Circular Letter: Winter 2015
Questions & Answers on Spiritual Warfare
The opening prayer for the Mass on Ash Wednesday petitions:
Grant, O Lord, that we may begin with holy fasting this campaign of Christian service, so that, as we take up battle against spiritual evils, we may be armed with weapons of self-restraint. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.
It is noteworthy that the Church uses the language of spiritual warfare in describing the season of Lent. Bearing in mind that the heavenly hosts fight with us in this battle, it is fitting that we consider some commonly asked questions concerning spiritual warfare.
1. What is Spiritual Warfare?
Spiritual warfare is the battle that we must undertake daily in order to defend, or re-conquer the Kingdom of Christ’s love, life and wisdom in our hearts and lives. It is fought on various fronts:
1. The struggle against the “flesh” refers to the innate inclination to sin within us that are consequent upon original sin and our own personal sins. This battle involves our need to overcome vicious habits through the practice of virtue, particularly those of temperance, chastity and patience.
2. Then there is the struggle against the “world”, which in the cultural, moral, social and political realms forms a deceitful sense that this present life is the end-all and be-all of everything. This is allied with the notion that material possessions can satisfy the desires of our hearts. This battle involves resisting the false and seductive lies of the “spirit of the world” with the truth and Spirit of the Gospel. Poverty of spirit and a holy detachment from created things are crucial in this battle.
3. The ordinary struggle against the devil consists in resisting temptations that arise from the provocation of the rebellious angels. This is accomplished through vigilance, prayer and a humble submission to Christ and His Church. Here humility and obedience are our weapons of choice.
4. Beyond the challenge of resisting temptation, there is also an extraordinary battle against the devil involving the struggle for freedom from deep-seated influences of the fallen angels that are present due to our having allowed the enemy more permanent “footholds” in ourselves. In some cases, these influences can come from the malicious intentions of others on us (e.g. curses). Some writers on spiritual warfare tend to focus on this last area of battle, almost to the exclusion of the others. Here the danger is the false impression that the principle cause of our problems comes from the more extraordinary attacks of the devil. This is attractive to the extent that a person imagines that his struggles can be won almost magically by finding the proper deliverance prayer or exorcism. This leads to the neglect of habitual prayer and the difficult striving for virtuous habits. While it would be wrong to deny these attacks and the possibility for deliverance, it is important not to exaggerate them. Even when delivered the individual must combat vice, lest the evil spirit, after being driven out, not return with seven worse than himself, such that the last state of the individual is worse that the initial state (cf. Mt 1:24-5).
2. How do the holy angels influence us in this battle?
The holy angels are primary instrumental channels of Christ’s actual graces that we need so as to act on the supernatural level of faith. Actual grace is our principal source of strength and defense. Beyond that, when we consider the struggle against temptations and the seductive lies of the world, the flesh and the devil, we benefit greatly from the help of the holy angels who offer clarity to our thoughts and guidance to our will, and strength to our affective response.
With regard to clarity of thought, there are two things that the angels can do to enlighten man’s mind. First, they can strengthen man’s intellect. Secondly, they can propose the truth to us. With regard to the first point, man’s intellect is strengthened by the action of the angelic intellect. This can be experienced in varying degrees. One French mystic describes this phenomenon in the following terms:
“When the soul is at one with the angels, she experiences, as it were, a heightening of her faculties. An astronomer when he looks through a telescope discovers horizons which his unaided sight cannot reach. The effect produced in the soul is more or less analogous to this when, through the spiritual contact which unites her to the angel, she experiences a sudden extension of her mind and her love” (Journal espirituel de Lucie-Christine, 6 October 1883, Paris, 1938, p. 173). As regards proposing the truth to us, the angels normally communicate through images or impressions taken from our imagination or memory, at other times recalling words or passages of Scripture.
