This article originally appeared on Fr. Dwight Longenecker’s blog “Standing on My Head,” and is reprinted with permission. Visit his website, browse his books, and be in touch at dwightlongenecker.com.
Are demons and angels real?
There are an increasing numbers of new stories about exorcism and the reality of the demonic. As a Catholic priest, I do not come across many instances of horrible demonic possession in the classic sense. However, I do come across many situations with very ordinary people where there is an irrational level of evil in their lives.
In many ways, the classic examples of demonic possession are counter productive. They certainly make us aware that the devil is real, but they disguise the fact that the reality of evil is present in many other ways. If we are not careful we will conclude that the only time the devil is present is when a little girl’s head spins backward, she vomits nails, talks like Darth Vader, and walks up the wall.
In my experience, it is far more likely that the diabolical is insinuated into ordinary lives in far more subtle ways. Isn’t that what we would expect from the Father of Lies, the Great Serpent? What I mean is that Satan is more likely to control certain parts of our lives–claiming certain areas for his own which we have yielded to him. I envision him like a constrictor serpent wound tightly around certain parts of our lives–not letting go, hoping bit by bit to take control of our will completely until we are ruined.
Let me give you an example. I worked with a young man who had given in to pornography and sexual promiscuity. When we began to do some spiritual work, in this area he had a complete blind spot. He wanted to grow in grace, but really could not see the sin problem. When I insisted the rage emerged and it was extraordinary and frightening to see. He actually looked at me in a weird way. His eyes slanted and he exhaled through his teeth like a hiss. It only lasted for a moment, but something else was there.
Full scale exorcism was not necessary. Here was a man who went to confession and Mass regularly and seemed to be a good Christian. Nevertheless, something else was operating. There was a portion of his life that was not redeemed and a battle was going on for his soul.
This was not demonic possession as such, but what is sometimes called “obsession.” It is like the person has been infected with a virus that is working in the body as an alien agent and causing sickness, but not death.
I am convinced that this sort of demonic infection is very common and increasing. So what should we do about it?
Regular unrelenting Confession is the first remedy; repentance and a complete and open examination of conscience. If this can be done with a spiritual director-priest, even better.
Secondly, I think we should consider what I called “self deliverance.” This is a way of using our prayer life to consciously name and expel the demonic influences. Reciting the Lord’s Prayer slowly with a focus on “deliver us from evil” is a powerful remedy. The use of holy water, scapulars, blessed candles, images and other sacramentals are useful. Finally, a real, conscious concentration on the presence of the Lord Jesus and his holy name in the Eucharist can help to drive out the demonic that exists in our ordinary lives.
I realize critics will sneer that my approach is medieval and superstitious and that I am seeing devils hiding under every bed. Not so. I am pretty down to earth about these matters. In fact, I am also prepared to accept that these influences are not objectively demonic. They might be. They might not.
It is practical good sense, however, to view them as demonic. It helps us to identify the problem, name it and cast it out. So, for example, a person may be struggling with alcoholism and they may call it “the demon drink.” The problem may have a demonic dimension or it may not. It doesn’t really matter. What matters is that the person sees the problem as a real objective problem and takes positive steps to expel the “demon.”
This would seem to put the whole matter into the realm of “practical ritual” and “useful symbolic language,” a mindset that denies the objective reality of the demonic. It needn’t. One can affirm the positive value of “practical ritual” and “symbolic language” while remaining agnostic about the objective reality of the demonic in particular cases.
The bottom line is that it is better to believe in the demonic and deal with pastoral cases as if it is real than not to.
It is better to remember that our adversary the devil is stalking about like a roaring lion seeking whom he may devour (cf. 1 Peter 5.8)…
And to be on guard.