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How to Deal With
the Devil

by Thomas M. Casey, O.S.A.

Question: What do seances, Ouija (pronounced weegee) boards, astrology and occult studies have in common? Answer: All are used to understand or contact supernatural forces, sometimes for good, sometimes not. And in marked contrast to the often-peaceful feelings coming from prayer and quiet reflection, efforts to "contact the spirits" through such mysterious means often result in either hysterical laughter or fear and guilt.

I remember the time when three scared college freshmen burst into my room. (I was a dorm counselor as well as being a teacher.) When they calmed down, we talked about why the three were so frightened. A bit sheepishly, they told me that they had been pretending a seance, trying to communicate with otherworldly spirits.

As if that hadn't been eerie enough, they decided to turn out all the lights, light one candle and invoke the devil. "All of a sudden," one told me, "there was a terrible chill in the room, even though it was very warm. We all felt it and immediately ran over to see you."

What had happened? They were worried and wanted a convincing explanation of what they had experienced.

I suggested that they had pulled one on themselves, unconsciously communicating their personal fear to each of the others. After all, they were all church-going Catholics who had been joking around with something of great seriousness. After a while, they were able to go back to their rooms, firmly resolved not to mess with seances ever again!

Just this past semester, I learned that a number of students and their high school friends were using Ouija boards in their dorm rooms. With Ouija boards, it is claimed that answers to your questions will be given as the marker moves across the lettered board, presumably directed by a force beyond the players' control. As in the earlier episode with the "devil seekers," these teenagers were a bit uneasy with the whole procedure and, more importantly perhaps, troubled by their fascination with the unknown, the underside, with mysterious forces.

Not only young people, however, are fascinated with the occult, with the mysterious. We read that Nancy Reagan consulted an astrologer concerning her husband. Shirley MacLaine, movie star, has written and starred in a made-for-TV movie which included sequences on channelers (people who appear to act as intermediaries between the living and the dead) and on extraterrestrial communications. These two people are celebrities, but they are joined by tens of thousands of others. Some are friends of yours. Is this serious?

Some analysts of human behavior worry that there is a rejection of reason and science underlying the popularity of many expressions of the occult and superstitious practices. In episodes such as those I've described, such rejection is probably involved. But when Satan or satanism becomes part of such a rebellion, I think more is going on. There is a darker, more sinister side to the flirtation with the champion of evil and sin.

Giving the Devil His Due

Grappling with knowledge of evil and its source presumes some belief in good. Professional polls taken in the United States have shown that Americans do have such a belief. Nearly 90 percent answer affirmatively to the question: "Do you believe in God?" On the other hand, only 60 percent of that number say that they believe in the devil.

Despite the lack of belief in what I suspect people may see as a Halloween-type demon, there is a great deal of wrestling with the crucial questions of the origins of good and evil, difficult questions bigger than humanity can answer in full.

You and many of the adults in your life are deeply aware of evil and are puzzled, confused, even fearful about its source. This may be why some teenagers turn to Ouija boards, astrologers, fortune tellers and other mediums that promise to connect with the unknown, the mysterious, the future. Everyone wishes to increase a personal sense of control over life. You want to protect yourself and to be more aware of the forces at work within you and around you.

Those forces have become part of the songs of Ozzy Osbourne, Iron Maiden, Megadeth and some other heavy metal rock groups. Many of their lyrics, album covers and concert acts seem designed to shock and offend and Christians will often find that they do just that. It's a difficult and challenging balance to weigh musical creativity and satisfying sounds against mean-spirited, sometimes insulting lyrics.

For some young people who feel powerless and unloved, an initial interest in Satan might be inspired by music. Reading occult sources coupled with a desire to gain power and earn respect can lead to Satan's becoming a hero to be imitated and an inspiration for a way of life. Today there is a growing concern about satanic cults. Such cults practice a serious devotion to the devil and dedication to the works of evil.

It seems to me that dealing with the reality of cults requires some understanding of evil. Many good people, both young and old, struggle with belief in a devil, hell or eternal punishment, since it seems to be opposed to a belief in a loving, merciful God. But the devil, and notions about the devil, have a long history within the Judeo-Christian tradition. Where did our concept of the devil, both theological and popular, come from?

Background Check on Beelzebub

It may surprise you (because many people think that Satan is a major biblical figure) to learn that there are only four references to Satan as a supernatural being in the Hebrew Bible or the Old Testament. These references are found in Zechariah 3, 1 Chronicles 21:1, Psalm 109 and in the Book of Job, which is perhaps the most famous depiction of Satan in world literature. (Check your Bible for details. The suffering of Job and his family and his efforts to understand God's ways make good, thoughtful reading. Satan who "roams the earth" causes great havoc and pain, but it is clear that God is the greater power.)

