Association of priests meditation.
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Vol. XV, February 2009

St. Paul no. 7: On the Devil
Dear Brothers in the Priesthood!

St. Paul admonishes us to be prudent and to discern good and evil. The main reasons he gives are our ego and the fallen angels. The fallen angels are especially dangerous for they both exploit the disordered propensities of our egoism, and they misguide our good intentions by disguising themselves as “angels of light”. Are we then helplessly exposed to them? We have considered different criteria such as love, obedience and purity. Yet, St. Paul teaches us more about the spiritual world we live in: “We are not contending against flesh and blood, but against the [evil spirits]” (Eph 6:12). As he gives us this teaching we should listen to him attentively.

1. Paul’s confrontations with the demons

St. Paul wanted to know nothing other than Christ, and Christ Crucified, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting” (Acts 9:5). This, his personal confrontation with the persecuted Jesus before the gates of Damascus, deeply marked his life. Similarly, that which St. Paul tells us about the fallen spirits he learned principally by personal confrontation or by experience. Some of these strong confrontations with the evil spirits are recorded directly in Holy Scripture, others we come to know in more indirect ways.

a) A thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan
In Second Corinthians, chapters 11-12, St. Paul speaks extensively about his work. He was “afraid that as the serpent deceived Eve by his cunning,” the thoughts of the Corinthians too might “be lead astray from a sincere and pure devotion to Christ” (2 Cor 11:3) by “false apostles, deceitful workmen, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ” (11:13). In order to show them what a true apostle is like, he gives an extensive description of his pastoral procedure (cf. 11:1-2), of his suffering (cf. 11:23-29) and selfless work for them (cf. 11:7-9). To these belong also the graces God granted and the weaknesses he had to bear humbly. He “was caught up to the third heaven” (12:2), but also “a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan, to harass me” (12:7b), “to keep me from being too elated by the abundance of revelations” (12:7a). It is not so important what this “thorn” was, but yes, that God willed to allow it, and that in His providence Satan’s attacks were the chosen means by which God would fashion and transform His great instrument to perfection. Paul commented with these words:

Three times I besought the Lord about this, that it should leave me; but He said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for My power is made perfect in weakness.” I will all the more gladly boast of my weaknesses, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities; for when I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Cor 12:8-10)

b) St. Paul’s confrontation with the fallen spirits
St. Luke narrates at length in the Acts of the Apostles the activities of the Apostle to the Gentiles. St. Paul was confronted by the evil spirits especially in Ephesus. “God did extraordinary miracles by the hands of Paul, so that handkerchiefs or aprons were carried away from his body to the sick, and diseases left them and the evil spirits came out of them” (Acts 19:11-12). His missionary work was accompanied with the expulsion of demons.

This led “some of the itinerant Jewish exorcists” to call upon his name: “I adjure you [evil spirits] by the Jesus whom Paul preaches!” but “The evil spirit answered them, ‘Jesus I know, and Paul I know; but who are you?’ And the man in whom the evil spirit was leaped on them, mastered all of them, and overpowered them, so that they fled out of that house naked and wounded” (19:13-16). Also “a number of those who practiced magic arts brought their books together and burned them in the sight of all; and they counted the value of them and found it came to fifty thousand pieces of silver” (19:19). But there also rose up to resist them a certain “Demetrius, a silversmith, who made silver shrines of Artemis, [and] brought no little business to the craftsmen.” They feared for their business, and so caused great confusion and opposition to the missionary work of Paul (cf. 19:23-41). Mindful of this, St. Paul told to “the elders of the church” of Ephesus: “I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after them. Therefore be alert...” (Acts 20:17, 29-31).

These and certainly many other experiences form the background of the most reknown statement of St. Paul about the spiritual battle with the fallen spirits, written precisely to the Ephesians:

[Brothers,] be strong in the Lord and in the strength of His might. Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For we are not contending against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places. (Eph 6:10-12)

These references to the fallen spirits in the life of St. Paul tell us, first of all, that their existence is a simple fact. Then, the presence of God among men and the annunciation of the Gospel stir up the enemy: the light of divine truth unmasks the sons of darkness. At the same time, it remains true: God’s enemies also serve God’s plan for man’s sanctification. This is one of the reasons why St. Paul transmits in all his letters such a positive view of life and admonishes all to “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice” (Phil 4:4; cf. 2 Cor 13:11; etc.), for “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? …For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom 8:35, 38-39).

