capital sins. Well, so they are when we give into them, but they are the seven major tendencies we all have. Every word there counts! They are the seven major drives or tendencies that all of us have. They are not being in God’s grace, having been justified, they are not of themselves sins. No matter how strong or demanding they may be, no matter how urgent, they become sins only if, when, and in so far as, we give into them. But, the drives we have and let’s make sure we use the universal in the subject of that sentence: we all have them! The only two people about whom faith tells us they are absolutely sure they did not are the Son of God in human form and His Immaculate Mother. Does this need saying? It sure does!

All of us have these pronenesses, these urges, these tendencies, and these desires. They are the result of original sin and for reasons best known to Divine Providence. Though we are justified and in God’s grace, and if (please God) we die with no stain of sin on our souls, nevertheless the drives still remain as long as we are in this “valley of tears”.

In order to help myself remember them, and I pass on the scheme to you, to help remember you conjure up all sorts of gimmicks. This is mine: PLACES G. Pride, lust, anger, covetness, envy, sloth, and gluttony. None of us is exempt from these tendencies. You will notice some of these tendencies are of the spirit.

Pride: How do we know that this tendency is of the spirit? Because the purist spirits that God created sinned through pride. You don’t even have to have a body to be proud, and there is such a thing as being proud that I have mastered my body.

Envy: Which I describe as sadness at someone else’s possessions or success. All that someone else has to do is succeed and by an instinct of human nature that person is instantly envied. As I tell people, if you don’t want to be envied, please don’t succeed. No one envies a failure.

Sloth: We usually think of sloth in the body, you know like, well sleeping in, way beyond what my body needs, or just well, believing so strongly in Newton’s law of motion that a body at rest tends to remain at rest (and you don’t want to break the law). Well, you just stay at rest. Though as I say we more commonly think of sloth, I prefer to use the more Anglo-Saxon term- laziness. As referring to the body, oh no… As one who has spent twenty years in teaching, believe you me, there is laziness of mind!

What do I want to bring out before we go on to the devil? You see we haven’t even got to him yet. I want to bring out a very important principle of our spiritual life, and something that we should take stock of seriously. To ask ourselves before God, and not just once, but often, daily indeed, which among these, and by now we know ourselves quite well, has been dominant today.

Knowing that I’ve got these tendencies, no sin in having them that is our nature. Which one of these have I, and often quite unobtrusively so that no one else knows except God and I, whether I have them in greater or less measure succumb to one or the other of these tendencies of my fallen nature. And not only in the body, but what is far more subtle (how well I know this) in the spirit! Because when the flesh is involved, I don’t mean crude sins of the flesh, but just as we call them weaknesses of the flesh. They are usually obvious, the flesh being visible; we see it, others do, either doing something or not doing what it should.

Ah, but when it is the spirit that is not perfectly responsive to the will of God, it takes extraordinary perspicacity and clarity of mind and ruthlessness with one’s self, and honesty with God to admit (and we should daily admit we have sinned). And having given in, in greater or less measure. I am not now speaking of full, conscious, deliberate sins, but the sins to which we are, and let’s use the word all, naturally prone.

Finally- the devil. Regarding temptations of the evil spirit, we should keep certain truths of our faith in mind. Particularly as seen in the light of Christ’s own temptation by the evil spirit. I call these truths - let’s count them:

Truth number one: No one is spared temptations by the devil. This becomes a universal principle of Christianity. How do we know? Because if Christ was tempted by the evil spirit we may be sure every one else as a human being will undergo the same trial. Therefore no complacency. And no matter how preserved one may think he or she is from the world, (we are never that free, but say more or less) or have somehow mastered (so we think) in greater or less measure temptations which arise from our own passions of body or spirit. The one thing we can never think we have finished the contest, and that is the devil. One of the main reasons why the Church is so concerned until the dying person has gasped his last, to pray that the person might be delivered from the evil spirit. So no one is spared.

