The liturgical week when September turns to October has multiple feasts focusing on angels and saints of simple disposition: St. Therese of Liseaux and St. Francis of Assisi. As I drove to mass at a local school through rush hour traffic on October 2 (Guardian Angels), I remembered the old saying, “Never drive faster than your Guardian Angel can fly.” No comment on whether I or those on the road with me were obeying this maxim. With All Saints and Hollowe’en at the end of the month, my thoughts turned to the opposition, the demons. They exist, I’m sure, and not just because I’ve heard credible exorcism stories. I wrestle with some, as I’m sure many of us do.
There are demons whose main temptation seems to be: “Why be Good when you can have fun!”, however that allure has limited appeal. Superficial thrills don’t last, and aren’t as thrilling after the first few times as they are originally. Repeated self-indulgence can get wearisome, and many saints have been former enthusiastic sinners. I would imagine the greater demons focus more on pretense of virtue and justice than decadence, trying to appear as angels of light. Here are some greater demons I’ve seen lately:
The Demon of Absolute Legalism: who says every law should be obeyed strictly, no matter where it comes from, even if it doesn’t have an obvious benefit to anyone in sight. Laws are necessary and helpful, however they can be created and manipulated to selfish gain rather than common good. If a law is primarily an exercise of power by the lawgiver (making rules just because they can) or written to benefit the lawgiver above all, then it’s an unjust law and can be morally opposed. God’s Law is supreme, and is always for everyone’s good; if a law isn’t for everyone’s good then by definition it can’t be God’s Law.
This demon will tell you to obey the law at all cost, no matter who gets hurt, even if innocents die, and violators must be punished without mercy. More on Mercy later.
The Demon of Unconditional Loyalty: who says you stick with a true friend or superior, right or wrong, without criticism, without complaining, even if it goes against your principles or forces you into immoral acts. Loyalty is important and shouldn’t be given lightly, and part of loyalty is telling someone when they’re wrong like the prophet Nathan did to King David in the Old Testament (2 Samuel 12). “I was only following orders,” is a catch phrase, as is automatically attacking a friend’s enemies without knowing the full story. There many people who mean so much to us we’d kill for them, but following through on that it usually wrong. Our enemies aren’t always wrong and our friends aren’t always right, and although being a friend is important, helping one commit injustice in the name of loyalty is our personal responsibility.
This demon will tell you to support/obey your superiors and/or friends no matter what, even if you have to kill someone, die, fatally compromise your reputation, or be horrendously stupid.
The Demon of Labeling: will tell you everything has a label and once it’s given, it’s forever. Leopards can’t change their spots, and some things don’t change, but people can and do. Putting a label on someone makes them an object, which is the first step to dehumanization and abuse. A Vatican spokesman just said: “To label people as ‘you are living in sin’, ‘you are intrinsically disordered’ and ‘you have a contraceptive mentality’ does not help in bringing people to Christ and helping them embrace the teachings of the Church.” It doesn’t help us view them as humans with a God-given dignity, either. By the way, the way we define labels is closer to the definition of a tattoo, and even tattoos reflect the choice of a moment and a short time of pain.
This Demon will tell you people don’t change, and once they’re your enemy or they’re evil, they’ll be that way forever.
The Demon of Will to Power: who says control is the most important thing, and the more influence you have the better off you are. Power is something we all have and using it justly to the benefit of all a sacred enterprise. It has no sense of right or wrong, tends to say the ends justify the means, and seeks to perpetuate itself indefinitely, sacrificing everything for the sake of keeping power. The survival of the fittest is its catch phrase, assuming we’re the fittest that deserve to survive without question. Accumulating power, using leverage, manipulating events to advantage is wrong.
This demon will tell you that might makes right, whether it’s money, influence, force or persuasion. It is a supporter of the Golden Rule: “Those who have the gold, make the rules.”
