St. Thérèse of Lisieux experienced the dark night of the soul
This is my contribution to a great thread on the CHNI forum, about "demonic oppression" and related issues in the spiritual life.
* * * * *
What a wonderful thread! Somehow I missed it in the last few days. It musta been "underneath" another one.
I think great wisdom has been expressed by many in this thread. I have a few "random thoughts" -- as I do not have a whole lot of direct experience of demonic oppression, myself: not being sufficiently advanced in the spiritual life, no doubt.
1) In my own journey with God these past 30 years or so, my wife Judy and I have often noted how bad things started happening when we were setting out to do something that is in God's will. It's almost a running joke with us: "oh, that old devil is after us now, huh?, because we decided to [do so-and-so]." We pretty much laugh it off, mock the devil, and proceed on our path, exactly as we had intended. We've come to recognize the silliness and utter predictability of his attacks. In that sense, there is wisdom, I think, in a sort of mocking of the devil and a ho-hum attitude about it (the exact opposite of what the devil desires). It is completely to be expected and therefore a big yawn. The fact that his opposition antics have no effect whatever on our plans, and that we are not daunted and reduced to abject fear by his attacks, no doubt drives the devil nuts. And that is reason enough to approach him in that way.
2) I get personally attacked all the time (and in public) by anti-Catholics, because of my apologetics. It happened again recently, big-time. Hundreds; maybe thousands of people out there think ill of me because they buy the characterizations set forth by those who feel led to oppose me (not just what I believe and teach, but myself, personally). It's the sin of slander and detraction. I never let this upset me (it truly doesn't), because I know from whence it originates, and what is said is usually completely ludicrous. These critics want nothing more than to get a rise out of me, but it never happens. I just laugh it off. Let them say what they will. Sometimes I will make statements to the effect of:
- Go ahead and lie and distort and tear me down personally and insult me all you like. It has never had any effect on what I do and it never will. So if you oppose what I do, then I suggest you cease your attempts at personal attack and ridicule because it only makes me more determined to do what I do, so that you are achieving the exact opposite of what you desire to: to make me "shut up" and write less and defend Holy Mother Church less, so that I help fewer people as they ponder becoming Catholic. So keep on doing what you are doing if that is what you want to see. If you think I'll ever stop doing what God called me to do simply because you are lying about me, you have another thing coming.
I think a similar approach to the devil himself (the father of all lies) is a good thing. The devil is a big joke and a cosmic fool and failure. We don't need to go along on his ridiculous ride to hell. We already have the victory against him, and we need to be aware of that and confident that it is already in effect.
3) I don't write much about these sorts of subjects (it's too huge of an area and I have more than enough topics to cover already, as an apologist), but I did do one paper along these lines: Dialogue: The Devil's Stupidity. In that paper I cited C. S. Lewis, who knew quite a bit about the devil's designs, as shown by his masterpiece, The Screwtape Letters. In the same year as that work (1942) he also wrote A Preface to Paradise Lost (on Milton's 17th century epic poem on the devil and angels). Here is an excerpt:
- It is a mistake to demand that Satan . . . should be able to rant and posture through the whole universe without, sooner or later, awaking the comic spirit . . . At that precise point where Satan . . . meets something real, laughter must arise, just as steam must when water meets fire . . . and mere Christianity commits every Christian to believing that 'the Devil is (in the long run) an ass' . . . "What we see in Satan is the horrible co-existence of a subtle and incessant intellectual activity with an incapacity to understand anything. This doom he has brought upon himself; in order to avoid seeing one thing he has, almost voluntarily, incapacitated himself from seeing at all . . . He says 'Evil be thou my good' (which includes 'Nonsense be thou my sense') and his prayer is granted.
(London: Oxford University Press, ch.13: "Satan", 95, 99)
4) When undergoing suffering in general (not necessarily demonic oppression), my wife and I have always obtained great comfort by reading scriptural passages about suffering. It "works" every time. No exceptions. I compiled these many years ago, and they have been helpful to us ever since:
By understanding that suffering and pain are completely to be expected in the Christian life, we can defeat the devil's purpose of trying to take away our joy and peace.
5) Moreover, Catholics understand the notion of redemptive suffering: a very beautiful thing, so that all suffering (including dealing with demonic oppression and all the devil's tricks and schemes, generally speaking) can be put to good spiritual purpose, and actually bring about joy. I have recently compiled Scripture along those lines as well:
Biblical Evidence for Penitential and Redemptive Suffering
Lenten Meditation: The New Testament on Suffering With Christ
Colossians 1:24 and One Interesting Protestant Interpretation (Rev. Michael Pahls)
Biblical Evidence For Purgatory and Analogous Processes (50 Passages)
6) Judy and I have often had an experience where one or the other of us was greatly upset about something (perhaps instances of demonic oppression in some cases). At such times (more so in the past for some reason) we would pray that the Holy Spirit would come upon the other and bring peace. Then both of us experienced (again and again) an extraordinary calm and peace, literally beyond description: a sort of extreme, absolutely anxiety-free relaxation. We've both experienced this many times. It's almost like a "divine tranquilizer." But the key is to not get so hung up on seemingly supernatural experiences like this, so that we are routinely invoking them. Then we have put the experience (a sort of spiritual high) above the goal (eliminating anxiety). So we do this very rarely. But it is authentic and extraordinary when it occurs.
