Harry (not his real name, but a real person) was an amateur philosopher and professional fishing guide. We had been enjoying each other’s conversation for hours and exchanging “tips” on our favorite writers. But when I mentioned C.S. Lewis, Harry’s face darkened.
“What don’t you like about him?” I asked.
“Oh, he’s a good writer, especially his fiction,” Harry replied. “And everybody loves his children’s stories. I just don’t like his religious writing.”
“What have you read?”
“The Four Loves. And Mere Christianity, I think.”
“And what don’t you like about these books?”
“I just think he’s not very spiritual.”
I was prepared for two common Lewisphobias: the secularist’s fear of real religion, which he often meets for the first time in Lewis, or a leftist’s fear of the utterly rational, human, and attractive conservatism, which he also often meets for the first time in Lewis. But this objection—not very spiritual—I had previously heard only from feet-off-the-ground New Agers, always delicate, flaky, and female. But Harry’s life and loves were trails, fish, and boats.
Then I remembered that Harry, a recovering alcoholic, cocaine addict, and serial adulterer, had told me of his past follies in a tone I thought closer to pride than remorse. And I reflected that religion (which includes commandments) and spirituality (which doesn’t) are increasingly the two major combatants, not allies, in our culture. Indeed, most up-to-date bookstores now have two separate sections for these subjects, with the spirituality section always two to five times larger. Spirituality is the new religious establishment in “intellectual” America and perhaps the new Enemy Number One of Christianity.
But where do the Devil and the millennium fit in? They are two of the clearest tests you can use to distinguish religion from spirituality and to find out which of the two any person is “into.”
Spirituality, like that found in the New Age movement, is big on grand historical meanings, such as the “Age of Aquarius,” and down on belief in a Devil, Hell, and sin. Belief in the Devil is about as welcome to “spiritual” people as the Devil himself is to religious people (i.e., orthodox Jews, orthodox Christians, and Muslims).
The conversation continued:
“There’s another thing I don’t like about Lewis. He’s too pessimistic about the future.” This also surprised me, because Harry, like any effective trail guide, boat owner, or fisherman, believes in Murphy’s Law.
I protested, “But Lewis attacked pessimism. He also attacked optimism. He saw them as opposite forms of the same error of historicism, or historical determinism.”
Harry could give and take “-ism” words. But he gave me a blank stare and said stubbornly, “Well, I believe in the future.”
“No. I believe in God. I think He’s more reliable. And I think maybe that’s the difference between religion and spirituality.”
“You believe in God, but you don’t believe in the future?”
“Right. The future hasn’t given me any promises or covenants lately or sent any prophets or saviors?’
“I’ll bet you’re down on celebrating the millennium too, right?”
“On why you’re celebrating it.”
“What’s your reason?”
“My reason is what it’s the third millennium of.”
“Yes; the year 2000, or 2001, will begin the third millennium of what? Do you know?”
“I dunno. You gotta tell me.”
“Hey, don’t go cursing me out just because I didn’t pass your little test.”
“I wasn’t cursing. In my language system, Christ isn’t a curse word, He is the Word of God.”
“Oh. I guess we live in different language systems. And language shapes your world, so I guess we live in different worlds.”
“Yes, but we live in the same society, and it’s dying.”
“Because it’s turned the name of its Savior into a curse word.”
He was silent and angry. I was sorry for the anger but thought it a price worth paying for the silence.
Fading Fear of the Devil
There are three kinds of people in our society, clearly distinguishable by the answer they give if you ask them why we are celebrating the third millennium. Only a minority will mention Christ. It is, after all, the third millennium Anno Domini, but the media mind-molders are keeping that secret under wraps as well as they can, and the answer of the molders and their moldees to our question is likely to be some slightly more articulate version of “Duhhhh….” I classify “believers in the future” here. They are, I think, the majority. A third group will answer the question by pointing to the “evolutionary accident” of ten fingers.
If our whole society consisted only of the first and third groups, the two minority groups, the committed Christians and the committed secularists and materialists, then real debate might ensue, with the likely result of a stream of conversions. It is the muddled majority in the middle that is the Devil’s great triumph. They are not “religious” like Christians (though most of them think they are Christians), and they are not materialistic like secularists; they are “spiritual.” They see religion’s greatest plus as fostering morality (i.e., compassion, the virtue Chesterton said is all that remains after a man has lost all his principles) and religion’s greatest minus as fostering fanaticism (i.e., sanctity). They are very spiritual and skeptical of “organized religion” (an oxymoron if I ever heard one).
