Just as under Charlemagne it was an offense to be a witch and an offense to say, untruly, that anyone was a witch; that is, just as accusations as well as sorceries were discouraged, so the bishops [during the Dark Ages], with intellectual inconsistency perhaps but with the best possible intentions, often attempted to discourage both sorcery and belief in sorcery. ... There ... is obviously a point at which belief and act come very near together. In fact, the authorities seem rather to have taken the view that to believe that anyone could do it, to believe that one could oneself do it, and to do it were three degrees of preoccupation with the same evil. They were concerned to change the whole form of the invisible world; they were concerned to direct the attention of the visible world to Christ.
-- Charles Williams, Witchcraft, pp. 71-72
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Possibly I'm imagining things, but I feel as if talking about the devil has become fashionable among Christians again. It does periodically, like anything. Whether we speak of the outcry against the Church of England removing the rejection of the devil from its baptismal formula (against literally millennia of Christian practice of the sacrament), or of denunciations of gay marriage as diabolical designs against the family, or the occasional salacious novel depicting supernatural combat between angels of darkness and angels of light, such subjects will always command a certain degree of interest from most minds.
In fact, I'm a little surprised Michael Bay hasn't gotten in on this yet.
Eugene Delacroix, St Michael Defeats the Devil, ca. 1860
With the exception of the piece I wrote soliciting prayers against a proposed Black Mass at Harvard a few months ago -- a diseased plan that, thanks be to God, was stopped long before the blasphemy could be actualized -- I have written very little about the devil here. There are several reasons for this. One of them is that I firmly believe in the devil, and wish to give him no further credit or attention than seems strictly necessary. The tragedy of the fall of such an exalted being as he is almost overwhelmed by the sickness of his present operations, such as they are, and to spend overlong contemplating them is a nauseating thing to do; until and unless those operations begin to assume the fascinating quality that indicates that they're working.
Nor is that fascination to be found solely in the temptation to what Christians have historically meant by witchcraft. "Speak of the devil, and he appears": that is the second reason I try write and speak little on the subject. There have certainly been men and women over the centuries who have really attempted to enact the hideous way of the soul that consists in adoring devils and trafficking in their works (though how effective those works ever were, God knows), but that is only one type of error, and a rare one. C. S. Lewis was very wise when he wrote that the two basic errors about devils were to either disbelieve in their existence, or else to believe and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them; and such obsessions as that can be expressed in a perversely monotonous hostility, at the expense of the love of God and neighbor, just as much as in witchcraft. There may or may not have been spiritual evil indwelling all or any of the victims of the torture chambers of the later Middle Ages and early Modern period,* but we may be certain that the princes of hell were delighted by the Innsbruck lawyer who declared in 1676 that "The torture chamber should be constantly sprinkled with holy water and a smoke made with blessed herbs."
On the obverse side of that negative reason is a positive reason. That positive reason is that the primary commands of the New Testament are to love God and to love one's neighbor (that is, everybody). The renunciation of the devil, important as it is, was always meant as a preliminary to that; to spend further time and energy concentrating on the devil, even for the purposes of renouncing him, is -- even if we suppose that such concentration is sometimes licit or necessary -- a different thing from concentration upon God and neighbor, for the simple reason that the devil is certainly not God, and can only ambiguously be thought of as our neighbor (however strongly we may sometimes feel that our neighbor is the devil, as for instance when he listens to Nickelback).
Or, to quote Williams again, there were and are two ways of rejecting evil: one with a stern awareness of it, such as we see exampled in the great doctor, St. Augustine; and one with a sweet neglect of it, such as we see in the vivid and holy joy of St. Francis, even at a distance of centuries.
When you're still famous for being happy nearly eight hundred years after you die ... uh,
I guess you're St. Francis, because I can't think of anyone else who fits that description.
Stefano di Giovanni, The Ecstasy of Saint Francis, 1444
Either mode of rejecting evil may be appropriate to a given situation -- one could hardly ask someone living in Nazi Germany, for instance, to pour all of their mental and spiritual resources into the sweet neglect. And both modes are, as the examples show, consistent with profound holiness. But I've found that the people I have most trusted and found most helpful have tended to stress love of God over hatred of His enemies, if only in the name of sticking to the point. Also, that on the whole, the mode that is most helpful outside of specific circumstances that are, as it were, moral or spiritual emergencies, is precisely the sweet neglect rather than the stern awareness. And indeed, insofar as St. Augustine remained Platonic in his thought, he might have been the first to agree: for evil has no being, and is known rather in its defectiveness from good than in itself; so that one can know and reject evil more perfectly by loving the good than by focusing upon evil.
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In the best days of the Middle Ages trials might take place and tortures be both threatened and applied -- more often perhaps threatened than applied. But the cases of acquittal were fairly frequent, and such cases as that of Saint Joan show that the ecclesiastical courts were sometimes indisposed to push the torture to its extreme. She was shown the instruments; they were not used. ... [E]ven with Gilles de Rais, the spectacular scene of the Bishop of Nantes embracing the convicted prisoner shows that something of the sense of Christendom remained vital and active. If it was melodrama, it was proper melodrama. ... But now all was changed. The Middle Ages had, as it were, abandoned that effort and dream of sanctity. ... They had learnt the great fundamental lesson, produced by all individual and social experience, that it is much easier, and in a general way as profitable, to blame someone else rather than to blame oneself. They had discovered that it is always agreeable to hold someone responsible.
-- Charles Williams, Witchcraft, pp. 174-175
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It bears pointing out, as I hinted at above, that we may and indeed must expect the devil to operate within the confines of Christianity in a sense, and not only by witches prophesying on a blasted heath and so forth. He is (I tend to believe) weaker than our excitable imaginations like to think: a charismatic Catholic of my acquaintance, on being released from a demonic obsession,** said that what had previously appeared to him to be a monstrous and powerful creature that he could never hope to conquer, was suddenly unveiled in a vision as being something more like a malevolent cricket.