7) I went through a great deal of personal torment during the period of my initial evangelical Protestant campus ministry (1985-1989) because of misunderstandings, economic hardships, and in some cases, even semi-betrayal. So naturally at times I was afflicted with doubt about whether I should continue (never about the value of the thing itself). That was my cross in those days (now I have others). Judy's cross was a deep hurt over things that were said by people we cared about. But she never for a second wanted to give up, and when I did, it was her 100%, doubt-free support that was the only thing that kept me from not throwing in the towel. Where I was frustrated and angry at the "unfairness" of it, she was simply hurt and cut to the quick (being the fragile, sensitive, gentle, and compassionate creature that she is). That is an example where the devil will get in and have a field day. "Kick a man when he is down," etc. If someone is being wronged in the first place, then the first thing that the devil does is start insinuating: "see, all those critics are right! Why are there so many of 'em? Hmmm? It's because what you are doing is worthless in the first place. Even your friends know that! Why don't you listen to them? They know what's best for you. You're just in this for yourself. You're a failure. You're wasting your time." Etc., etc. blah blah blah.
But when one is acquainted with Scripture and also the experience of the saints, one understands that very often, those who are trying to devote themselves to some particular ministry or work of the Lord, and faithfully following and persevering in the vocation that God gave them, are greatly misunderstood and opposed, and have to suffer a great deal. We have to be sure that what we are doing is in God's will, so that we won't be swayed by fallible and erroneous human criticism that comes for many different reasons, and which is used mightily by the devil to cause self-doubt and self-condemnation. Of course, there are times when the critics are right, and we are indeed doing something wrong or imprudent or downright foolish. That's why it has to come down to knowledge of the Bible and spiritual discernment and prayer (and proper guidance from spiritual authorities), to know we are doing the right thing, and not a foolish thing out of God's will. If we're in God's will, by all indications, then we have to carry on, no matter what opposition we get, or who it comes from. None of this is unexpected at all. It is how the devil works. There are always more than enough people willing to enter into the devil's condemnations and accusations concerning things that they poorly understand.
8) Most Catholics are aware of the great suffering that the saints go through, often including even the "dark night of the soul." The more holy we desire to be, the more we will be attacked (with suffering in general and demonic oppression and opposition). The Lord uses mightily those who understand this and who are willing to voluntarily undergo more suffering in order to grow spiritually. When we understand that our suffering can be a cause in helping other souls (#5 above), then we have gotten to an extraordinary place in our walk with God. May we all attain to that, by His grace! I'd love to get there one day! I understand it in my head, but doing it and living it and (most amazing of all) truly having joy while going through it are entirely different ballgames from mere head knowledge.
9) I think we also need to factor in temperamental and personality / psychological factors, too. Everyone is different. Some of us are very insecure for various reasons. Some have a lot harder time accepting themselves and their failures than others. We have differing levels of self-confidence or self-image. Some have had very troubled childhoods (or marriages, or personal losses, etc.) and have experienced suffering the rest of us can only dimly imagine. According to the hurts we have experienced, we are that much more weak, on a human level. And so condemning thoughts may simply be (at least at first) our own ambivalent or hurt feelings. The devil can exploit that, for sure, and use it to his nefarious ends, but it may not literally be the devil initiating this. There is scrupulosity and perfectionism. Moods can come and go. Some of us are very moody and don't know what to expect even the next day. Even the weather can be a huge factor for some. For others (my own type), feelings and days are pretty much the same, barring some huge cataclysmic event. But I did experience a six-month clinical depression when I was 18-19, so I have first-hand knowledge of that, too (which is a good thing in order to better understand what serious depression is like).
In short, some (not denying anyone's self-report!) of what we might think is "demonic oppression" may simply be a mood swing or a purely biochemical phenomenon (such as the bipolar condition, etc.). Life has its highs and lows, and illness affects this as well. We can be on an adrenalin (or, "new exciting thing") high, but this is almost always followed by a low to sort of even things out. I see it in my kids: they'll go off to some tremendous retreat or campout and then a day or two after they get back, they are in the dumps. We see this even in great biblical figures like Elijah. So we need to take into account whether something is purely a natural phenomenon rather than a supernatural, involving a direct attack from Satan himself. In either case, we need to seek God's help in overcoming: through prayer, counsel, Bible-reading, fellowship, solace and support from friends and loved ones, medication (as the case may be), the sacraments, the Mass, adoration and other devotional practices, etc.
Depression or anxiety or similar things could be brought on by biochemical imbalance, stress, lack of sleep, lousy food, fatigue, other illnesses, etc., and then possibly confused with being "demonic"? What may be our own internal psychological problems could sometimes get interpreted as a "demonic attack". I'm not dismissing the reality of those attacks at all; I'm just pointing out that some may be misinterpreted or misdefined (just as one can say, e.g., -- as the Church herself does -- that not all alleged Marian apparitions are authentic, without in the slightest denying the authentic ones). This is only one point of eight that I am making (and I purposely put it last).
I think it is an error to conclude that every bad thing that happens to us is a demonic attack, just as it is to ignore the devil entirely, not to be vigilant against him, or to deny his existence. The devil can easily (and will!) exploit both extremes. The Catholic life is always one of balance between the extremes we so often see in the secular society and in non-Catholic communions.