Both spiritualists and secularists believe in the future: spiritualists because of sentiment and vague optimism (Mr. Micawber’s “Something will turn up”) and secularists because of its lord and savior, Science. Only the religious (orthodox Jews, Christians, and Muslims) are infidels who do not bend their knee to the god of Tomorrow.
Both spiritualists and secularists also disbelieve in the Devil: spiritualists because of sentiment and vague optimism (belief in the Devil is not “compassionate”) and secularists because their lord and savior cannot detect him. He does not show up in test tubes. Sometimes spiritualists forget and believe while they are watching The Exorcist.
Within the spiritualists, or the “muddled majority in the middle,” five different reasons can be distinguished for disbelief in the Devil. Believing in the Devil means believing in (1) supernatural, (2) moral, (3) spiritual, (4) personal, (5) evil, and at least one of these five is usually denied. (1) Some are naturalists who do not believe in moral evil (sin), only physical evil (pain). (2) Some are amoralists who have a phobia against judgmentalism (i.e., moral law). (3) Most are Gnostics, who identify spirit with goodness (and thus, implicitly, matter with evil, though they no longer say that, as the original Gnostics did), so to them spiritual evil is an oxymoron. (4) Others are Marxists, Socialists, or other leftists who do not believe in personal evil but only evil social and economic systems and institutions (I wonder where they think these came from?). (5) Finally, and most desperately, cockeyed optimists do not believe in evil at all.
The most influential man who ever lived did not fit into any of these five categories, so he was allowed to believe in the Devil. In fact, He not only believed in the Devil, He knew him quite personally from direct experience. Even more, He created him and watched him fall.
This man also refutes the secularist’s fallacy about the millennium, the idea that the accident of numbers (ten fingers, 1,000 years) determines historical meanings. The very concept of the millennium (i.e., the dating of history by Christ, B.C. vs. A.D.) shows the opposite to be true: Meaning determines numbers, and the biological “accident” of man having ten fingers has been pressed into the service of Jesus Christ.
What do spiritualists miss in denying the Devil? Obviously, truth, knowledge of objective fact. But what is the existential import of this fact? What difference does Satan make?
The first and most obvious answer is: drama, passion, verve. Whatever good some spiritualists may attain by the denial of the Devil is cheapened by the lack of its opposite. For in this world of time and relativity, the height of a mountain is measured only by the depth of its valley.
This lack of drama should bother spiritualists greatly, for they are usually leftists, who always despise the undramatic, conformistic, comfortable, secure 50s, the Eisenhower years, the “happy days” of respectably materialistic nuclear families in American suburbs. But it is precisely conformism, comfort, security, and respectable materialism that motivates them to deny the Devil—what they love is only another version of what they hate. Satan fits into the world of Seinfeld no better than he fits into the world of Leave It to Beaver.
The meaning of life, according to just about every single page of the Bible, is spiritual warfare. This is also what life is according to all the saints, even the most gentle. Saints are spiritual warriors, not nice people. What Rabbi Abraham Heschel says of God, we can also say of those closest to Him, the saints: “God is not an uncle. God is not nice. God is an earthquake.” Rabbi Heschel evidently read modern psychology in light of the Bible instead of vice versa. Would that our priests had studied spiritual formation under this rabbi!
The Illusion of Peace
It is a profound shock to realize we are at war, not peace, and that we have enemies who even now are trying their hardest to destroy us, not just to kill our bodies but our souls forever. It is like the shock of children running across springtime fields chasing butterflies suddenly realizing there are live bullets in the air and that their playground is in fact a battlefield. What happens when you realize you are at war? Drama, adrenaline, attention, alertness, and a sense of perspective; little things no longer loom so large. We do not complain about lumpy beds on battlefields. We do not even talk about our “sexual needs,” much less let them dominate our whole lives.
Without Satan there is no drama, because without Satan there is no history. History is “challenge and response” (Toynbec’s formula). Without some challenge of the bad, there is no response of the good, and without the first inventor of badness, there is no challenge of the bad. History, like individual life, is essentially the drama of spiritual war between good and evil. History began in Genesis 3, not Genesis 1.