Concerning the angels’ help in guiding our will, it is important to note that beyond the normal exercise of our free will, God alone can directly change our will. The will is normally attracted by exterior things that we perceive as good and desirable. Hence, when someone causes something to be perceived as a desirable good, he influences the will of another person. It is similar to a skillful salesperson who knows how to present his wares in the most attractive light possible. In this way, an angel or man can move the will by way of persuasion. In addition to trying to present the image of goodness and virtue in an attractive light, the angels can make us feel affective consolation in association with particular virtuous thoughts and actions and desolation in association to vice and sin. If a person is living a good life and advancing in virtue, the holy angel wants to bring encouragement and consolation. If a person is living in sin, the holy angel wants to shake up the person’s conscience, making them interiorly unquiet and restless (cf. St. Ignatius of Loyola, Rules for the Discernment of Spirits). In these ways, he will try to lead us away from danger and towards the good.
3. How are the good angels involved in the fight against the demons?
Some modern Christian literature presents very vivid narratives of the battle between angels and demons in a way that appeals to our imagination. These books describe the holy angels’ fight with the rebellious spirits in terms not unlike the physical skirmishes between men. While the storylines may be engaging and the general message of the books may be good, the theology of the angels is seriously flawed. Angels and demons, as pure spirits, do not engage one another in any way similar to our physical battles. Swords and shields, in this context, are images of purely spiritual realities.
St. Jude describes one confrontation between St. Michael and the devil in the following way: “But Michael the archangel, when he disputed with the devil and argued about the body of Moses, did not dare pronounce against him a railing judgment, but said, “The Lord rebuke you!” (Jude 1:9). It is noteworthy that the conflict is spoken of in terms of a dispute or argument. It occurs on the spiritual level. In the end, it is the humble invocation of the authority of God from the part of the holy angel that settles the battle. It is for this reason that the angel from the lowest choir has power over the demons from the highest choirs. They do not rely on their own strength, but humbly invoke the divine power to conclude the issue.
The battleground on which the angels and demons meet is not up in the clouds. Rather, it is primarily in our hearts and minds. The good angels seek to protect the image of God in our soul, preserving and perfecting our will by leading us to the true freedom of the Children of God through the practice of supernatural charity. The fallen spirits seek to seduce our will into the slavery of vice and sin by insinuating their lies into our minds and hearts. This is the way that they can strike back at God, by trying to destroy God’s image in us. Their battle is, for the most part, indirect insofar as it is over a common prize: our immortal souls.
4. How do we know what angel to turn to in our difficulties: our Guardian Angel or another angel?
Every holy angel desires to assist us and can in fact offer help. Our relationship with our Guardian Angel is particularly important due to the fact the he is the one who normally communicates the graces we need at any given moment. For this reason, in most of our daily challenges, we should habitually turn to him for support. However, Sacred Scripture and Tradition have revealed other angels who can also benefit us. The three archangels have special areas in which they can aid us. St. Michael can help particularly with humility, faith, fortitude in trials and fidelity. St. Gabriel can help us especially in understanding God’s word, hope, discerning God’s will and our vocation. St. Raphael is helpful in bringing healing to body and soul, charity and deliverance. The theological virtues, faith, hope and charity, are also appropriated to them in this order. Since these heavenly coworkers are willing and able to be of service, it is a good idea to call upon them. If we wish to pray in a special way for other people, we can also pray to their Guardian Angels. We can invite their angels to come to adoration with us for the sake of their protégés and we can invite their Guardian Angels to participate in the graces of our Holy Communion for the benefit of the people who are separated from the Sacraments.
5. How do evil spirits influence humans?
As described in answer to how the good angels influence us, the fallen spirits also try to move us by being clever salesmen. In their case, they want to present evil in the most seductive form. They cannot force our wills, but they try to allure through perverse attractions and lies. If a person is living a virtuous life, the fallen spirits will do everything they can to try to upset them with discouraging thoughts or desolation. If a person is living in sin, they will do everything to keep him at peace and interior tranquility. They try to hinder anything that may awaken in him pangs of conscience.
Another ruse of the demons is pointed out by St. Ignatius: “It is proper to the evil angel, who forms himself under the appearance of an angel of light, to enter with the devout soul and go out with himself: that is to say, to bring good and holy thoughts, conformable to such just soul, and then little by little he aims at coming out drawing the soul to his covert deceits and perverse intentions” (St. Ignatius, Rules for the Discernment of Spirits).