Second truth- the devil tempts on three levels of our being. We are now addressing ourselves with reflection to Christ own triad of temptations. He temps our weaknesses of the flesh. Now the word “tempt”, as you know, has all kinds of meanings. In fact, I have even seen, (Was it in the states or in Canada?) an exotic perfume called “My Temptation”. So you never know what words are going to mean, but (see if I can make this clear) the devil we say tempts us on three levels:

He tempts us first of all, on the level of our weaknesses of the flesh. Where “tempts” here, means, “he tries them out”. You know like, testing, testing? You know, like scratching to see if it is solid. You know, like pulling and tugging to see if it gives. Is the figure of speech clear? He knows we got weaknesses of the flesh, so he is testing, testing to find out what’s our particular weakness. And notice it is not just a weakness in general, in the abstract, but you know I can be tempted to do certain things in the morning that I would never give into at night. Does that sound strange to you? No! Our moods. When I want an important favor from some important individual, I never, the rule is never, approach that person before he has had a good meal. This is not demonic, this is Jesuitical.

So he tempts our weaknesses. We are speaking now of those of the flesh. Notably our appetites for food, drink, sex, sloth and possessions which cater to the body. That is quite a spread for the devil to tempt us on. No wonder there have to be, or better there are, so many devils. We are still on truth number two. He tempts on the level of our selfishness of spirit. You notice how I have shifted gears from weaknesses of the flesh, to selfishness of spirit, because this is the horror of crimes of the spirit. They are not crimes of weakness they are crimes of strengths. Notably our tendency to anger, envy, and avarice; and he tempts us on the level of our desire for power.

Now we need not have read a lot Nietzsche or have studied much philosophy, all you have to do is deal with human beings. And I never thought I would say this publicly, but among the persons, who given the chance and having lost the self-control, who can be positively Luciferian in their desire for power are some women. So that we should not think of this desire for power as a masculine temptation, by no means! Do you believe me? Women can have a lust for power, such as leads men; I have talked to them, aghast. And this by tempting our pride and unwillingness to be subject to others or be considered less than someone else. That is truth number two.

Truth number 3. In order to cope with the evil spirits we have got to follow Christ’s example: he resisted immediately. Now just as Christ did not have to pray, correct? Being all holy He did not have to pray and ask God to, well, overcome His fallen nature. So in this case He didn’t have to allow Himself to be tempted by the devil. He allowed Himself to be tempted to teach us that we should expect the same, but He also taught us how to deal with the temptations of the evil spirit. Resist immediately! Now you see this presumes that we can recognize the evil spirit and his temptations so as not to dally with them, because if we do, if we dally, the likelihood is he will outwit us. Then it means we resist promptly.

Finally, as the apostle tells us we must resist him strong in faith. Using then those powers at our disposal, especially prayer and trust in God, and no matter how much we may be beset by temptations of the evil spirit, do not loose confidence, because, and this may not be as obvious as it seems. You see on the first two levels of temptation, I’m in the world or temptations from outside of us, from human agencies, that’s the world, or the flesh which covers both types of temptation, in the body and in the soul from our fallen human natures. In a sense, though there are two of course, we must call upon the resources of faith. Oh sure, nevertheless, somehow we may feel that we are somehow a match on the first two levels of temptation. But with the devil we know we are no match, and consequently it is not a question of just outwitting the devil or outsmarting him, or foolishly allowing ourselves to tangle with him and then wrestle with him; he is too strong, he is too shrewd.

We therefore must call upon divine assistance. First for light, so that we might recognize when we are being deceived by the evil one. And then if the temptation is upon us, and we recognize it is the devil, it is him for sure. Then not to panic, not to be frightened, but admitting (oh we’ve got to admit this) I cannot do it by myself but I trust in the grace that God will give me provided I ask Him.

The devil is strong, but the most important thing for ourselves as we close this meditation to remember is that the devil is deceptive. And consequently while we pray, when we pray in the closing of the Lord’s Prayer, “And deliver us from evil…” We should understand this to include: especially deliver us from the evil one’s deceits. Mean that we especially ask for the grace to see and if there is anywhere where the gospel invocation; “Oh Lord that I may see” applies, it is here. That I may see that it is the enemy of God and not the grace of God, which may hide itself as an angel of light, is trying to beguile me. That I may see that it is the enemy of God and then like Christ and with Christ I am confident that because He has called me to follow Him, He will give me the grace to resist as He did, having recognize the devil for what he is.

Copyright © 1996 Inter Mirifica

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