Evil is not trivial, and therefore its first inventor cannot be trivial. Satan probably loves the modern media stereotype of himself, for it is just enough of an inoculation to keep us from the real disease. No one really fears the clown in horns, hoofs, and pitchfork. But the real Satan—well, that’s in another genus. No less an authority than God Incarnate told us to fear him: “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both body and soul in her (Matthew 10:28)
Jesus took Satan very, very seriously (though not obsessively). If we do not, how can we say we are in line with our Lord? If we object to the fear of Satan, or even belief in Satan, in principle, or if we scorn it as foolish, we call Christ a fool and thus deny either the Incarnation (that He is God) or the wisdom of God (for if fear of Satan is foolish, and Christ taught it, and Christ is God, then God is foolish). Christ commanded us to conclude the only prayer He ever gave us, His model prayer, with “Deliver us from the evil one.” The Greek word is a singular noun, not a plural participle, and it has a definite article; the proper translation is not just “evil” but the “evil one.” And this reference to the Devil makes up one of the prayer’s six petitions, one-sixth of the perfect prayer.
In Lord of the Rings (the book justly voted the greatest book of the century by a poll of English readers), there is a scene in which one of the naive hobbits begins to speak with bravado of facing the Black Riders, the ex-human demon spirits controlled by Sauron, the dark lord of Middle-earth (i.e., this world). They are suddenly brought up short by Aragorn, who speaks from experience: “Hush. You know not what you say. Do you want to meet them? They are terrible!” The simple line “They are terrible!” says more by suggestion than is possible by any description.
The most stunning movie ever made—the one that left most audiences in shocked silence, truly terrified and changed—is The Exorcist. For it was real, based on an actual exorcism case researched and written by William Peter Blatty, who believed in the Devil. In one scene, a tape recording made in an actual exorcism was used, allowing the audience to hear the actual voice of a demon. The difference between this and all other “devil movies” in its effect on audiences was of kind, not degree. For those who watched Exorcist II, time and breath did not stop, flesh did not crawl, and total silence did not descend.
C.S. Lewis opines that we all unconsciously know the real Devil:
The children, the poets, and the philosophers were right; as there is one Face above all worlds merely to see which is irrevocable joy, so at the bottom of all worlds that face is waiting whose sight alone is the misery from which none who beholds it can recover. And though there seemed to be, and indeed were, a thousand roads by which a man could walk through the world, there was not a single one which did not lead sooner or later either to the Beatific or the Miserific Vision. (Perelandra)
The real Devil is powerful because he is magnetically attractive. Even Hitler pulled off that trick, so certainly Satan can. He does not come to us as a buffoon in a red tutu and ponytail tush but disguised as “an angel of light.” (2 Corinthians 11:14) He is more majestic than anything we have ever seen in this world, even the sea. “And he’s very, very big!” (That perfect line is from Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal.)
We are at war, and our enemies are “principalities and powers.” We cannot win a war if we do not know our enemy. Those who know this enemy have become spiritual warriors; those who do not have become camp followers and journalists.
Satan continually apes God, for Satan is a liar; and St. Michael the archangel exposes Satan’s primordial lie with his name: “Michael” means “Who is like God?” In the Apocalypse, Satan presents an unholy trinity (the Beast, the Dragon, and the False Prophet) to ape the Holy Trinity, a Whore of Babylon to ape the Woman Clothed with the Sun, Babylon to ape Jerusalem, and even the number 666, a trinity of sixes (six is the number of man) to aspire to the holy seven. Satan’s time of triumph is also a broken-in-half seven (a “deconstructed” seven, some would say), vis. “a time, times, and half a time” (i.e., 1 + 2 + 1/2 =3 1/2).
So it is no surprise that our reaction to the real Satan apes our reaction to the real Christ in totally transcending niceness. The existential import of meeting the Devil is much more like that of meeting Christ than like that of meeting our popular pictures of the Devil. The real presence of Satan is as shattering in its warlikeness as the real presence of Christ is shattering in its peace. As Christ gives a peace and a love the world cannot give and a light that darkness cannot comprehend, so Satan gives us a war, hate, and darkness that the world cannot give, heal, or understand.
This is especially true in the century just past, “the century of genocide,” which was Satan’s own hand-picked century according to the well-known vision of Pope Leo XIII. Auschwitz, Hiroshima, Bataan, the Gulag, the Ukraine, Rwanda, the “killing fields” of Pol Pot’s Cambodia, Mao’s “Great Leap Forward”—is this evil natural or supernatural? Is it not the Marquis de Sade writ large and multiplied by millions? A telling and chilling sign that these evils are from the Devil, not the world or the flesh, is the total absence of remorse that followed, in every case, on the part of the perpetrators. No one who actually experienced these atrocities could believe that human nature alone was responsible for such unlimited and deliberate malice. To have no remorse for having macheted pregnant women, bayoneted babies like melons, or systematically gassed six million Jews only because they were Jews is not human. The demon, having done his work through his human instruments, departs, and the killer feels no guilt, as if he had not been there, as if the deed had been done by someone else. Alas, this is precisely the case. Even the agnostic humanist, meeting such evil, approves the sentiment that this could not have been merely human. For if it were, the humanist would have to believe an even more misanthropic anthropology than that of the “Original Sin Conservative” he despises.
