Wednesday, April 10, 2013

The fascinating distraction of evil

Father John Zuhlsdorf recently posted something about exorcisms and related matters, offering to provide some prayers and texts not in general circulation.

A brief discussion ensued in the comment box, to which I contributed one comment, regarding the desirability of providing the material. I wrote a bit about the unhealthy fascination this subject too often generates, and was against providing the material generally. (Father Z clarified subsequently he would only provide it to bishops and priests.)

A couple of commenters wondered at my counsel, wondered about seminary training in this subject, and wondered why priests shouldn't be made more aware.

Father Z wisely closed comments on that thread. For those who may wish, I will add some comments here. But, out of prudence, I, too, will close comments on this post. (I don't wish to have to police these comments closely to prevent the discussion going in an unhelpful direction.)

First, let me say a little more about the "fascination" I described--because I've experienced it.

Many years ago, when I was in my 20s, I was in a place in my life where I'd had a powerful conversion experience, I'd given my life to Christ, and unfortunately, I'd decided that experience meant I should leave the Church and join another Christian church. (While I don't mind discussing that, that's not really what this remembrance is about; but it's context.) I was thus in a phase of my life--remember my age--where I was full of zeal and eagerness to learn and discover everything I could about our Lord and about what we believe.

Somewhere along the line--and I just can't recall much about this now--I was reading something about the occult. I had one or several books from the library. I think I was skimming through them.

Very suddenly I had a very uneasy feeling. It was powerful. To use a Father Z'ism, call it my "spidey sense." I closed the book I had, said a brief prayer, and promptly took the volumes to the library. No drama afterward. Then and now, I knew God was my protection, and that's really the important thing! But that was a useful discovery about myself.

Now, let me tell you some other things.

In my years as a priest, I have had people seek me out to pray with them, or to visit their house, because they said they were experiencing evil things. I am respectful but cautious in reaching a judgment. People do have mental imbalances; how does one sort these things out? So I'm as kind as i can be, I certainly pray, but I'm extremely careful not to give "confirmation"; that would be terribly irresponsible.

One night a fellow came to the rectory and said, "you may think I'm crazy." I listened, and I was honest with him: very kindly, I said, yes you might indeed be "crazy"--i.e., what you've experienced could be something arising in the mind alone, and it's good to recognize that. I did what I could for him, in conversation and in prayer.

Someone said, on Father Z's blog, that we need to know things. Well, yes and no.

Here's what we need to know: We need to know who our Savior is. We need to know how to call on him.

Yes, we affirm the existence of damnation and those spirits that fell from grace. Yes, we have stories in the Bible--but relatively few words of Scripture are devoted to this topic. A good example for us!

Notice this: when our Lord encounters the enemy--and when there are other people around--what does he almost always do? Tell the evil spirit to shut up! Then he drives it away. He's not afraid of them; perhaps he doesn't want anyone else to be dazzled or distracted by them?

A wise old priest I know makes a valid observation: sometimes we unwittingly "dabble" in occult matters, when we play certain board games, or read or watch certain entertainments. Even if there is no actual encounter with evil forces--who knows?--what we are certainly doing is feeding our own imagination with images and ideas that run riot.

Now, on simply a natural level, this makes sense. If you watch a movie about dinosaurs, are you surprised if dinosaurs show up in a dream later? No. Whether it's fun or scary, it's pretty normal; it's how our brains work.

In trying to counter the ways many people downplay the reality of evil, we can commit another error: we overstate the subject. We magnify the role of evil; and if you think about it, isn't that exactly what the enemy would have us do?

See, here's what may be happening: this is often an ego trip, dressed up as spirituality.

Let me use another personal example (having nothing to do with evil) to show my point.

When I was a seminarian, I told my spiritual director that I'd had dreams in which my mother--who was deceased--would appear. I found very comforting. I asked him: do you think that really is a message from my mother?

My spiritual director said something I've always remembered, and often cited: who cares? What difference does it make? After the shock of his answer wore off, he explained:

That's your ego, wanting to be "in the know." Why not just accept the experience for what it's worth: a good thing happened. Be comforted. Why did I need any more explanation?

Here again, we like to be "in the know." It's an ancient temptation. Our church history prof at the seminary told us, every heresy in the history of the Church has either involved dualism, or elitism. Gnosticism, for example, featured both. Also, consider how people buy into political theories involving "hidden" knowledge; consider how many ads you see on TV or the Internet, selling you a book or a subscription so you can have "inside" information.

Well, guess what: we already have the best "inside" information. We know the Most Holy Name, and His Name can be on our lips any time we wish! Speak his Name: the Name of Jesus, to whom every knee must bend and every head bow.

Jesus is Lord. That's our "inside" connection. We belong to him--and if you don't, dear reader, you can. Focus on that.

So, keep it simple. If someone has a fear, or a sense of unease, pray; put up holy images in your house--not because they are magic, but because they are reassuring reminders that give us good things to dwell on. Keep a Rosary, and use holy water; again, not as magic, but as reminders that God is present and nothing frightens Him. And, it should be obvious, separate oneself from unwholesome things. Destroy unwholesome images, stop watching that show or reading that book.

If you're worried about evil, and don't want to be caught unawares, consider this. The most pressing dangers we face are sin and indifference. Work on that. Pray; repent; go to confession. Trust in the awesome power of our Savior. Delight in the company of the saints and heavenly powers. Listen to Saint Paul's good (and Holy Spirit-inspired) advice:

Rejoice in the Lord always. I shall say it again: rejoice! Your kindness should be known to all. The Lord is near. Have no anxiety at all, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, make your requests known to God. Then the peace of God that surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.

Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing what you have learned and received and heard and seen in me. Then the God of peace will be with you (Philippians 4:4-9).