2. Differences among the fallen spirits

St. Paul does not hesitate to speak about the enemies; he speaks about them often.
a) Individual and generic references. He mentions ten times “Satan”; the term is generally recognized as a personal name (cf. Rom 16:20; 1 Cor 5:5; 7:5; 2 Cor 2:11; 11:14; 12:7; 1 Thess 2:18; 2 Thess 2:9; 1 Tim 1:20; 5:15). He refers six times in a general way to the leader of the fallen spirits under the name “devil”; it is practically a proper title (cf. Eph 4:27; 6:11; 1 Tim 3:6,7; 2 Tim 2:26 and Heb 2:14). On two occasions he speaks of the “demons” (1 Cor 10:20-21 and 1 Tim 4:1). We may add here further the reference to the “hosts”: we heard Paul already saying that our battle is “against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places” (Eph 6:12). “Host”, however, does not necessarily refer to the fallen angels. St. Paul refers “the Lord of hosts” (Rom 9:29) with the intention to underline God’s power through His dominion over the spiritual army of holy angels. Therefore St. Paul added the distinctive “hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places.”

b) Fallen spirits of certain choirs
St. Paul also refers to the fallen spirits in conjunction with the names of angelic choirs: In Ephesians 6 we heard him speaking of our battle “against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers [virtues] of this present darkness…” (Eph 6:10-12). To the Colossians he spoke about Christ’s victory over “the principalities and powers and (He) made a public example of them, triumphing over them in Him” (Col 2:15).

Their distinction into choirs or their ordering into certain groups is given according to the way God created them (cf. the letter of last October). “In [Christ] all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or authorities—all things” (Col 1:16). Herewith is implicitly stated that the angels are individual persons. At the same time, they are also somehow related to each other. Therefore, it was possible that individual angels could fall from the different choirs, and they still continue to bear the characteristics of the choir they were created in.

c) Descriptive references. The term “spirit” refers simply to the nature of God’s first creatures. Paul makes express reference to a fallen spirit in Eph 2:2: “You once walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the powers of the air, that now worketh in the sons of disobedience”. “Hosts” and the names of different choirs refer rather to the different kinds of their activities rather than to their choice before God. Therefore, St. Paul adds some particular characteristics in order to specify whether he speaks of faithful or fallen spirits. Such characteristics refer to the moral quality of their activities, to the intended fruits of their actions. In the Letter to the Hebrews, St. Paul speaks about Jesus who through His death destroyed “him who has the power of death, that is, the devil” (Heb 2:14). To the Corinthians Paul speaks about “the god of this world” (2 Cor 4:4) and to the Ephesians about “the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience” (Eph 2:2), “the world rulers of this present darkness”, and “the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places” (Eph 6:12). We should add here still the clarification Paul makes to the Corinthians: “Hence, as to the eating of food offered to idols, we know that ‘an idol has no real existence,’ and that ‘there is no God but one’” (1 Cor 8:4).

3. Are they everywhere?

The preceding descriptions may elicit certain questions: We need not ask how St. Paul knows all these things; it is enough for us, to believe that the word we received from him is “what it really is: the word of God” (1Thess 2:13).

A very serious question is this: Does Paul see the devils everywhere at work, in the air, in the darkness, among the disobedient and where we meet death? Do his letters cause fear in the readers, which could present a danger before which the Church recently cautioned us: “Popular devotion to the Holy Angels, which is legitimate and good, can, however, also give rise to possible deviations: when…the faithful are taken by the idea that the world is subject to demiurgical struggles…in which man is left at the mercy of superior forces…or when the daily events of life…are read schematically or simplistically, indeed childishly, so as to ascribe all setbacks to the Devil and all success to the Guardian Angels” (Liturgy and Popular Piety, 217). Paul himself warns against such a distorted world view: “Let no man rob you of your prize by a voluntary humility and worshipping of the angels, dwelling in the things which he hath seen, vainly puffed up by his fleshly mind…and not holding fast the Head, from whom all the body, being supplied and knit together through the joints and bands, increasing with the increase of God” (Col 2:18-19). Still, for St. Paul everything is clearly recapitulated in and subject to Christ, the Head! (cf. Eph 1:22-23). St. Paul clearly teaches— and much more frequently than he refers to the evil—that Jesus had “disarmed the principalities and powers” (Col 2:15; cf. Rom 16:20) and “has delivered us from the dominion of darkness and transferred us to the Kingdom of his beloved Son” (Col 1:13). Still, it would fall short of the full truth if St. Paul were to remain silent about the existence of the fallen spirits and fail to describe their activities, since we need to combat them with the grace of Christ in order to gain the crown.

4. Dear Brothers in the Priesthood!

We join St. Paul in our marvelous vocation to proclaim to mankind: “You are not in darkness, brethren…you are all sons of light and sons of the day” (1 Thess 5:4-5). It is however part of the reality of our pilgrimage that there are dangers around, that there are enemies who do not desire our happiness. Therefore we should accept the instruction St. Paul gives us about the fallen spirits and not fail in transmitting the Lord’s word “Watch and pray” so that no one, due to our negligence, may fail to achieve the indescribably great goal God has prepared for us all.
Fr. Titus Kieninger, ORC