Each of these four references was written after the tragic period in Jewish history known as the Babylonian Exile (597-538 B.C.), when thousands of Jews were forced into slavery in Babylon where they lived for over 50 years. During this period they came into contact with Zoroastrianism, the religion of their captors.

The Babylonians believed in two gods: a god of light and a god of darkness. These gods, they believed, would fight with each other until the end of the world when Ahura-Mazda (the good god) would defeat Ahriman (the evil god). Many biblical scholars think that the Jewish people adopted and adapted this Babylonian belief in Ahriman and called him Satan. Satan was an explanation for evil in a world created by a loving Yahweh or God.

Satan can also mean obstacle and the word is used in this way many times in the Christian Scriptures or New Testament. Jesus, for instance, tells Peter, "Get out of my sight, you satan!" (Mark 8:33). When he says this, he is speaking like the Jewish people of his time who had personified Satan as a hindrance to God's will. In Luke's Gospel, Jesus says, "I watched Satan fall from the sky like lightning" (10:18).

In the New Testament, Satan is held responsible for many physical ailments and for much evil. "Satan took possession of Judas," Luke reports, and this led him to betray Jesus. It seemed obvious to Jesus and the early Christians that an evil being was responsible for the pain and suffering that they saw all around them.

You will sometimes see Satan referred to as "Beelzebub," which means "Lord of the flies" and refers to the earlier-mentioned Babylonian god of evil, Ahriman. In John's Gospel, Satan is referred to as the "Prince of this world." And in the Book of Revelation, the last book of the Christian Scriptures, a final and bloody conflict between Christ and Satan is described (Revelation 20). Christian fundamentalists especially like to cite this passage as proof that Satan is a powerful being and is capable of great harm before he is finally brought under the subjection of the Lord Jesus.

The Second Vatican Council (in the document on the Liturgy) teaches that Christ "has freed us from the power of Satan," and has consistently taught that the devil's power is limited.

Isn't Satan a Piece of Fiction?

Our image of the devil, you must admit, hasn't come exclusively (or even mostly) from the Church. Some of you have seen films like The Shining, The Exorcist and Rosemary's Baby on videocassettes. These horror films depict satanic possession. Each has had some effect on a popular image of the devil while encouraging fears that Satan can take over a person's life, and even a person's body.

In your study of literature, you may have read one of the three great classics of Western literature that grapple with the power of Satan. Dante's Inferno, Milton's Paradise Lost and Goethe's Faust all feature the devil as a central character. So Hollywood filmmakers didn't discover the excitement of Satan as a star; they simply modernized the role.

Former TV evangelists Jim and Tammy Bakker have blamed all their personal and financial troubles on Satan. While it seems fairly clear that the devil didn't make them do it, they aren't the first or the only people to use the devil as a convenient escape from personal responsibility and as a cover-up or alibi for their own mistakes and sinfulness.

Sometimes, however, people become unable to distinguish fantasy (their own excuses or what they've seen and read) from reality in their lives and they act out of their darkest impulses. When this happens, Satan becomes not just a scapegoat or person to take the blame but an obsession. The results can be deadly.

The TV news show 60 Minutes has done an extensive report on a number of young persons who murdered members of their family or neighbors because they claimed to be under the control of Satan. One researcher and author who has studied the phenomenon of satanism for 20 years feels that the number of actual "believers" at any one time is as few as 5,000. Another person studying the situation, Thomas W. Wedge, feels that no number is possible because of the number of isolated, self-styled individual satanists, often young and sometimes dangerous.

Who tends to become involved with satanic ritual and imagery? Research indicates that troubled young persons, usually male, are drawn to satanic practices. Darkness stands against light, bad against good (remember the Babylonians?), so the unhappy young man selects an evil hero off-limits to other people he knows and envies—people who excel in sports, school or community activities.

In a culture that still claims many Christian symbols, Satan becomes the ultimate rejection of all the values and ideals to which you and I are expected to conform. Unhappy persons who are looking for support, love and a sense of worth, but not finding it, may choose a negative option like satanism. Others who experience themselves as weak and powerless persons who are victimized by others can choose to align themselves with satanism in order to seek revenge for what has seemed like injustice to them.

Through such a choice, the impulsive and destructive parts of the personality are given free rein and terrible things can happen. A fascination with death, destruction and pain is often a warning signal that something unhealthy is brewing. Antisocial behavior, satanic involvement, even suicide can result.

