The devil wants us all, sinners and (would-be) saints.
What is temptation? Temptation is the work of Satan to drag you to Hell. And Satan can read you like a book and play you like piano. Do not exaggerate his power, but do not underestimate it either.
Some of his subtlest work is done in the area of religious observance. There, he can cloak himself quite easily in the lamb’s clothing of piety, but, wolf that he really is, distort it, either through excess or defect, thereby destroying you with what is good. Beware what some spiritual writers call the “traps of the pious.”
Consider some examples:
He can discourage you with prayer by saying, “If only you would pray
a little longer, God will give you what you seek.” But the deception is
that if we can pray a little longer, then we can never have prayed
enough. Thus though we pray, we only feel guilty and inadequate. And
since we can never have prayed “enough,” prayer increasingly turns into a
burdensome task; God becomes a cruel taskmaster demanding longer and
more precise prayers. Or prayer becomes a superstitious endeavor whose
outcome we somehow control by the length and type of our prayers. Jesus
counsels us that the Father knows what we need and that we should not
think that merely multiple words and pious actions are necessary. We may
need to persevere in prayer over time, but God is not a cruel tyrant
demanding endless incantations.
Satan can take the beautiful practice of praying the rosary, or attending daily Mass, or other devotions and slowly incite in us a feeling of smug superiority, elitism, or pride. Gradually, others are thought to be less devout, even in error, because they do not do or observe what is optional or encouraged but not required. What is beautiful and holy is thus employed to incite ever-growing pride and cynicism. A most extreme form of this comes from those who take the beautiful and powerful devotion to our Lady of Fatima and allow Satan to set them against even the Pope and all the world’s bishops by claiming that they failed, either ineptly or willfully, to properly consecrate Russia. And thus one of our most beautiful and informative apparitions can engender in some people distrust of the Church and disunity from her, from multiple popes, and even from Sister Lucia herself. It is an astonishingly crafty work of the evil one to take what is good and religious and corrupt it in the minds of some.
Satan can also take what IS required and turn it into a kind of religious minimalism, a way of keeping God at a distance. And thus he tempts some souls with the notion that Sunday Mass, a little something in the collection plate, and a few rushed prayers are the end of religion rather than the beginning of it. Such observances become a way of “checking off the God-box” and being done with God for the week, rather than a foundation on which to build a beautiful and ever-deepening relationship of love with God. Such minimal practices become a form of “God-control” for those tempted in this way; it is as if to say, “I’ve done what I am supposed to do, now God and the Church have to leave me alone. God also needs to take care me now since I’ve done what I’m required to do.” And thus the Church’s beautiful laws and the requirements describing the basic duties or foundation for a deepening relationship with God, become a kind of “separation agreement,” insisting on very strict visiting hours and specifying who gets what.
Satan can take religious zeal and corrupt it into harsh and uncharitable zealotry. He can take a love for the beauty of the Liturgy, ancient or new, and turn it into a persnickety insistence on exactly the right ingredients, at the expense of charity and at the cost of ridicule, false superiority, and disunity. And thus, charity thrust aside, we say, “Just make sure you celebrate the liturgy the way I like it. Anyone who doesn’t like what I like is antiquarian, a knave, or an uncouth troglodyte and must obviously hate the Church that I love so beautifully …”
Satan can take the beautiful love for the poor and corrupt it into an enslaving paternalism that locks them into dependency, or does not address their spiritual needs by speaking to them respectfully of their sins, or does not seek to deepen their spiritual and family lives. And thus the beautiful corporal works of mercy are either set at odds with the spiritual works of mercy or are considered adequate in themselves. Satan can send many to serve the poor, armed with half-truths and approaches that merely bandage deeper wounds without addressing them.
Well, you see, in a certain sense, any virtue will do. Satan can make use of any of them and will seek to corrupt all of them, even the religious ones. He will just as surely go to work in the life of someone in a church pew, as in a brothel or the gutter. No one is exempt from his work of temptation; his goal is to drag us to Hell.
What makes his work of corrupting virtue so insidious is the
subtlety of his work, for he takes something that is intrinsically good
and seeks to corrupt it, either by excess or defect, or to turn it into
some sort of caricature of itself.
Virtues, of course, are meant to work in combination with other virtues that balance them. For example, charity should be balanced by truth and truth by charity. Without charity, the truth can bludgeon; without truth, charity can become harmful, patronizing, and wickedly affirming. Charity and truth are meant to balance each other and to work alongside other virtues in a delicate interplay.
One of Satan’s tactics is to take one virtue and isolate it from
others. Beware of these subtle tactics of Satan, who disguises himself
well in the robes of virtue. But they are detached virtues, virtues out
of balance and proportion.
Beware the traps of the pious.