But what the devil isn't is stupid. Operating in such an obvious way as witchcraft could never snare more than a tiny minority of souls, both because of its intrinsic ugliness and because of the reaction it would be certain to provoke if it happened openly.
No, I think his most potent method is corrupting spirituality. Whether by obsession with the devil in others, or, better still, with the god in ourselves, shifting our eyes from God always degrades Christian faith. And shifting our eyes need not be accompanied by ceasing to do things in the name of God; all it means is that the spirit in which they are done changes, so that the Name is taken in vain, and hereafter blasphemed among the Gentiles.
The sad, and increasingly obscene, case of Mark Driscoll of Mars Hill seems to be illustrating this very phenomenon. The popularity of discussing him is certainly not a figment of my imagination. A man who was once servant-hearted and devoted to spreading the gospel has been transfigured, to all appearances, into a childish bully and a false prophet; I remember thinking, when he said that he "cannot worship a Jesus I can beat up," that, if that's true, he can't worship Jesus, period. Jesus came to earth for the express purpose of being beaten up.
To be fair, St. Peter wasn't quick on the uptake for this concept, either.
James Tissot, Retire-toi Satan [Get Thee Behind Me, Satan], ca. 1890
I thought at the time about writing a blog post about him, maybe even an open letter to him. Not that I have any particular reason to think he would listen to me: we don't know each other, and I am three things that he despises: a Catholic, a gay man, and a pacifist. But it did cross my mind that I can't sit in judgment upon him -- not really -- because, however strongly I may reject his theology and vituperate his behavior, the brute fact is that I haven't been exposed to the temptations of ecclesiastical power and fame the way he has. I don't know what I'd do if I were in his shoes, or even if Mudblood Catholic became a huge presence on the web. Nor do I know what difficulties and sufferings, concealed from the world (whether out of vanity or only out of his right to privacy), he may experience; though I can extrapolate some of them, maybe, from my own sins of anger. Would addressing a rebuke to him really do anything other than make me look and feel spiritual? Even in writing this, I am taking a very great risk, and have done my best to be careful to stick to publicly known facts without conjecturing their causes, not only to spare myself embarrassment, but because of the perennial temptation to think that I'm better than him. Not simply right where he is wrong, but spiritually superior.
That is one reason that I am deeply convinced that, though it is a spiritual work of mercy and occasionally an obligation, rebuking sinners is an exercise that can only be undertaken safely if we are vividly conscious that the rebuke is also a warning to ourselves. To rebuke out of anger or revulsion -- to admonish someone on the grounds that we just can't understand why anybody would do that -- seems to me to be perilous. It creates rather than eliminating opportunities for self-righteousness (nor does it do anything at all to keep us from falling into the same sin that we are rebuking later on). And if we admonish those who sin as we sin, we admonish ourselves too -- which is a very good reason to issue admonitions rarely, taking them rather to our own hearts than projecting them on other people.
For that matter, someone else might be, given their circumstances, a far better (or at the least less blameworthy) person than we could have realized, and still serve us as an exemplary warning. Because a wrong action is a wrong action, even if the person who did it is rightly to be pitied and perhaps excused; but, if we can begin to understand why we would have done it if we had done it, or have done it, then we can begin to understand the operations of spiritual evil in our own hearts -- with or without the assistance of the devil -- and refocus our attention upon our loving God accordingly.
And that is just one example of the wariness I think we have to have when discussing spiritual evil. No matter what the act is, no matter how good in principle, if it is motivated by something other than love for God in Himself and in the person of our neighbor, it is already in the process of spiritual decay. That decay can be arrested -- but only by applying the cure, which is precisely to turn to Him and beseech His grace, through prayer and the sacraments. I have resolved to know nothing, St. Paul declared, except -- the rejection of the devil? no; I have resolved to know nothing except Jesus Christ and Him crucified.
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No-one will derive any knowledge of initiation from this book; if he wishes to meet the 'tall, black man' or to find the proper method of using the Reversed Pentagram, he must rely on his own heart, which will, no doubt, be one way or other sufficient.
-- Charles Williams, Witchcraft, p. 9
*Contrary to popular belief, and as the second quotation from Williams' book suggests, the Middle Ages were not on the whole witch-crazed. That witchcraft, or attempts at witchcraft, did exist was certainly admitted; indeed, the phenomenon of attempting to engage the alliance of non-human powers in acts of selfishness or malice is a much older thing that Christianity. However, what is not often realized is that the Church, in the earliest centuries, firmly maintained that most if not all of the supposed manifestations of sorcerous or diabolical power (except that of possession itself) were delusions, created in the minds of their victims by the devils. It was not until the later Middle Ages that the notion that diabolical powers (as opposed to the crimes that devils might tempt men to do in the name of such powers) might be really effective began to be taken seriously, and it was then -- especially during the Renaissance -- that the hysterical persecution of witches, or of supposed witches, began. Witch-mania is thus far more characteristic of the early Enlightenment than of the apex of Christendom, in terms of chronology if not of rationale.
**An obsession is, in charismatic theological language, a technical term, indicating a demonic foothold in a person's psyche that is more powerful than simple temptation but falls short of true possession: the person's will is being interfered with, rather in the manner of addiction (although the mechanism is different), but the devil cannot actually "take over." I am wary of giving much credence to charismatic spirituality -- not because I consider it at all unorthodox, but because I find it prone to sensationalism and, too often, too ready to jump to a diabolical cause without ruling out natural causes first -- but I am mildly inclined to credit this particular instance, partly because it would seem to oppose sensationalism rather than exacerbating it.