Damian J. Ference
After twenty-three years of Catholic school I can count on one hand the number of lessons or lectures I remember about the devil.
My first bit of formal instruction came in kindergarten. Sister Vincent taught us a song about having joy in our hearts, and if the devil didn’t like it he could sit on a tack. I had a hard time seeing the need for an archangel like Michael, having his way with the devil while wielding a shiny silver sword, if a sharp tack would do the job just as well.
I guess the mental picture of the devil I had as a kid was of no help either. Whenever I closed my eyes and pictured the accuser of our brothers who had been cast out, I imagined my best friend, six-year-old Jason Sefcik, in his Halloween costume. I can still see his chubby cheeks painted up with his mother’s blush, which perfectly matched the color of his devil outfit. His tail and trident were intended to be harrowing, but instead the older women on our block cooed and gave us each an extra candy bar because they knew our parents.
Things were a little better in the minor seminary. In my freshman year of college we read through what was then the brand-new Catechism of the Catholic Church. I found a few paragraphs on the devil, but I don’t recall spending a great deal of time in class discussing who he was or how exactly he operated.
The devil was mentioned every now and then while I was studying in the major seminary, but mostly in reference to some of the great saints like John Vianney, who wrestled the prince of darkness, or to prepare us for pastoral conversations we were likely to have in the psychiatric ward during our hospital internships. Our house spiritual director reminded us on occasion that we’d know the devil by his tail and that he never really meant yes or no when he said it, but that didn’t cut it.
It wasn’t until I started baptizing children as a transitional deacon that this devil question really started to get to me. At the edge of the baptistery every other weekend I would proclaim, “Almighty and ever-living God, you sent your only Son into the world to cast out the power of Satan, spirit of evil, to rescue man from darkness, and bring him into your splendor of light.” Then, a few minutes later I would ask the following questions: “Do you reject Satan? And all his works? And all his empty promises?” The faithful always responded, “I do,” but I wondered if they really knew who and what they were rejecting.
If the Rites of the Church truly embody the theology of the Church, then it should be no surprise that I started to find answers to my questions in the Rite of Baptism for Children. Within the rite itself, some quality space is devoted to discussion of the devil and his morbid plan and broken promises. This was a great start, but I needed some assurance that all this devil talk wasn’t simply medieval baggage carried over in the rites for the sake of nostalgia.
Enter Flannery O’Connor. In a letter written to novelist John Hawkes dated November 28, 1961 she wrote, “My Devil has a name, a history and a definite plan. His name is Lucifer, he’s a fallen angel, his sin is pride, and his aim is the destruction of the Divine plan.” Leave it to a lupus-ridden celibate with a southern twang to set me straight. O’Connor had a keen Catholic sensibility which assured her that our existence could not be understood apart from the story of salvation. Twenty years after O’Connor’s correspondence with Hawkes, philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre wrote, “Deprive children of stories and you leave them unscripted, anxious stutterers in their actions as in their words.” O’Connor and MacIntrye both recognized the vital task of recovering the story of salvation from the cellar of the enlightenment, a story which has the devil as one of its main characters.
The devil makes his way onto the scene in the third chapter of Genesis, crawling on his belly in the form of a serpent in order to tempt Eve. He asks the woman, “Did God really tell you not to eat from any of the trees in the garden?” (Notice how cunning the devil is as he subtly twists God’s command in order to instill doubt and confusion in the woman.) Eve responds, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden; it is only about the fruit of the tree in the middle of the garden that God said, ‘You shall not eat of it or even touch it, lest you will die.’” The devil becomes bolder as the dialogue goes on, and before you know it he has Eve convinced that God is actually against her, not for her, and she and her husband eat from the tree and the world hasn’t been the same since.
The important thing to notice in this story is how the devil operates. The devil cannot create: He can only distort what has already been created. He cannot force us to act, but he can tempt us, and he does so by twisting the truth just enough that it remains attractive. Bold commands to turn against God seldom work, but subtle temptations go a long way.
I was ordained a priest in May of 2003, about a year and a half after the abuse crisis rocked the Church in America. That final year in the seminary was more difficult than the eight previous years of my formation put together. Why? Because I had never been hit so hard by so many doubts about who I was and what I was about to get myself into. I started to doubt my vocation, my worthiness, my ability, my holiness, and wondered if the whole thing might be a sham.
O’Connor said that the devil’s aim is the destruction of the Divine plan. He’d hit the bull’s eye with me. Thank God the arrow didn’t stick, but it almost did. It would have been easy to accept those doubts as truth and back away from the seminary. And I suppose that was the devil’s plan all along. I’m eternally grateful that it failed.
What concerns me, though, are the folks who think I’m crazy for believing in the devil and his voracious attempt to have his way with me. It brings to mind the great C.S. Lewis, who wrote, “The devil’s greatest trick it to make you believe that he doesn’t exist.”
Consider yourself warned.