Scared of the Devil?

Robert de Niro Louis Cypher Angel Heart

There was a man with the spirit of an unclean demon. Luke 4:33

Possession by demons. Scary. The other day the Youth Director at one of my beloved parishes told me some of her plans for the fall. She intends to hold a party on Halloween. They will watch “The Exorcism of Emily Rose.” I told her to count me out. Too scary.

When I was in high-school, I pretty much ran with the jocks. We considered ourselves tough and manly. In 1987, another movie about the devil came out, called “Angel Heart.” The title makes the movie sound sweet, but it was about the devil taking a person’s soul. Mickey Rourke starred, and Robert de Niro played Mr. Lou Cypher. Anyway, when we came out of that theater at about 11:00 at night, five or six tough members of the varsity basketball team, we went together to my house. We all bedded-down for the night on the floor of my room, nestled-in together like 10-year-old girls at a slumber party. We were scared out of our minds.

Demonic possessions. Scary for the movies, sure enough. But the truth is that Satan has a far-scarier trick up his sleeve. He tried to use this trick on the Lord Jesus Himself, in the desert. If possessing people were Satan’s best shot at capturing souls for his nasty, horrible domain, he would use it all the time. But he doesn’t. The demons use their other weapon much more often because it is a much quicker and easier way to destroy a soul. Not possession, but…temptation.

How can we protect ourselves? The gospel reading at today’s Holy Mass has the clear answer. We human beings naturally can and should fear the demons of hell. But, as we read, the demons themselves fear someone. They fear Jesus Christ, because He is the Holy One of God.

So we protect ourselves from the powers of evil by staying close to our protector, the Lord Jesus. And how do we do that? Daily prayer, of course. And by using the guaranteed means of keeping Christ at work within us, namely the…sacraments.

Which are the two sacraments that we use over and over again, to keep Jesus within us and scare away the devil? Mass and confession.

Raise your hand if the idea of having to fight the devil scares you. Me, too. A lot. So let’s be smart and pray every day, go to Mass at least every Sunday, and go to Confession every month.

Proton-Torpedo the Devil

What actually is the great drama? The decisive conflict? North Carolina vs. Duke? Republicans vs. Democrats? Dog people vs. cat people?

The strong man, fully armed, guards his palace…

We know that Mother Nature possesses many frightening powers. Tornadoes can level whole towns. Tsunamis can drown cities. Hurricanes can cripple coastlines.

All of these forces of natural destruction, however, look like so many wavelets lapping in a kiddie pool, when compared to the power of Satan.

All the volcanic eruptions in the history of the world cannot ruin a single human soul. If and when the sun explodes, the force of the blast will not of itself bring about a single sin. But even Satan’s least powerful minions have been known to turn whole television networks into sin factories, with minimal effort.

Who can fight with more strength than Lucifer? Who has more powerful weapons than all the riches of the world, all the pleasure of the flesh, and all the pride of human pomp and splendor?

The great drama, the great conflict. Satan vs. the well-read carpenter.

The conflict began in the beginning. Satan, immeasurably stronger, smarter, and more beautiful than Adam and Eve, hated us. He hates our race. We look like worms to him. And yet God treats us like His children. Satan burns with an uncontrollable, unending jealous rage, like Glenn Close boiling the bunny forever.

The drama—the conflict—will end when history ends, not before. Man on earth can never altogether escape the Enemy’s depredations. His weapons are everywhere.

But: In the little corner of the world where camels make their way between Egypt and Arabia, the carpenter doled out the Holy Spirit with flashes of infinite power. Then the stronger Man deployed the decisive weapon.

He went nuclear. He shot the proton torpedo into the Death Star’s thermal exhaust port.

What did He do? What fire-forged sword can actually overpower the strong man who made the earth his palace back in the days when fruit grew in the Garden of Eden?

Obedience. Humble, brave, serene, faithful obedience. The Messiah did the will of the Father. They nailed His gentle hands to the cross. At that point, Satan was toast.

Saul & David, Lucifer & Christ

In the very beginning, the great light-bearer of heaven beheld the Son of God and refused to serve Him, refused to co-operate with Him. Lucifer instead imagined a universe in which he sat alone on the highest throne.

In the end, only two paths lay open to us, brothers and sisters. On the one hand, humble submission to God Who is greater than we are. On the other, jealousy.

Saul had been made king by a higher authority. Young David sought nothing but to protect the reign. God gave David prodigious gifts, which he put to the service of the people. Saul, who never knew how to submit to the true divine king, saw in David only a threat. Just like Lucifer had seen in Christ only a threat.

David had no regal designs. He loved to play the lyre. Saul’s jealousy was ill-founded and led only to his own destruction.

Christ, of course, had no choice but to have regal designs—but what designs! He reigns from a cross, His Heart pierced, His Body mortally wounded.

So Lucifer’s jealousy, too, was ill-founded. His own dreams of a kingdom were fulfilled—but what a kingdom! The realm of darkness, ignorance, and senseless pain where no one serves the good God.

