Is it Medieval to Believe in Demons?
"Why are we wasting time on this medieval idea that demons are real?" asks Catholic speaker Adam Blai. It seems as though this word, "medieval," is used for a variety of unpopular beliefs or stances. It is medieval to suggest that wives should be subordinate to their husbands, medieval to suggest that the Church should be our foremost authority, medieval to think well of the idea of monarchy, medieval to deny access to abortion and birth control. The world uses "medieval" as an insult, propagating the idea that the thousand or so years of medieval European culture were indeed some kind of “Dark Ages.”
Unfortunately, many Catholics do believe that to be medieval is, indeed, to live in darkness.
Blai's comment is tongue-in-cheek, of course. He is a lay expert, a peritus of demonology, that works with the diocese of Pittsburgh; he has personal experience in many exorcisms, academic training in psychology, and a charism that assists in discerning demonic influence. He knows that demons are real. He has experienced the reality of the supernatural, in a way that most of us should hope never to experience.
But there is some truth to his use of the word “medieval.” It is medieval to believe that God's hand is everywhere. It is medieval to believe in demons. We modern Catholics often have to make ourselves think this way, because we grew up with families and schools that separated God and the world, as if He is outside of it. In this way, the medieval Christians were better than us. We should admit, humbly, that those who believe such things with their hearts have a greater faith than we do. This faith–this belief in the truth of the supernatural taught to us by the Church, by Scripture, by Tradition, is childlike. It shows the subservience of the intellect and the will to faith, not denying reason, but putting it in its place. If “being medieval” means that faith is stronger, more childlike, we all ought to want to be medieval.
Indeed, Charles Taylor wrote in A Secular Age (2007) of the idea of enchantment, the notion that medieval people had a faith that endowed the world around them with a supernatural sheen–that every aspect of their lives, every event, moment, object, thought–was influenced by the supernatural world. Good and evil spirits are everywhere. I cannot prove whether Taylor’s thesis about medieval faith is true, though I’d like to believe it. It is at least partially substantiated by literature. The saints did not write anything without reference to God, as if they could not even think about anything without His presence. From the fall of the Roman Empire up until even the 17th century, most European literature was infused with a deep sense of God's providence, working not just in specific moments, but in the entire life and surroundings of the author. From here the so-called “Age of Reason” proliferated more and more secular literature, of course, although at the start such authors–Hobbes, Hume, and the like–took care to explicitly deny God’s presence in the world around us, perhaps because they knew most people still believed in it. In other words, there is a lot of evidence that suggests that yes–Christian faith was once far more intuitive, far more ingrained into one’s view of the world.
The separation of the supernatural and the natural, the divine and the secular, is relatively new and deliberate–artificial, really. It is a new creation of humanistic atheism. Such entrenched and insistent separation of faith from daily experience has led a great many otherwise faithful Catholics to be skeptical of things such as, oh, the pervasive work of demons in our lives.
There is a positive aspect to this: most of us don’t spend our days obsessing about demons and wondering about exorcisms. That would certainly darken our spirits–literally and figuratively.
But should we think about demons? Should I, a lay Catholic with no particular power or visible supernatural charism, spend any of my time thinking about demons and how they are acting in my life?
There are two answers to this question: yes… and no.
Yes. We must think about the fact that there are evil spirits prowling about the world. We are told so in the Bible by Christ Himself. We are told so by exorcists. Our traditional prayers affirm it. Hundreds of hagiographies, including modern ones, give evidence of it. St. John Vianney was physically attacked by the devil; St. Pio wrestled with him.
We must think about demons because we must be on our guard. We are told: “Be sober and watch: because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, goeth about seeking whom he may devour” (1 Peter 5:8). We are in a spiritual battle. And if we do not know who we are fighting, or where the battlefield is, and have no notion of the enemy’s tactics or strategies, we are at a disadvantage. No, more than that–we are in denial.
We must know that demons have power–yes, more power than we do–to tempt us, to encourage others in our lives to evil, and to work through images, words, and objects. The demons did not lose power at their fall; they retained the specific powers God gave them, only turned to evil. Evil images (such as those of murder or pornography) disturb and haunt those who view them, for demons can work through such things. Evil actions such as elective abortion give consent to the devil’s desires, and open us up to the devil’s influence within us.
And the devil wants us dead. Not dead in a state of grace, but dead in hell.
“Enchanted” faith believes all this instinctively–is aware of the work of demons–and would be on guard against demonic influence. We could call such faith superstitious paranoia… but we are not modern skeptics. We ought instead to call this faith “spiritual readiness.”
To know about demons is to prepare for battle–to inform ourselves as to our enemy. Sun Tzu wrote in The Art of War, “If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat.” Pagan beliefs aside, he was philosophically correct.
But now, the question again: is it really good that I, a Catholic, should spend my time thinking about demons and how they are acting in my life?
The answer is also no. Rather, no, I should not be obsessing over demons and making them the focal point of my thoughts. The devil would like us to think of him all the time. He would like us to be obsessed, angry, afraid. Anyone who spends so much time thinking about evil will be infected by it, because they have made it foremost in their mind and thus given it power. This is an extreme we must not go to.
We should all be medieval; we should certainly believe in the existence and works of demons. We must inform ourselves of their abilities and their tactics. But we should not make that the focus of our spiritual life.
The best tactic against demonic influence, Blai explains frequently, is not spending our time worrying over the work of demons. We acknowledge it, yes, and inform ourselves as much as is useful. But we make God our focus. It is the life of grace and closeness to God that we ought to foster; we need not spend our days reading about the thousands of demons and exorcisms on record. Instead, we seek closeness to God by learning about Him and living His commandments. We pray against, fast against, and otherwise fight temptations given to us by the demons–impure thoughts, gluttonous cravings, habitual distractions in prayer, prideful outbursts–but we do not spend our time afraid of demons. We avoid mortal sin, receive the sacraments worthily, reject occult practices, and be vigilant in prayer and fasting; but we do not spend our time doing it simply against demons, but to grow close to God.
Some of the past century’s “developments” in canon law, liturgy, and catechesis have greatly diminished the average lay person’s participation in such holy endeavors as fasting and vigils, keeping us from greater holiness and weakening our protection against demonic activity. But we know that we can do such things–and we ought to.
Even the most simple of holy habits can bring us closer to God while also serving to fight the demons. Take, for example, one that most of us know: saying grace before meals. Blai speaks of illicit drugs that are cursed so that those who consume them become more subject to the influence of the devil. He thinks that this is one reason why saying grace is important: we ask God to bless the meal so as to remove any possible demonic influences. Were we aware of this possibility, we would not fail to say grace before every glass of water, every snack, even before cold medicine or a stick of gum!
Is this a medieval attitude? Or is it simply–faith?
To believe in demons is medieval–and it is necessary. But we should not seek out a “medieval” faith because “older is better.” Rather, we should understand that the childlike, trusting, God-centered, God-aware faith that we think of as “medieval” is far more beneficial than our modern skepticism, which disregards demons entirely. Skepticism does not protect us against the devil’s work. Only faith does.
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