One of the most common ways that the demons manage to maintain a more permanent foothold in the heart of people is through the lack of forgiveness, anger, hatred and desire for revenge. Through this spiritual wound, the enemy gains access over various aspects of a person’s way of thinking and willing. This is why Jesus insisted so much on the need for forgiveness from the heart as essential to our following Him.
6. How can we resist the attacks of the devil?
St. Paul exhorts the faithful to, “Put on the whole armor of God so that you may stand against the tactics of the devil” (Eph 6:13). He then says: “Gird your loins with truth, be clothed with righteousness as a breastplate, have your feet shod in readiness for the gospel of peace; in all circumstances, hold faith as a shield, to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one, and take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God” (Eph 6:14 17). The “equipment” against the enemy itemized by St. Paul is: truth, righteousness, readiness to practice the Gospel of peace, faith, and the word of God. In the end, our own personal union with Christ in holiness and faith gives us the strongest safeguard against the assaults of the devil. We are protected from demonic influence essentially by our union with God. “The scepter of the wicked shall not rest upon the land of the righteous” (Ps 125:3). Just as the devil could not touch or stain Mary the Mother of God because she was “full of grace”, so too we cannot be hurt by the devil to the extent that we are united to God in grace. “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble. Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil and he will flee from you. Draw near to God and He will draw near to you” (Jam 4:6-8).
The sacraments are our principal means of acquiring union with God. It is by virtue of baptism that all the faithful are freed from the dominion of the devil and through the growth in virtue can prevent his continued influence. Therefore, the renewal of the baptismal vows, wherein we formally renounce Satan and all his empty promises, is very effective. The sacrament of Confirmation and the worthy reception of Holy Communion strengthen and confirm the grace that comes from baptism. Thus Dom Pellegrino Ernetti, O.S.B., the exorcist of the archdiocese of Venice, writes:
“Prayers and the preventive exorcism are part of the inheritance of the Christian state, for those who are baptized, confirmed and those who live a Eucharistic life. From the baptismal character already comes the title of true fighter against Satan. The prayer Our Father also confers the valid title as fighter in the preventive form. Christians not only have the duty of being soldiers and followers of Christ, Who came to the earth in order to expel and destroy the work of the demon, but they also have the right to participate in this work. This right always comes from the baptismal character as well as the character of Confirmation, and it is nourished by Jesus at the table of the Eucharist, and it becomes ever stronger so as to obtain victory, together with our King and Conqueror, Christ” (D. Pellegrino Ernetti, O.S.B., La Catechesi di Satana, Edizioni Segno, Udine, 1992, pp.245-246).
Furthermore, with regard to the Sacrament of Confession Fr. Pellegrino Ernetti, O.S.B. writes: “Experience teaches that only with difficulty does Satan manage to penetrate in a soul which cleanses itself frequently with the Precious Blood of Jesus. This Blood becomes a real breastplate against which Satan can apply force, but he does not manage to open any breach. It is truly of this sacrament that Satan has fear … Christ conquered Satan with His own Blood. And the Apocalypse explicitly tells us: ‘These are those who have conquered Satan with the Blood of the Lamb’” (Ibid, p. 247).
Fr. Gabriele Amorth, the chief exorcist of Rome writes, “Many times I have written that it causes the devil much more anger when one goes to Confession, or taking a soul from the devil, than actually exorcising and forcing him out of the body” (Amorth, p. 86).
In this context, it is important once more to warn against the constant danger of reducing any part of our spiritual battle to a magically easy formula. Even when that formula involves frequenting the sacraments, the effort involved in rooting out one’s predominant passion remains always challenging (cf. OA Circular Letter, Lent 1995).
It is fitting to mention in conjunction with sacramental Confession, the practice of praying the Confiteor and the Act of Contrition. These prayers are an especially efficacious means of renouncing sin and the devil and so they fittingly preface the battle for deliverance. To be efficacious, they must be said with humble self-knowledge and true desire to break the attachment to sin, especially those for which we find some self-justification.