The Divine, Demons and You

You may have friends who draw pentagrams or who read about occult subjects. As long as they draw other things and read other books as well, this shouldn't cause you to panic. Because they are your friends, you should be able to comment and even to express your concern, but it is rare for an individual with moral and religious convictions to become seriously involved with satanic worship or ritual. That's why I could rest easy when I sent those college freshmen back to their dorms after their brush with fear.

Those who know and believe the story of Jesus, Redeemer of the human race, realize that it is indeed possible to turn away from God and consciously decide to do wrong. Evil is no trivial matter, as even the daily news can remind you.

Modern psychology, regardless of the language used, recognizes a dark side to the human personality. The possibility of sin needs to be admitted and guarded against. Self-control, concern, honesty, trust in God and love of people are attitudes that weaken the power of evil and strengthen the possibility of good in the world.

Christians should be realists. You know that earth is not heaven, yet belief in the power of Jesus can give you hope for the long haul. To embrace a satanic code is to reject and trivialize the very heart of Christian existence which is that Jesus has power over sin and death. No truly good and informed person would make such a choice. Nor would he or she glamorize the expression of evil.

Christians should also be optimists. They don't need to dwell on Satan as God's opponent, like the ancient Babylonians did. Jesus made it clear that Satan has no power over anyone unless that person cooperates with evil. Christians believe that the death and resurrection of Jesus has overcome that kind of fear. Jesus has promised to strengthen his followers as they work to live a life that rejects selfishness and harm to others.

Satan actually has no more appeal to the person of faith than illness does to the person with health. If you are aware of persons in society who are indeed attracted to Satan, your challenge is to help them through love, understanding and support.

Satan has had a long history and a certain seductiveness for some persons, despite being associated with despair and loneliness. Much of the evil which gets pinned on the devil actually comes from human sinfulness and a pride that refuses to accept God's love and learn God's will. In other words, while the devil may be a source of temptation, your cooperation is certainly required.

When people choose that sinfulness and pride, evil will certainly follow. When people choose the challenge of being their best and know that God is the source of their gifts and their talents, good follows and evil has no power over them.

Thomas M. Casey, O.S.A., is an associate professor of religious studies at Merrimack College, North Andover, Massachusetts. He has also taught high school and once was a teenager himself.

Five Cincinnati-area high school students, ages 15-16, took an evening to preview this issue, ask important questions and offer helpful advice to both author and editor. While they preferred to remain anonymous, their contributions were essential to clear communication and completeness on what they felt was a topic of importance to them and their peers.

Q.

Is Satan real, or fake, or a metaphor for something else?

A.

Early Judaism saw God as the creator of everything, good and evil. Later, however, both Judaism and Christianity saw God as the creator of good only. Since the time of St. Augustine, who was regarded as a great teacher, most theologians see evil as a "lack of the good" (privatio boni, the Latin reads), with no independent reality. There is little in Scripture to explain Satan's existence; it is simply taken for granted as an explanation for evil in the world. I would like to ask you this question: Is evil made any less real if we see Satan as representing the perversity of human nature which refuses to embrace God's invitation to live united to God? If we don't have the devil to "kick around anymore," we are forced to admit our own responsibility in saying "no" to God. I believe Satan is a symbol of our own difficult struggle to turn towards the light and toward grace, even as we wrestle with our selfishness. While the Gospel says that Judas was "entered" by Satan, that explanation is not given for the cowardice of so many others at the time of Jesus' death.

Q.

Where did temptation come from?

A.

Temptation, it seems to me, is both personal to us and part of the comunity in which we live. So much depends on how you have been helped to see the good, how your conscience has developed and how much you feel the need to have your own "cneter of moral gravity." We will always be tempted to do things that we can get away with, but that childish attitude can be outweighed by the voice of conscience if we have grown to understand the reasons for our choices. Many, many people, in my experience, make choices based on fear or the need for the approval of authorities outside themselves rather than reflecting and praying. If we see ourselves as related to God and others, our choices (and temptations) will be very different from those who see the good as what gives pleasure and the bad as what causes pain.

Q.

Seances, Ouija boards, astrology, the occult: Are they serious or not?

A.

My experience has been that seances, Ouija boards and astrology are usually used seriously by persons who need a shortcut or easy answers to the questions of life. They don't want to spend time thinking and struggling. They may want things to be simpler than they are or they may just not be very thoughtful individuals.Other people have looked at these things for fun or curiosity and have known better than to take them seriously. They are not dangerous in the hands of sensible persons, a category which includes many, if not most people.As for satanism, if it manifests itself in a person's life, look for signs of unhappiness, or for underlying reasons to choose social protest. Serious entry into the occult or satanic rituals does not pop up like a lone weed in the middle of an otherwise well-tended garden. The reasons need to be addressed seriously.

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