Let’s choose humble submission, brothers and sisters. Let’s give God glory for the great gifts he has chosen to give others. May God be praised for all the people who are smarter, better-looking, and more talented than we are!

Our job is humbly to serve the Master of all, to do the best with what we’ve got.

Let’s choose this, because the alternative is nothing but a ceaseless competition that we can’t win. When we give God the glory, we find ourselves on the winning team. Better to be a bench-warmer on a winning team than a superstar in hell.

Rosary vs. Evil Spirits

Our Lord’s words in today’s gospel reading illuminate the spiritual battle between the Holy Spirit of Christ and the Enemy.

The battle unfolds inside our souls. The evil spirits work for our destruction, mainly by tempting us to commit sins. The Holy Spirit and the good angels urge us to, and support us in, wisdom, prudence, justice, kindness, and truth.

We cannot control the actions of the good spirits or the bad ones. I cannot force a demon to stop tempting me, nor can I command an angel to come to my aid.

But to some extent we can control our dispositions to the influence which the spirits try to have on us. On the one hand, I can reduce the power the evil spirits have over me by cultivating good habits and by filling my mind with good things. On the other hand, I can pray and beg the Holy Spirit, the good angels, and the saints to help me resist temptation.

Reciting our Lady’s Rosary includes all of these helps for winning the battle. Regularly praying the Rosary fills our minds with the light of Christ’s mysteries; we begin to think about Christ and the saints habitually. Plus, in every Rosary we beg for help from heaven at least 58 times.

[Click HERE for Our Lady of the Rosary homily ’09.]

Spy Wednesday

When Satan betrayed God, he thought he had good reason.

After all, Satan was the Light Bearer, pre-eminent among the shining angels, resplendent in intelligence and power.

When the Lord revealed that everything had been made for the sake of the glorified worms who pad around the earth on goofy-looking feet…When the Infinite let on that He would unite Himself with a chickpea-chewing, hairy-backed carpenter made of clay—well, Lucifer could not let that stand.

Continue reading “Spy Wednesday”

Can We Deal with the Truth?

In his gospel book, St. John has narrated some conversations which the Lord Jesus had with scribes and Pharisees in Jerusalem prior to His bitter Passion. These passages illuminate the tension and controversy that eventually led to Jesus’ arrest on Holy Thursday night and His summary execution on Good Friday.

The decisive moment came when the Lord answered the High Priest’s question about being the Son of God. On the level of the human drama, the unforgivable act which Christ committed was this: He bore witness to the truth about Himself.

John 8 puts us in the middle of one of the conversations which led up to the events of Holy Week. Perhaps we can consider this conversation as a debate about the basic identity of the people involved. In our own way, we are involved in this discussion, too.

Continue reading “Can We Deal with the Truth?”

Two Temptations

Today the Church commemorates two occasions when the devil came to tempt somebody.

In the first, Satan came to tempt two people, Adam and Eve.

Adam and Eve lived in the garden of Eden. They had everything they could ever have wanted without having to work for it. They never got sick. They were destined to live forever and go to heaven without dying. Perhaps most unimaginable for us, Adam and Eve were married to each other, and yet there was nothing that would cause them to have any difficulties in getting along: no bad habits, neither of them were messy, or crabby, or lazy.

In the second instance, the devil came to tempt the Lord Jesus. The situation was completely different. The Lord was not in a garden; He was in the desert. He did not have everything He wanted to eat and drink; He had nothing to eat and drink. The Lord Jesus was not in a state of leisure and ease. Rather, He was desperately hungry, struggling physically in every way, because He had been fasting for forty days. And our Lord did not have a human companion. He was completely alone.

The devil came into both of these two very different situations in order to lure his victims into disobedience.

In the garden of Eden, God had expressed His will very clearly. He told Adam and Eve: Do not eat from this particular tree. There were countless other trees, heavy with delicious fruit. Just don’t eat from this one. The devil came to trick them into eating it from it anyway.

When Adam and Eve succumbed to temptation, it was not a matter of human weakness. Before the Fall, human nature was not weak. When they sinned, it was not because their weak flesh faltered. They just willfully disobeyed.

What happened? How did Satan pull it off? The devil suggested to Adam and Eve that God is not to be trusted. God had demanded obedience to one simple law. The Devil put the idea into our First Parents’ minds that this was an infringement on their proper rights. God was making them His slaves. Previously they thought that they had everything. The Devil then tricked them into thinking that they would not have everything until they had total independence and got out from under the law of God.

Christ also lived under a law. The Father had not openly spoken a law to His incarnate Son. But in the depths of His human mind, Christ knew the will of the Father. We know this because Christ had said early on: “The Son of man must be rejected, and suffer, and die, and on the third day rise again.”

In the desert, the Lord Jesus was hungry and He was lonely, but the devil did not temp Him to gluttony or vanity. If Jesus had eaten some bread, it would not have been gluttony. If He had gone to Jerusalem and let Himself be admired and served by everyone there, that would not have been vanity: He is the King of kings and Lord of lords Whom everyone is bound to admire and serve.