In general there are two types of prayer that we can use to resist the power of the devil. The first and most common are prayers of supplication. These are prayers addressed to God, Mary, or the angels and saints in which we ask for their special help and the grace of their intercession to free us from the attacks and influence of the fallen spirits. This type of prayer can be made by anyone either for themselves or for the well‑being of others. What distinguishes this kind of prayer from an exorcism is that it does not address the fallen spirit in a direct way, but it rather addresses a holy person, asking for their assistance. This type of prayer is particularly efficacious insofar as it is prayed with humility and the confident assurance of the powerful help of our heavenly allies.
In this context, we should mention that prayers of praise draw us near to God, filling our souls with His presence, light and peace. Therefore, they are a powerful means of casting out the devil. The holy angels of God sing without ceasing the Sanctus: “Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God of Hosts …” By joining with them in the praise of God we are more united to them and helped by their protection. This prayer also expresses the reverential fear that brings with it special protection as the psalm teaches us: “The angel of the Lord encamps around those who fear Him, and delivers them” (Ps 34:7). Furthermore, prayers of thanksgiving are a powerful source of protection. St. Paul says in this regard, “Have no anxiety at all, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, make your requests known to God. Then the peace of God that surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus” (Phil 4:6‑7).
Praying the profession of our faith contained in the Creed is a very effective means of protection from the evil one. “By faith, man freely commits his entire self to God” (CCC 1814). By the profession of faith, we renew and reaffirm the very foundation of our life in Christ by disposing ourselves to a more perfect acceptance of the supernatural gift of faith. The Creed, on the other hand, also is a cause of torment for the devil “who has nothing to do with the truth, for he is a liar and father of lies” (Jn 8:44). The highest truths of which he is an enemy are the truths of the faith. For this reason, where they are professed he is unsettled from the place.
Prayers of consecration to Jesus, Mary and the holy angels are also a powerful means of union with God and for this reason, a means of protection from the enemy. When we pray prayers to Jesus, Mary or the angels in which we express our dedication to them by consecrating to them our entire being without reserve, we are entrusting ourselves completely to their protection. Such an act of trust compels them to give help and protection. As Jesus said to St. Faustina, “Sooner would heaven and earth turn into nothingness than would My mercy not embrace a trusting soul” (St. Faustina, Diary, p. 629).
The second type of prayer that can be said are prayers of command. These are prayers said for one’s own benefit in which a person directly commands the devil, in the name of God or some other mystery of our salvation, to depart from one’s own person. Such prayers are not sacramentals. This means that, as private prayers, they do not contain the intercessory force of the Church as does a sacramental. It follows that the efficacy of this type of prayer comes from either a personal charism, or it is based on the faith that one has in the promise of the Lord when he said to His faithful: “In My name you will cast out demons” (Mk 16:17). St. Thomas Aquinas wrote: “We are able to adjure the demons by the power of the name of Jesus, expelling them from ourselves as declared enemies, in order to avoid the spiritual and corporal damage that could come to us from them. This is a power which is given to us from Christ Himself: ‘Behold I give you power to step on serpents and scorpions and all the power of the enemy, and they will do you no harm’ (Lk 10:19)” (Thomas Aquinas, STh, II-II, 90, a. 2.) This type of prayer should not be used lightly. Whenever a prayer of command is used, it is recommended that it be accompanied by a prayer of supplication asking for the help and protection of God and the angels and the saints. It is usually in situations of prolonged or intense attacks of temptation or oppression that it is used. As mentioned in the last Circular Letter, prayers of command are not to be said publicly nor is it permitted that they be pronounced for the liberation of someone other than oneself, nor for cases of demonic infestation in a particular place. No one has the authority to command the devil to depart from another person or from a public place or some other thing unless he receives authority to do so from the Church. This authority is only given to ordained priests.
All prayer is to have the qualities of humility and confidence in God. St. James teaches us to pray to God with faith, and without hesitation, “for he who hesitates is like a wave of the sea, driven and carried about by the wind. Therefore, let not such a one think that he will receive anything from the Lord, being a double-minded man, unstable in his ways” (Jam 1:6-8).
We must not forget the importance of fasting in the battle with the enemy of our souls. One of the principal reasons for fasting and renunciations is because they weaken one’s habitual attachment to the things of this world – the main door by which the demons gain access to the soul and influence the will through the passions. This is not only with regard to food and drink, but also with other things that offer a false promise of satiety, such as television, the internet, movies and music.
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