Saints are filled with a more-than-human goodness, a supernatural life. As St. Paul said, “I live, yet not I but Christ lives in me.” (Galatians 2:20) Is it not equally obvious that the hot massacres of Rwanda and the cold ones of Cambodia were filled with a more-than-human evil? Even the unbeliever will approve the sentiment, if not the theology, of the thought that if ever supernatural goodness visited our world, it was in the streets of Israel 2,000 years ago. Equally, if supernatural evil ever visited our world, it was in the 20th century. And not only in “primitive” places; the Holocaust took place in the heart of Western civilization. And most Germans were not shocked, until later. Nor is it over. Right here, right now, most Americans are less shocked at the present abortion holocaust of the holy innocents than at the use of that Biblical and Hebrew word to describe it. And the fact that most of us are not even mildly shocked at what our ancestors would be utterly stunned by is an even deeper triumph of Satan than those things at which we are not shocked.
The Uncharted Future
The horror called the 20th century is now behind us—or is it? Was Hitler only a pale preliminary copy, a trial run for the Antichrist? The book of Revelation seems to suggest this. History will climax not in a utopia but in a dystopia, not in enlightenment and peace but in a paroxysm of evil, the apparent triumph of darkness, and a “great tribulation” so unimaginably terrible that “if that time were not shortened, no flesh could be saved.” This is not the reading of a fundamentalist, a flake, or an astrologer but our Lord’s own words
(Matthew 24:22). It is a rather more sobering apocalyptic scenario than the Y2K catastrophe vainly threatened as a divine chastisement. (I personally would welcome Y2K as a divine grace; it might return the world to some silence, simplicity, sanity, and lead pencils, which never talk back.)
On the other hand, if the 20th century was the Devil’s chosen century, the 21st is not, and therefore, it seems, must be an improvement. The pope—one of the most deeply serious and realistic men alive—is hopeful, especially for our youth. A second spring of worldwide repentance, conversion, and revival could happen that would make the 21st century the greatest in history.
And it could also be the worst.
What will make the difference? You. Nothing far away and out of your control, but only the fervor or tepidness of your prayers and works, the passion or passionlessness of your faith and love, your choice to be a spiritual warrior or a spiritual wimp.
Luther’s great hymn, A Mighty Fortress is Our God, has it just right: Satan is both formidable and doomed:
For still our ancient foe
Doth seek to work us woe
His craft and power are great,
And armed with cruel hate,
On earth is not his equal.
Did we in our own strength confide,
Our striving would be losing.
Were not the right Man on our side,
The Man of God’s own choosing
Dost ask who that may be? Christ Jesus, it is He.
Lord Sabaoth His name.
From age to age the same.
And He must win the battle.
And through this world, with devils filled,
Should threaten to undo us,
We will not fear for God has willed
his truth to triumph through us.
The Prince of Darkness grim,
We tremble not for him.
His rage we can endure.
For lo, his doom is sure;
One little word shall fell him.
That Word, above all earthly powers
(No thanks to them) abideth.
The Spirit and the gifts are ours
Through Him who with us sideth.
Let goods and kindred go,
This mortal life also,
The body they may kill,
God’s truth abideth still:
His kingdom is forever.
Satan the Great and Terrible trembles in fear every time a Catholic is baptized, receives the Eucharistic Christ in faith, or enters a confessional. God has given us seven weapons against which Satan has no defense. Sacraments are not ceremonies, they are swords. So is Scripture (Hebrews 4:12).
So let’s get on with it. We have our marching orders:
Be strong in the Lord and in 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 principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places. Therefore take the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand. Stand therefore, having girded your loins with truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness, and having shod your feet with the equipment of the gospel of peace; above all taking the shield of faith, with which you can quench the flaming darts of the evil one. And take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the spirit, which is the word of God. Pray at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert with all perseverance. (Ephesians 6:10-18)
For the day is far spent, the evening is at hand. There’s a war on, and eternal souls are at stake, our own and our children’s and our children’s children (if God gives this poor world enough time for children’s children—that is, if He is more merciful to Washington than to Sodom). Let’s get on with it, whup the Devil, and win the world. Only one weapon will do it: saints. Be one.