In recent decades, there has been a concerted effort to downplay, or even deny, the reality and the truth of evil. One view is that belief in evil is just something Christians believe. The theist and atheist views implicitly deny the presence of evil by claiming that evil is an illusion.
Another attempt to minimize evil has reduced the path to holiness to trying to overcome our human weaknesses and tendencies that lead us into sin. From such a perspective, we may argue that evil does exist as nebulous weakness or temptation. I can control it, even fix it, if I just work on it enough.
These views above are insufficient, however, to fully explain the reality of evil.
Evil is not a myth. The devil, Satan or Lucifer, are not names for a figure that is a representation, a symbol, or a way that we Christians speak about evil. Satan and the fallen angels in league with him, now known as demons, are in fact real. They are not just beings that occasionally tempt us to do sinful things. They are engaged in battle with us; remember “we are fighting principalities and powers spiritual forces of wickedness” (Ephesians 6:12). They seek to poison us with anger, isolation, jealousy and every other sort of vice.
The preference of demons is to work in the dark. This way we cannot see their hand at work in a situation. If we did, we would be so repelled by it we would never fall for the temptation. How we know their presence is often after the fact and upon reflection. Consider the following two cases:
A monastery was taking a final vote on an expansion. The project had won prior to this meeting widespread support by the monks. Yet, when they got into the meeting, there was great disagreement over the plan. One old monk who rarely spoke asked the abbot to pray over the group. After the prayer, the meeting calmed down immediately and a favorable vote was taken quickly.
In 2017, there was a tragic shooting in Las Vegas, in which nearly 60 people were killed and more than 500 people were injured. Father Clete Kiley visited the Mandalay Bay Hotel afterward to comfort the workers there and was asked by the management to bless the room that the shooter had used. When he went to open the door to the room, he later told Newsweek, there was a presence pushing him out of the room, telling him not to come in. After calling down the Holy Spirit, everyone with him commented on the sense of peace that had descended on the room.
Pope Francis rightly states if we insist exclusively on empirical standards alone, the veracity of such reports as these are doubtful at best. With a supernatural understanding about the reality of evil, we can see the evil one at work through his effects (“Gaudete et Exsultate,” #160).
So what are we to do? Pope Francis counsels that we do all of the things we normally do spiritually: attend Mass, pray, go to Eucharistic adoration, live a charitable life. He also adds on top of these normal practices that we should also be people of discernment (#162, 168).
Discernment has many facets. Here, the simple question we can ask ourselves is this: Is what I am considering going to lead me to be more reliant on God or not? God will always lead us to depend on Him; the evil one or our own spirit will lead us to depend more on ourselves or something else.
Through a proper knowledge of who the devil is, a well-practiced spiritual life, and being a people of discernment, we need not fear the devil, but walk with ever greater confidence in who God created us to be.
Father Mayo is pastor of St. Raphael the Archangel Parish in south St. Louis.