Perhaps the difference between the two episodes of temptation—the garden and the desert; our First Parents and Christ—the difference lies in understanding what obedience to God is. Adam and Eve had everything, but they let themselves be deceived into thinking that they didn’t have everything since they had to obey God. On the other hand, the Lord Jesus had nothing—nothing except what He called “the food that sustains me:” namely, doing the will of the Father. The Lord Jesus knew that if He had this food of obedience, He in fact had everything. He didn’t need anything else at all—not food, not glory, not even His bodily life.

Satan is very intelligent and very wily, but Christ turned the tables on him. Long ago the devil had reduced the human race to slavery, so he naturally thought that he had come to tempt one of his slaves. But in fact, the devil came to tempt the new, incorruptible Adam, who was filled with the infinite strength of the Holy Spirit. Satan did not find a slave in the desert. He found the omnipotent One Who is absolutely free.

This is the special grace of Lent: Christ gives us a share in His immeasurable strength and His perfect freedom. He beckons us out for forty days in the desert with Him. In the desert, He teaches us the joy of His obedience.

Scripture sings of the sequel to these days of training:

Who is coming up from the wilderness, leaning upon her beloved?
Under the apple tree I awakened you.
There your mother was in travail with you.
There she who bore you was in travail.
(Song of Solomon 8:5)

Christ’s Holy Cross takes us back to the Garden of Eden. Beneath the Tree of Life, where our human nature fell into weakness and suffering because of disobedience, we find our obedient Beloved. We can lean on Him forever.

You my Glance Seeks (Psalm 27)

A deep, terrifying darkness enveloped Abraham. (Genesis 15:12)

The Lord had called Abraham to come to the Promised Land. God instituted a covenant with Abraham. He made promises to Abraham. Then the Lord enveloped Abraham in a “deep, terrifying darkness.”

Many centuries later, the Lord Himself walked the earth. He took His closest Apostles up to the top of a towering mountain. He revealed His divinity to them. Then He enveloped them in a cloud that cast a shadow over them. Peter, James, and John became frightened.

Continue reading “You my Glance Seeks (Psalm 27)”

Our Lady’s Birthday

In person, it is even stranger looking.
In person, it is even stranger looking.

My father is buried in a venerable Washington cemetery.

The place is run by a very strange individual. I know this because I negotiated with him about having my dad buried with our forebears.

Anyway, I thought I would pay my dad a visit on the occasion of our Lady’s birthday today.

As I entered the cemetery, I was confronted with the sight of a small, wooden Washington Monument, with a dragon on the top of it.

I would have been stunned. But I knew the handiwork of my old friend.

Brumidi's fresco in the dome of the US Capitol
Brumidi's fresco in the dome of the US Capitol
Three years ago, as he and I drove across the cemetery to see if there was room to put my dad next to his grandmother, the custodian asked the man in a Roman collar sitting next to him: “So…what religion do you follow?”

Anyway…Apparently a storm killed a few old oaks in the cemetery. So my buddy hired a chainsaw artist to sculpt the tree trunks into a depiction of Revelation 20.

Not a good idea. Sculptures of Revelation 20 are not recommended, even under the best circumstances. A “chainsaw sculpture” of Satan being released from hell, carved into the dead trunk of an oak tree? Well, it’s a prescription for hideousness.

My dad is buried fifty yards from Constantino Brumidi, an illustrious nineteenth-century artist who painted the “Apotheosis of Washington” in the Capitol dome. Brumidi’s august presence makes “Unleashed!” (the new sculpture’s title) all the more incongruous.

Thankfully, my father’s grave is not in the same section as “Unleashed!” You can still see both the Basilica to the north and the National Cathedral to the west while you are standing at my dad’s grave. It is still a beautiful, peaceful place. And when the Last Day comes, and my dad stands up again, the fire of God’s glory will have burnt the ugly sculpture to ashes.

…If you didn’t have the chance to read it a year ago, perhaps you would like to read last year’s post for the Blessed Virgin’s birthday.

Homily Out-take

My homily this Sunday will be about hoping for heaven, no matter what.

The perfect counter-example is Shakespeare’s Macbeth.

I wish I could find a way to put Macbeth in my homily, but I have not the skill…

Macbeth kills Duncan and becomes king, as the witches predicted.

Nonetheless, Macbeth is overcome with fear that his friend Banquo’s heirs will be kings in the future.

Act III, Scene 1:


To be thus is nothing;
But to be safely thus…

Upon my head they placed a fruitless crown,
And put a barren sceptre in my gripe,
Thence to be wrench’d with an unlineal hand,
No son of mine succeeding. If ‘t be so,
For Banquo’s issue have I filed my mind;
For them the gracious Duncan have I murder’d;
Put rancours in the vessel of my peace
Only for them; and mine eternal jewel
Given to the common enemy of man,
To make them kings, the seed of Banquo kings!

Macbeth concludes that he has vainly ‘put rancours in the vessel of my peace’ and given his ‘eternal jewel’ to the ‘common enemy of man.’

In other words: “Since I already sold my soul to the devil, I might as well kill Banquo, too.”

Giving up on heaven–what could be more horrible?