The Demon of Self Interest: will tell you that you’re number one and others only matter if they can help you or give you something. Self interest is necessary as a survival skill, and a valid expression of self worth, provided no one is harmed in the process. It doesn’t want you to consider the difference between wants and needs, or delay gratification any longer than necessary. It only wants you to think about how to get what you want, and not how your actions affect others.
This demon will tell you that you’re wonderful and the world should revolve around you. It will also tell you protecting yourself comes first, and any attack should be met by overwhelming response, preferable annihilation.
The Demon of Eternal Conflict: will tell you that we’re always at war, and what matters more than anything is opposition to the right adversary. It is important to now who’s on your side and who isn’t, but saying conflict will never end is a capitulation to a murderous mindset. Separating the world into us vs. them makes us see everything from an absolutist viewpoint, and gives us permission to do what we want to our enemies. The Helots were the servant class in Spartan culture, doing the ordinary work of farm so they young of Sparta could spend their entire tie preparing for combat. Every year, the Spartan Assembly formally declared war on the Helots, justifying every act of oppression and terrorism against them under the law. Enemy combatants have no rights as people.
The Seven Deadly Sins probably have a legion of demons each, and each of these newly discovered demons fit these categories pretty easily. In any case, all of them would probably tell you that what’s best for you is best for everyone, and that being virtuous to yourself and what you want comes before virtue to anyone else. Anyone who opposes you is probably demonic themselves, and should be ignored, at least, if not opposed at every turn and destroyed if possible.
The subject of what demons wouldn’t understand came up in a Bible study a few years ago, and it came to me there are many things that qualify: compassion, mercy, generosity, humility, sacrifice, unselfishness. A real demon would call any of these things weak, useless, and beneath our dignity. The trap of fighting a demon on their own terms is becoming like them, becoming what we should oppose in spite of ourselves. Calling another human demonic lets us treat them as other than human, dehumanize them, and gives us permission to go to war with them without paying attention to the means, or at least, giving us the chance to rationalize our methods as necessary to win no matter what the collateral damage may be.
Romans gives us a helpful primer, I think:
Bless those who persecute [you], bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Have the same regard for one another; do not be haughty but associate with the lowly; do not be wise in your own estimation. Do not repay anyone evil for evil; be concerned for what is noble in the sight of all. If possible, on your part, live at peace with all. Beloved, do not look for revenge but leave room for the wrath; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” Rather, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals upon his head.” Do not be conquered by evil but conquer evil with good. (Romans 12:14-21)
Just as none of us who are alive are perfect saint, none are perfect demons, either. If someone is following a demon, there is hope as long as there is breath, and we should work for conversion and liberation of such people rather than destruction. Demons only have power when we give it to them: cut them off from the power, they are irrelevant. Evil may sneak up on us, but it can’t hold us forever against our will if we don’t give it power. The Devil isn’t going to steal us away forever, once we catch him, we know someone who can drive him out.
The book of Tobit gives us a good example of how guardian angels work. The angel Raphael, without revealing his identity, comes to help Tobiah on a long and dangerous journey, but doesn’t fight Tobiah’s battles for him, Raphael gives Tobiah the knowledge and means to do what he has to. The angel doesn’t create a safe zone around his protectee, or fight his battles for him, but provides a safe place, reassurance, and the tools he needs for healing others.
St. Michael is the protector against demons, and I’m happy to leave him and the angelic hosts with that job. I get worried the most about to use demonic standards, such as those I’ve indicated earlier, and the possibility of ruling out mercy, compassion, or any other Cardinal Virtue because of circumstances, rules, or undeserving people. I hope St. Michael and the crew can help protect me from demonic attitudes.
When we’re not outdriving our guardian angels, we should expect something similar from them: Space to reflect, encouragement to pray, practical wisdom and the resources to do what we’re called to do. Like Raphael on Tobiah’s journey, our angels aren’t above, in front, or behind us, but beside us, not doing our work for us, but giving us what we need to move forward in spite of our surroundings and whatever may be frightening us.